Children can get angry for many reasons. Preschoolers feel angry because they have not yet learned to control or express their emotions. They also have limited insight into the effect their actions or words have on others. Older children may demonstrate anger when they feel that something isn’t fair or they feel left out or misunderstood. Some anger is normal in children, but extreme or frequent anger or aggressive behaviour may indicate developmental or mental health problems.
Here are five things you can do:
1. Build their feelings vocabulary
Often children act out because they feel confused or out of control. They experience strong, overwhelming emotions but have not learned to understand them. Helping children to understand and put words to their emotions is the first step to empowering them to take control over their behaviour and make better choices. Build emotions into your daily conversations, books and games. Feelings charts and the thermometer of emotions are great visual ways to teach children emotions.
2. Acknowledge and validate
Encourage children to express their feelings and talk to you. This will help children learn that their feelings are okay, that they are not to be scared or ashamed of. When you notice your child getting angry, validate their feelings by getting on their level and connecting to them. Look them in the eye and using a calm tone say “I know you’re feeling really upset about X, it seems really unfair to you” this will encourage them to match your calm emotional state, and start to diffuse their anger because they feel understood.
3. Encourage decision making
It might seem natural to jump in and solve the problem for your child, or try and make them feel better by reassuring them. It’s more helpful to build their ability to handle their emotions and learn that they have the skills to cope on their own. Ask them questions like “what can you do to calm down?” or “what would be a good choice you can make right now?”. In the beginning, you might need to scaffold the child’s decisions by giving them options, for example giving them two alternatives of better choices, eg. “you can play lego in your room or drink some water while you calm down”.
4. Model good choices and behaviour
Many young children have anger problems because they haven’t learned to self-regulate. A parent can model good behaviour in day to day situations for example “I felt angry today so I took some deep breaths and tried to relax my body until the feeling passed”. A psychologist can help a child learn through play therapy using dolls to model interactions, and talking and problem-solving typical problems that the child faces. Other creative ways to teach problem-solving and good behaviour are through educational cartoons or comic strips, books, stories and videos. A reward chart can be helpful to reinforce good behaviour. You can also make a rules board that displays clear rewards and consequences using simple images that younger children can easily understand.
5. Consistency, consistency, consistency
When you change the way you respond to your child’s behaviour, it might get worse before it gets better. When your child’s usual tantrums, yelling, or anger don’t get them the same result as they usually get, they will try and push your buttons even harder in the beginning. Be consistent and soon they will learn that in order to get what they want, they need to change their actions.