I remember my father describing being at the grocery store once. There was a woman with a child who was being unruly. She tried to get the boy to settle down and grabbed his arm, but he screamed and raged all the more. I remember the menacing look on my father’s face as he commented a kid who did that in HIS care would only do it once.
Few things can impact us as quickly and as deeply as the anger of our child. We all have our own reactions to it; some weather it and patiently correct, some get angry or violent right back, some feel overwhelmed and emotionally go to ground unable to deal with it. As they are remarkably complex, uniquely formed individuals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when your children are angry, but there are some tools that will help in most cases.
It’s Tough Being a Kid
We’ve all been there, and while a very few of us may have had a completely peaceful transition into adulthood, a great many of us suffered all manner of emotional and physical traumas along that particular path.
There’s a line from the movie “Tombstone” where Wyatt Earp is about to go face bad guy and fast draw Johnny Ringo. Wyatt asks Doc Holliday, “What makes a man like Ringo?” Doc replies, “Rage,” to which Wyatt can only ask, “At what?” Doc says, “At being born.”
For most babies, birth is the end of nine months of warmth, safety, and connectedness to the mother. Sigmund Freud called birth the first experience of anxiety, and hence the precursor for all anxieties that are to follow. Wilfred Bion built on that idea, believing that without the capacity to think, children still had emotional states, experiences that impact the mind as feeling states and no buffer or way to process them.This helplessness is gradually submerged as the infant begins to bond with objects in his environment (Mother, Father, others). It is helpful to remember that nearly all of us have the feelings of a terrified infant somewhere at our core, and this can be at least the beginning of compassion toward someone who is angry.
When they are born, children are completely dependent on the adults in their lives for physical and emotional sustenance. The parents are essentially god to the child. Emotionally, children are naturally like little vacuums, sucking up whatever is in the environment, both good and bad.
Two parents screaming at each other in the next room will be picked up and be damaging to the child’s emotional development. With enough trauma, the child may withdraw in order to survive, or lash out because they don’t feel safe or can’t get what they need.
An infant needs to be able to capture the mother’s gaze, have their feelings mirrored, but also be able to escape that gaze when it becomes overwhelming. The same is true of young children. They need our presence, and we need to give them space to develop into who they are.
At some point, a child begins to pull away from his or her parents and begin to seek independence. If the relationship is healthy, the child may feel some boldness and a sense that the parents are there if anything goes wrong. If a parent is too protective, which is easy to do in this day and age, the child may either withdraw into themselves or lash out.
This is where the parent has to decide if the individuation is age-appropriate. If your six-year-old tells you, “I’ve decided I want to put myself to bed,” you might reasonably feel proud, or sad or even a little offended by that. A fair question at this point is, “Have I done something to upset you?” If they answer a believable, “no” then I would be curious about the parameters.
“Did you mean no bedtime story? No tucking you in? No kiss goodnight?” If the child persists, then you might consider trying it for a night, then checking in to see if they prefer it or not the next day. This is a good model for many such events, and the older the child, the more meaningful discussion around safety and possible consequences becomes possible.
Useful Tips Regarding Anger Management for Kids
These tips are in no way intended to be a cure-all for an angry child but can be useful to deescalate a situation. Each child is wired differently and will respond to interruption of their anger through whatever emotional lens they have formed in their emotional grid.
Anger can be situational, or a response to some deeper issue, such as a new or increased threat in the child’s environment (like a bully or some kind of abuse at school or at home), or resistance to developmental milestones (where a child realizes some action will move them into a new phase of life, and they’re terrified of it), increased tension in the family, or learning issues (ADD, developmental delays, etc.). As a parent, it is good not to take anger at face value, and ask some clarifying questions of the child when he or she is not to be angry.
When a child is demonstrating angry behavior, job one is to get them to pause. As nice as it would be to not be angry ourselves when disciplining our children, we are human and will be having an emotional response to their anger. As a general rule, forceful is better than angry, and firm is better than yelling.If a child is activated, an angry response from a parent can escalate the situation. If the child is raging uncontrollably or beating a sibling, physical intervention is necessary, which usually involves restraining and relocating the child, usually to their bedroom, to cool down. If tantrums like this happen with any frequency, a visit to your pediatrician or a child psychologist is indicated, sooner rather than later.
