When discussing Emotion Coaching, one of my key messages is: We want to tell our kids that their feelings are always OK. But sometimes they display behavior motivated by those feelings which is not OK. We can, and should, set limits. For example: “I understand that you’re jealous and you really want that boy’s toy, but you can’t take it from him.” Or “I know that you’re really sad, and it’s OK to cry, but you can’t lie on the floor of the mall and cry.”
Recently, after I spoke to a group of parents about this, one mom asked to confirm “do you really think it’s OK to be angry?” I said “Of course. It’s natural that kids get angry.” And she said “but doesn’t angry mean hitting or breaking things? That’s not good.” I reiterated – feeling angry is normal and it happens to all of us. But we need to teach our kids appropriate ways to express anger, without hitting or breaking things. Let’s look more at the difference between the feeling and the expression of that feeling…
Why do children feel angry?
Some of the first emotions a child experiences, as early as 3 or 4 months, are joy, fear, sadness, and anger. These are all internal moods that arise, usually in response to some external situation. Anger is usually in response to being blocked from doing something you want to do. (Or occasionally, being forced to do something you don’t want to do.) We have lots of other words for this, depending on the degree of anger, we might say someone is annoyed, cranky, frustrated, upset, or outraged.
A toddler or preschooler’s day is often filled with road blocks to doing what they want to do… in other words, filled with reasons to be angry.
- They just settle in to playing something fun, and we pick them up and carry them away – think how annoying that would be!
- Sometimes they’re hungry and they tell you that and you don’t give them food – wouldn’t you be cranky if you were in a place where you knew there was food (for example, a restaurant) and you asked someone who was fully capable of giving you food (a waitress) and she chose not to?
- Toddlers have limited developmental capabilities – they see what everyone around them can do, and it’s endlessly frustrating that they can’t do it.
- Other kids may push or shove or bite them. That’s certainly worth getting upset over.
- Sometimes other kids take toys right out of their hands. Outrage!
So, there are lots of reasons for them to be angry. It is normal to feel angry in any of these situations. Emotions are natural (and unavoidable) responses to situations. As adults, we still get angry, right? But we have a much more developed ability to understand the reasons for our anger, to manage our anger, and to think about acceptable ways to express it. As parents, we can help our children learn these skills, but we also have to understand what is developmentally possible for them.
Anger as a developmental process
There are multiple stages to emotional processing:
- The feeling itself – the emotional response to a situation – anger starts at 3 – 4 months
- How that feeling is expressed – the behavior – follows shortly after the feeling
- Understanding a feeling and the causes for a feeling – tends to begin after 4 years old
- Self-soothing: Being able to calm yourself down from an upset – starts around 4, but mastering this goes into adolescence and beyond
- Being able to anticipate and predict what will trigger a feeling, and perhaps avoid the situation or talk yourself down before the situation occurs – starts in elementary school or so
So, if you’re the parent of a toddler or preschooler, they are at the stage of feeling and expressing that feeling. You can be talking about feelings to lay the foundation for understanding, working on teaching appropriate expressions of anger, and starting to teach behaviors for self-soothing, knowing it’s a long while before they master all this.
Helping your child understand anger
When your toddler is angry, label the feeling for her. Talk about what might have caused it. When you are angry, label it and explain why you are feeling that way.
When your preschooler is angry, help him learn about the different levels of anger – a little bit angry = annoyed; really angry = outraged. Understanding that there are big feelings and smaller feelings may make the little ones feel more manageable and may better enable your child to interpret other people’s emotions.
Read more tips on emotional literacy here.
Again, you should set limits on inappropriate behavior! “It’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK to hit your brother.” “I get that you’re angry, but you can’t break things.” “You can be upset at me, but I don’t want you to yell at me, and it’s never OK to hit me.” Don’t accept bad behavior just because your child is unhappy.
But anger is a really big emotion that sometimes overwhelms kids. They need to have positive ways to express it and/or work through it. Anger is also a very physical emotion – it inspires aggression and the urge to strike out at someone or something. So, having a physical way to express / work through it will often work better than trying to “talk it out.”
What follows is a list of ideas from parents and professionals on healthy ways for kids to express anger. They are only suggestions – some will feel right to you and some won’t. Use the ideas that feel right, and ignore the rest…
- Verbal – sometimes it just feels better to shout out your anger. You set the limits for what works for your family. Is it OK to yell outside, but not inside? Is it OK to swear – which big angry words are acceptable, and which are not? It is OK to yell around family members for the purpose of venting, but not OK to yell AT other people? Some parents say it’s OK to be loud, but you can’t be mean, you can’t call someone names, and you can’t try to shame someone.
- Teach conflict resolution – Help them figure out how to tell someone they’re angry at them without hurting them.
- Big physical movement – is it OK to stomp? Jump up and down? Run around the house? Put on loud music and dance?
- Releasing aggression – Some families find their kids do best if they can get out the frustration physically – perhaps punching a pillow, tearing up paper from the recycling bin, pounding on play-dough, scribbling with markers, or throwing a ball at a wall. They may even set up an angry box with appropriate materials for this. Other parents are uncomfortable with this, so, again, choose what feels right to you.
- Create a calm down box – fill a box with supplies that calm your child – encourage them to choose it when they need it. Good things to include are sensory activities: play-dough, rice bin, bottles filled with glitter and water, stuffed animals, books, paper and drawing materials… things that they can do by themselves when they need a little while to settle themselves down. Lots more ideas here: kimscounselingcorner.com/2012/05/09/creating-a-calm-down-box/
- Walking away – Role model for your child that when you get angry, sometimes you need to step away from a situation, take a few deep breaths, and calm down before returning to the situation. Help them do the same thing – when they’re really upset, pick them up and carry them away. Sit them down, and sit with them and look them in the eyes. Take deep breaths together, or count together until they are calmed down.
- Most importantly, you need to be a role model for your child. Show them appropriate ways to deal with anger. Try not to display inappropriate ways. And when you do… talk about it later when you’re calmed down. “Mama was really angry earlier – it was OK for me to be angry, but I shouldn’t have yelled at that man. I need to try to use my nice words, even when I’m mad.”
Here are more ideas for activities and games for dealing with anger.
photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1210341