Do you find your child lashing out? Are you having trouble communicating with your child during moments of extreme frustration or aggression?
As I explained in my previous article, while children are growing and still learning to cope with anger, they tend to instinctively use anger as a defense against physical and emotional pain. As a parent, there are many ways you can help your child through these emotional moments.
Here are some helpful tips for teaching your children how to cope with anger:
1. DO recognize and acknowledge your child’s feelings. If you validate your child’s feelings, your child doesn’t need to defend those feelings and is less likely to respond in anger. Acknowledging feelings causes your child’s anger to soften and leaves a safe space in which they can learn empathy and coping skills. On the other hand, if you discount your children’s feelings and experiences, their anger will intensify as they fight to establish and validate their sense of self.
2. DO practice empathy. By listening to your child’s feelings without interruption or defense, you create space for your child’s anger to dissipate, as they no longer need to use up energy defending the fairness of their position. By empathizing with your child’s feelings, you are helping them regulate the cortisol — the fight-or-flight chemical — that emerges through emotional stress. Consistent open reception to your child’s anger teaches them to react less emotionally and more critically. Ultimately, this is how nature and nurture come into balance, as a child’s behavior affects body chemistry and, therefore, their emotional control.
3. DO teach your children problem-solving skills. Neurological tracking occurs when children creatively problem-solve. The more children practice and rehearse problem-solving rather than emotional reactions, the more their neurological pathways assist them in controlling their impulses. Parents can teach their children how to recognize, acknowledge and appropriately cope with their feelings by asking questions that prompt children to think up their solutions, such as “What do you think would happen if you did Choice A instead of Choice B?” or, “What sort of options do you think are available to you and what do you need to do to find a resolution?”
4. DO establish clear standards for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This means that though we want to validate all our child is feeling, allowing those emotions does not translate into accepting bad behavior. Common rules of engagement include no hitting, throwing, breaking objects, or disrespect. By involving children in establishing the consequences of their behavior, you will find that your children are more likely to respect the rules. By limiting your children’s aggressive behavior, you are, in a sense establishing a safety container for their feelings.
5. DO teach your child relaxation methods. By teaching children progressive relaxation, breathing techniques, and other self-managing tools for stress, they can calm themselves down when confronted with anger. These techniques not only change neural pathways but also affect impulse control. Like every habit, the more you do it, the better you become at it. For example, if a child learns to breathe in before giving in to the impulsive act of hitting, it gives that child a sense of control and lessens the need to establish control by acting out.
6. Try a “time in” instead of a “time out.” As the parent, you are your child’s leading guide in life, and as their guide, they rely on you to be there with them through their emotional experience, whatever that may be. Therefore, no time out and no isolation. Instead, try a “time in” — sit with your child and incorporate other methods mentioned in this post: work on breathing with them and ask them questions about their feelings. Being fully present with them is essential to help them through their emotions. Remember, you are teaching your child social cues and skills to be in relationships with others rather than acting out alone. When children are isolated, they often contemplate and feel guilty for their behavior. This only serves to create concrete reasons for low self-esteem, which often cycles back to creating bad behavior.
7. DON’T attempt to orchestrate your child’s feelings. It is important to value what your child is experiencing. For example, if your child is hurt or crying, never say, “Stop crying.” But rather, validate your child’s experience, saying, “I know that hurts; that would make me cry also.” This makes an ally out of you rather than a target for free-floating anxiety and anger.
As an ally, your child learns to trust you, realizing you are there for them — no matter what, right or wrong, and they can count on that. If your child can trust you, they can learn to trust themselves and the outer world. If, for example, your child tells you they hate you or want you to leave them alone, it is essential to assure them that you will be nearby and that you will always be there for them — no matter what.
8. DON’T go down to your child’s level of behavior. Consciously and deliberately step into your role as the adult and remain there for the entire stressful episode. Little children can work themselves up emotionally, especially while defending their position. Your job as a parent is to stay composed. Your calm state allows your child to feel safe amid chaos. A parent is always a child’s touchstone, the one they look toward for security and safety. Children become afraid when their parents display anger. By staying in your adult role, you are teaching your child that it is okay to feel angry and that when the feeling passes, you are still there, holding a secure space for them.
9. DO teach your children to recognize anger cues. If children can self-monitor, they can self-manage. Children can identify the onset of those emotions by acknowledging the feelings accompanying anger. This gives them time to self-manage before they are caught in the chaos of emotion. Suppose you see that your child is over-tired or cranky. In that case, you have the opportunity as a parent to teach them to recognize their oncoming emotions by resting with your child, reading to your child, or spending some relaxing time together.
10. DO teach your children how to bring their feelings to consciousness. By recognizing the emotions that drive their behavior, children can learn to manage that behavior skillfully. Writing, drawing, and painting are excellent ways to express the issues that bother children, especially if they have trouble verbalizing their emotions. When my children were little and reached the point of no return in their emotional intensity, I bought a Shmoo, a balloon that can be punched and pops back up. I permitted my children to use the pillows on their beds or the Shmoo to release some pent-up emotions. Once those feelings are out in the open, you can collaborate with your child to find ways of coping with these feelings empathically.
11. Invest your child in the process of managing their anger. Ask your children to give you some tips on how they could positively manage their emotions. Make a list of five actions they can take — such as breathing deeply for one minute or drawing a picture — and leave the list somewhere your child can see it, such as their bedroom door or on your refrigerator door.
12. DO bond with your child. A well-bonded child can learn to cope and manage their emotions, problem-solve, process, and stick with a problem until it is resolved. They are also more adventuresome and will creatively explore different options as solutions to problems. The well-bonded child feels like they can depend on their parents.
In the end, remember that you, as the parent, make all the difference. Following these tips can help strengthen your relationship with your child and give them the tools they need to cope with their anger. If you notice that your child has relationship problems, is a bully, or tries to hurt themselves, others, or animals, do consider seeking professional help for both you and your child.