Six-year-old Sophie had almost finished the handmade birthday card for her father. "Just like a real one," she thought to herself, admiring it proudly. She’d been working on it for nearly an hour when Henry, her little brother, offered to help her. Before she could stop him, he’d smeared black marker all over her beautiful ponies and rainbows. Overwhelmed with anger, she grabbed the marker and began scribbling furiously all over his arm. Terrified by her reaction and outraged that his help wasn’t appreciated, the 4-year-old yelled for help. When their father approached after hearing the commotion, the children were rolling around on the ground, tearing at each other and screaming at the top of their lungs.
What Is Anger Management for Children?
Anger is a signal emotion. It usually mobilizes a response to danger, but it’s also a form of self-expression and sometimes a child’s way of declaring independence. Many things can trigger a child’s anger, and sometimes the result is aggression. In the example of Sophie and her little brother, each child went on the attack. Sophie became frightened by her reaction and feelings. As is often the case, biting, fighting, and temper tantrums were just around the corner. As children reach kindergarten age, anger doesn’t usually explode into aggression because they’ve learned to hold back such impulsive urges. Over time, as children reach school age, parents can expect more subtle forms of aggression: pouting, sulking, and whining.
As it turns out, young children have a lot to be angry about. They’re little. They aren’t allowed to do everything they want. They fail at many of the things they try. Bigger people tell them what to do, and since those people are also stronger, they can make them do it. Three to 5-year-olds perceive danger even when it is not present, or they overreact to it. They seek protection by going on the offensive. At this stage, impulses are hard to control, and the ability to stop, listen to the other side, and seek out common ground for negotiation and compromise is barely a glimmer.
It may seem obvious to adults, but a young child needs to learn that anger is the name she can attach to certain feelings and the physical sensations that come with anger: a pounding heart, heavy breathing, and a feeling of getting warm. You can help your child in the heat of the moment by acknowledging and naming the emotion: “I can see that you are angry right now.” She also needs your help in recognizing the triggers that set off these feelings, such as another child grabbing a toy or threatening to hurt her; an adult thwarting her exciting plans or seeming to punish unjustly; or her failing to reach some new goal she has set. Over time, with your help, she’ll realize that these are the kinds of situations that make her want to scream and kick.
Learning by Example
You can teach your child to recognize that anger management for children is an important skill to have. At the same time, you should acknowledge that it’s not easy. Managing anger takes most of us a lifetime, and it remains a work in progress. Any day’s headlines prove just how hard it is for adults to learn conflict resolution. Your child closely watches your grown-up ways of handling anger, and she learns from them. Letting your child know that you’re angry about something she has done is one way to show her the consequences of her actions. When you’re angry with others, you can show her how to recognize that feeling, stop the impulse to lash out, and look for constructive solutions. When you fail at your attempts to defuse your own anger, you can admit your mistake and demonstrate humility.
Asking your child to stifle such powerful feelings won’t work: The anger will dribble into unrelated situations, lead to explosions later on, or fester until it turns inward. A key to helping your child manage anger is getting her to question whether aggression really gets her what she wants.
Anger Management for Children: 5 Strategies
It is never too soon to teach your child how to control her anger so that it doesn’t control her. Remember, however, that it is difficult for young children to master these strategies. Your child will need your help—and a lot of practice:
- Stop. If your child is feeling out of control, she should be separated from the person she feels like hurting. She should leave the room. As often happens with children, Sophie and Henry needed a parent to get them to stop.
- Calm down. Teach your child to use some calming strategies when she feels the physical symptoms of anger. She can try taking deep breaths, drinking a glass of water, distracting herself with a song or a story, or playing alone.
- Think before you act. Encourage your child to ask herself, “What do I want to happen?” Explain that vengeance and retaliation are not worth acting on. Being understood and making things right are worthwhile. Henry’s scribbling can’t be erased, but Sophie can still show her dad her work and how Henry tried to help.
- Consider the other person’s feelings. Children can begin to show empathy as young as 3 years old, but they need your help. Try to get her to understand the other person’s point of view, just as she wants her point of view understood. Sophie wanted her birthday card to be perfect. Henry knew his efforts could never live up to hers. See if your child can figure out why the other person doesn’t understand her side. Could she find another way to get her view across more clearly? Can she try to let it go?
- Look for possible solutions. Help your child see beyond “I hate you and you’re no good.” See if you can find a compromise that both parties can agree on. Apologizing often helps. By this stage maybe Henry could come to understand that he must let Sophie make her own card, and maybe she can help him with his.
When Anger Becomes Aggression
Of course, there will be times when anger turns into a physical melee. Use this as an opportunity to help your child master these aggressive feelings. Here’s what you can do to facilitate anger management for children:
- Stop the action and restore safety. It’s often necessary to isolate the fighters. Reassure both sides that they’ll be safe, and that they can learn to stay in control and protect themselves.
- Set limits. Lay down the law and let children know who’s in charge when they’re out of control: “No hitting, and if you won’t stop it, I will.”
- Follow through with consequences. A child must face the consequences of his actions if he is to learn to stop and think before he acts. “If you can’t be together without hurting each other, then you can’t be together. If you want another chance to play, see if you can remember this.”
- Forgive. Children need to know that their bad behavior hasn’t turned them into bad people. Apologies and making amends help them move from the guilty feelings that come from knowing they were wrong to having hope that they can do better.
When Anger Is a Cry for Help
A child may seem irritable most of the time, easily set off and ready to start a fight. If this type of behavior is brief, it may be a response to a major change in the family, such as a new baby or a move. Or it may be the first sign of a “touchpoint,” a time when a child slips back into old, outgrown behaviors just as she’s about to blossom in new ways. When this behavior persists and interferes with relationships with family or friends, it is time to consider more serious possible causes: ongoing threats to a child’s safety, deeper tensions in the family, a developmental delay in language that leads to frustration, or a delay in social skills that brings on fighting or depression. If you’re concerned about your child’s anger, ask your pediatrician for help with anger management for children.