By Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
To be so little, children sure can experience big emotions, can’t they? And anger is often the biggest emotion of all. Even the youngest find ways to let it out. Recently, my 2-year-old threatened me with an angry voice, “I’m going to color your face!” It was hard not to laugh. Poor (and sweet) kid. He was trying to be mean and angry, and coloring my face was the best he could think of.
It’s good news that our children experience their feelings and get opportunities to deal with big feelings. The problem comes when children don’t handle their anger in ways we’d like them to.
So how do we help our kids express their anger in ways that are appropriate and healthy? Here are a few suggestions.
Say yes to feelings, even as you say no to inappropriate behaviors.
It’s crucial that you set clear boundaries for your child in terms of what actions are OK. In other words, you have to say no to certain behaviors that result from anger—throwing things, hitting and kicking, breaking objects, etc.
However, it’s very important—and this can be challenging for most of us—that you also communicate that it’s OK to feel angry. As parents, we often make the mistake of giving the message, either verbally or nonverbally, that we don’t like their anger.
But anger, like all emotions, is neither good nor bad. It’s just a feeling. And children need to be taught that it’s important and healthy to feel their feelings, even as we are teaching them about what’s not OK in terms of how they express them.
Let kids talk without immediately arguing or defending yourself.
One of the least effective responses when a child is angry is to appeal to his or her logic. Kids are like us. When they’re upset, they often just need to be listened to—not argued with, or lectured.
You’ll have time once your child calms down to discuss your own position and to impose consequences. But in the heat of the moment, one of the best things you can do is simply to allow your child to express him or herself appropriately.
For very young children you may need to help them articulate their anger. “You’re mad, aren’t you? Is it because you wanted that cookie and I said you couldn’t have it?” For older kids, it might be as simple as saying, “You’re angry. I will listen.”
When you let children express their anger without having to make sense or be clear, you diffuse the situation so that the important work of teaching and reconnection can begin.
Offer alternative and appropriate ways to express anger.
Besides listening, we need to provide kids with examples of ways to act that are OK when they feel angry. Help them see that there’s nothing wrong with being angry, and that there are acceptable ways to express it and “get it out.”
For example, if your daughter is furious about something her brother did, give her a crayon and a few sheets of paper, and let her get busy with some “vigorous scribbling” that lets her take her aggression out on something besides her brother. Or hand her a foam bat and let her go to town on the bed, or on the ground. I’ve actually taught my own sons that one of the best ways to deal with anger is to get their bodies moving. They can jump, run, do jumping-jacks, whatever.
There are lots of appropriate ways for kids to express their anger. You can experiment to see what works best for your child.
Give your children an emotional vocabulary.
One of the best gifts we can offer our kids is to give them words for their different emotions. When they’re upset, they may know only that they feel “bad.” So we want to help them move beyond the good/bad dichotomy so they can identify and express their feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, etc. We can also help them identify how feelings feel, by asking them “How does your body feel right now?”
The point is to give kids an awareness of the vast emotional world within them, so they can examine what’s going on inside them, and then articulate those feelings in a way that helps them understand themselves better and handle their anger more appropriately.