Experts explain why young kids get physical when they're angry, how you can better understand the behavior, and offer up their best anger management tips for children.
I stand and watch helplessly, as my usually cute four-year-old screams and kicks on the living room floor because we're not going to the playground. Her fists are clenched, and she's gritting her teeth so hard that her jaw is shaking. Sound familiar?
These dramatic and sometimes terrifying displays of anger come from a "lack of language," meaning infants and toddlers can't tell you what's wrong, or what they need, explains Meri Wallace, LCSW, parenting expert and child and family therapist as well as author of Birth Order Blues, Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old, and Secret World of Children out in 2022.
"Instead, they express these feelings and needs in a physical way," says Wallace. "They will cry and scream, thrash around, or kick their feet." Young children also lack impulse control, so when frustrated or angered, this becomes an almost instant stimulus-response reaction: they can't get what they want, so they may hit, bite, and the list goes on.
"Toddlers see their wishes and desires as urgent," Wallace continues. "'If you don't give me that ice cream or that new fire engine on the shelf, I will die.'" A tantrum is really a child's form of protest about having her desires thwarted and feeling a certain "powerlessness."
While watching your toddler convulse in anguish over a missed playground visit may feel anything but normal, anger is a perfectly natural emotion. Not only that, but it follows children through all the stages of development into adulthood. Some of us might have been seeing more flashes of anger due to kids feeling cooped up during the pandemic, but, as Wallace says, it's important to keep in mind that parents would be facing the developmental issues of physical expression of anger anyway. It's our job to teach children the best ways to handle it.
Here are some anger management tools to help you and your little person mange their emotions.
Accept Your Child's Anger
When your child has an angry outburst, say, "I can see you're angry." If you know why they are angry, you can add the reason: "I can see you're angry because you really love swinging on the swing, and we have to leave the park." Accept their anger. Tell them, "It's OK to be angry." You want your child to feel that both they and their emotions are OK. You don't want them to feel that they have to hide their emotions.
Encourage Her to Use Words
Children do not naturally know what words to use, explains Wallace. You have to teach them what to say. You can tell your child: "When you feel angry, you need to use words," or "I really want to hear what's upsetting you. If you use words, I'll understand better and can help." You might say, "When you're angry, say, 'I'm angry,' and I will help you." Over time, children internalize your voice and your rules. By age five, children develop their superego, which acts as an internal stop sign and helps them to control aggressive impulses.
Find a Positive Solution
For generations, tantrums were viewed as manipulation attempts. Experts advised parents to let children "cry it out," or risk spoiling them. Though it's true that parents can fall into a negative pattern of gratifying a child's every wish to avoid a meltdown, letting children cry it out doesn't teach a child a more positive way to handle herself. In fact, children need help moving out of their anger. It's better than letting them sink into it.
Try to find a solution—a slice of apple before dinner instead of an ice cream—or use distractions—"I know you're upset that it's raining, and we can't go to the park. Why don't we go play in the tent in the living room"— to motivate your child toward something that excites them. You can also offer an alternative or compromise.
Stop a tantrum before it starts by not immediately saying "no" the moment a child requests something. Instead, pause and say aloud, "Let's see. You want that new toy. Let's talk about that." This gives you an opportunity to think about the request, and about how to positively deny it, if necessary, or divert your child's attention. Slowing down and discussing it also lets your child understand the reason for a refusal, and accept it more agreeably. You want to give your child the feeling that you hear him, care about his desires, and can be trusted to help him through life's disappointments.
Sometimes a change of location can also stop a tantrum in its tracks or break through an impasse. You can say, "Let's go to see that doggy you like at the pet store," or "Let's go to the pharmacy and get the hair clips you need. We'll keep talking on the way."
Find a Quiet Space
If you're in public, try to move away from an audience. Focus on your child and yourself, not other people's judgment. This relieves any pressure you might feel from onlookers and allows you to relate to your child in a private way. The less noise and fuss there is, the easier it will be for you to calm your child down. Take her hand and say, "Come sit on my lap, and we'll talk this over."
Set a Firm Limit
While you want to convey that it is OK if your child feels angry, you need to make clear that the physically aggressive behavior is not. If your child hits her brother you can say, "It's OK to be angry. Your anger is OK. But, you cannot hit." Tell her, "We don't hit or kick anyone." You want to direct her toward a positive way to react in the situation. Explain your limit: "Hitting hurts. We don't hurt anyone." Children are more likely to cooperate if the reason is plausible.
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