If the child is fighting with a sibling, it is not a good idea to discipline them out where anyone can see. If the child is responding to voice command, tell them to go to their room and wait for you. If there is no containment needed in the current situation, such as calming a crying sibling, you can accompany the child to their room.
The idea of a “time-out” is helpful if the child is simply angry and hasn’t been hitting someone or breaking things. If you send a child to their room for a time-out, set a timer for 10-20 minutes, depending on the severity of the behavior, then go to retrieve them promptly, with a conversation about their behavior (see the sections “Offer Alternatives” and “Repair” below)
Let the child know that anger is a normal human emotion, but there are good and not so good ways to express that anger. They need to understand it is never okay to hit someone because you are angry. Reiterate that they get to have the emotion, but need to find a way to channel it that doesn’t involve hitting someone.
When I was growing up, people used to say if you were angry, you should count to ten before saying anything. This actually isn’t bad advice, but it’s even better to include diaphragmatic deep breathing in the practice. This is breathing using your diaphragm (pushing your tummy out), in through the nose and out through the mouth.
As with relaxing from anxiety, this kind of breathing tells your sympathetic nervous system it’s okay to calm down. Also, you can encourage a child to remove themselves from a situation where they are angry. Walking away is a better solution than throwing a punch.
Help them to understand that they can choose to calm themselves, that the other person is another human being with feelings, and encourage them to help you both come up with solutions that might prevent this kind of conflict in the future.
Explain consequences before you implement them. Let them know what they did that was wrong. Reaffirm they get to be angry, but are not allowed to hit someone or break things. The best consequences are restrictions from activities they enjoy.
Once a consequence is in place, the parents have to hold the line. The child may be conciliatory after the rage is past, but the consequence has to happen or there is no incentive to change future behavior.
Once the consequence is done, remind the child you love them, that anger and a bad choice don’t make them a bad person. Also, once the intense emotions have subsided, if another sibling is involved, once the facts are known, one or both of the children may need to apologize to the other for their part in the conflict.
Our Part as Parents
The argument over nature versus nurture has been around as long as people have wondered about the impact of parents on children. We are complex beings, with a trauma narrative, and defenses built up around those trauma narratives, and if we have had no counseling, we are likely to just react to things emotionally without much thought.
Thinking allows us to respond, instead of reacting. I remember a scene from the show Mad About You, where Paul Reiser was shaking his finger at a young person and telling them off when he stopped and looked at his finger and said, “When did I grow my father’s finger?” We tend to discipline our children the way we were disciplined, or reactively try to do the opposite and effectively not discipline them at all.
Anger begets anger. The same admonitions we make to the children are valid for us – if you’re angry, take a few moments before responding. Take time to notice you are angry. Remember the offender is a damaged, wounded human being who just wants to be seen, known and loved well. Bring it into the conversation, “I’m pretty angry right now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
If we can reconnect with our love and compassion for a child, even when they are angry, it can save us from escalating the situation, or saying something negative that will get written on their souls, and damage their self-image for years to come. There’s a Scripture that says, “the soft answer turns away anger.” The soft answer comes most convincingly from a heart of compassion.
One of the kindest things we can do for our kids is to get into therapy and begin doing our emotional work. As always with counseling, sooner is better. How much better to begin working on your own anger issues, or addictions, or self-image when your child is still in the womb, or new born, than waiting until they are in their teens. Emotional damage is often a family thing, passed down from generation to generation, until someone determines they are going to break the cycle.
Parenting is an ever-moving target, and with all the busyness, societal upheaval and our own stresses, worries, and frustrations, it can be difficult to find the strength and determination to stay present and engaged with our children. When we are dealing with an angry child, the temptation may be strong to simply make the problem go away, yell at them to shut up, threaten, or forcibly relocate.
If we can take the time and effort to locate ourselves in the moment, remember how much we love the children God gave us, and realize that in that moment nothing is more important than being present to the child in that situation, we have a much better chance of not making a bad situation worse, give our child an opportunity to learn something new, and create a space where even when they are disciplined, they know they are loved.
“Girls Sitting on the Sidewalk,” courtesy of Pezibear, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Family at Home,” courtesy of normalityrelief (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Sundown Silhouette,” courtesy of Free-Photos, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Hug,” courtesy of markzfilter, pixabay.com, CC0 License