By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
It can be frightening if your child gets angry. You feel like he or she is going to lose control. How many tantrums and anger fits can you handle? Some children can be irritable frequently and this is upsetting. A parent might think, “What’s wrong with me that my child is not happy.” So in considering anger management for kids, there are two stages in dealing with the problem, 1) preventing the angry feelings from being generated in the first place, and 2) resolving them once they have arisen.
Anger Management for kids Step 1: Prevent anger from being generated in the first place.
Being a child can be a very frustrating experience. They are completely dependent on others for all of their needs, and this makes them feel powerless. Older children often are exhilarated with the idea of going away to college and finally being in control of their own life! However children unfortunately often have a very weak sense of control over their own situation. At home and at school as well, they are constantly being told what to do. This makes them feel restricted and controlled. Therefore when their tiny reserve of self-determination may be compromised, anger is quick to result. Their power is so limited that just a small reduction in power or some frustrated desire can feel intolerable and make them furious.
So a key to preventing anger is to increase the child’s sense of self-determination and control. This is done in several key ways.
First we need to reduce commands by 10 percent. Adults don’t like being bossed, and children are no different. Being constantly ordered to do or not do things frustrates and infuriates them. However my experience has shown that reducing commands will bring most children into their comfort zone. Which ones do we cut out? As I have said elsewhere, you can cut the minor ones. Save your commands for important items such as getting dressed, not running into the street or other issues of safety. When you do need to ask them to do something, instead of a direct order, “Hang up your coat!” try describing, “I see a coat on the floor,” and he will understand on his own what he needs to do. Instead of ordering, “Wash your face!” Say, “I see a boy with chocolate on his face, the soap is over there” and you will be surprised to see him wash. See my blog post: How to get my child to cooperate.
Furthermore we need to try to say “Yes” 10 percent more often. A child can handle only a certain number of no’s and if he gets beyond his magic number, anger will result. But just giving in those few extra times can prevent many problems from arising. Generally being more flexible and reducing restrictions whenever possible that little bit that makes a tremendous difference.
Give the child as many choices as possible. Say, “Would you like to take a bath before or after dinner? What kind of soap would you like?” “Which sweater would you like to wear, the red one, the blue one or the hoodie?”
Be very careful not to favor one sibling over the other. Make it your business to smooth out any perceived inequalities. See my post: How to resolve sibling rivalry, part 1
Finally as I’ve stated elsewhere, you must overall be extremely nice to your child! Awake with the mantra, “How can I make my child’s day pleasant.” Don’t fear you’ll spoil him because the opposite is true, not fulfilling the child’s needs results in his acting spoiled. Being generous to your child on a regular basis and injecting joy into his life will cause his anger to melt away.
Anger Management for kids Step 2: Resolve angry feelings when they arise.
Many parents discourage or even forbid the expression of anger. They consider it to be an unattractive character trait, and they feel it must be controlled, otherwise an intolerable situation will result. This, however, just causes the feelings to be repressed, fester, grow and come out later in an unwanted form. Getting into the habit of repressing angry feelings can also lead to depression and aggression. While acting out anger through aggressive or destructive behaviour should be forbidden, experiencing the feeling of anger is automatic and not a result of conscious choice. Therefore, feelings of anger cannot be controlled through discipline! This means the angry feelings once they arise are going to continue to exist no matter what we do, until we deal with them. However recognizing, accepting, validating and especially communicating them to others will paradoxically and amazingly allow them to be processed and resolved. This means that we need to give the child conscious awareness of his angry feelings, and then he can manipulate and control them much more easily.
Reflect angry feelings
We do this by reflecting verbally back to the child the emotions he is experiencing. “I can see by your face that you’re angry.” “You’re furious” “That made you really angry” “Sometimes things can make you angry.” Now his emotional state has a label and therefore it is less frightening and overwhelming. We need to remember that a child is frightened and alarmed by his own anger, as he feels he is going to go out of control, and this is terrifying to him. He needs his parents’ understanding and support precisely at that moment. Reflecting is showing empathy, that is, letting the child know that you know how he feels. This soothes and reassures the child. It is emotional first aid. You can add more details to the reflection as to why he or she is angry, such as, “It makes you feel angry that I can’t give it to you.” Or “You feel so angry at her when she won’t let you play.”
It can be very helpful to add colorful vocabulary words to reflect a child’s anger. Say, “You’re engraged, wrathful, irate, livid, boiling, aggravated, irked, indignant, incensed, or provoked.” “You seem full of ire, acrimony and consternation” Even if the child does not know what these words mean, the novelty of the expressions adds dimension to his awareness of his feelings. The more labels, the more it is brought into his consciousness so he can manipulate and resolve it. The more you talk about the child’s anger the better. Let him or her express all his feelings and the reasons behind them and then restate it back to him so he feels heard and validated.
One helpful tool is to write down his feelings and thoughts and then read it back to him. It honors the child when he sees you making the effort to write and brings relief. Suggest the child draws his feelings on paper. “Draw me how you feel!” He may draw violent zig zags or and angry scene. Then describe his picture back to him. It she is motivated she can write a letter to the person she is angry at and then you can read it back to her. All this prevents the anger from being repressed and resolves it so it can subside. Ask what he is angry about and try to promise him you’ll try to fix it. Sometimes a child may not know clearly what is bothering him or may be afraid to tell you for fear of your reaction. In that case you need to guess at what it is and restate it back to him. Usually the reason is very near at hand.
If she is angry at a particular person, encourage and enable her to respectfully express her grievance to that person. Don’t fear that it will cause more conflict, the other party will respect you for it and it will bring relief. Remember all emotional turmoil must be resolved in the interpersonal venue. That is what other people are created for, to reflect back your emotional experience so you can understand it.
Never reprimand a child for feeling angry! When he sees you accept and entertain his feelings he will get into the habit of letting them flow healthily towards resolution.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
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If you would like to find out more about anger management for kids and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,
you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!