Most of us have an uncomfortable relationship with anger. Maybe we see it as an aggressive, explosive emotion. Maybe we see it as confusing and overwhelming. Maybe we associate it with sadness.
Either way, when we feel the first signs of frustration, many of us ignore it. We push it down. Far down.
And this is precisely what we do with our kids’ anger. When our kids start getting mad, we teach them to ignore it, too. We tell them they shouldn’t get angry. We reprimand them. Stop that! Calm down! You have nothing to be angry about!
However, anger is a totally normal emotion. Even more so, it’s an essential, invaluable emotion. It’s like a warning system, alerting us when something is wrong (e.g., when someone has crossed our boundaries). It alerts us when there’s unfairness or injustice. In fact, most positive changes in our society have started with someone getting angry.
Parents also commonly assume that anger is the only emotion their child is feeling, said Janine Halloran, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in kids and teens. Anger is sometimes referred to as an iceberg, she noted, because there are many other emotions that accompany it that we just don’t see. Beneath your child’s anger might be anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, embarrassment.
Plus, like adults, when kids don’t effectively express their anger, it only amplifies. “[T]hey may blow up later over what appears to be a small issue,” Halloran said. “Since they haven’t processed all the other experiences of anger, it all comes pouring out, like a volcano.”
Children should be allowed to feel a range of emotions, including anger. Below Halloran shared nine suggestions for helping your kids handle their anger.
Remain calm. It’s important to be calm and neutral when your child is angry, said Halloran, author of the Coping Skills for Kids Workbook, and founder of Coping Skills for Kids. Which, of course, isn’t easy. This is why she suggests having a collection of coping skills. For instance, in the moment, you might practice deep breathing to relax your body.
You also might use a mantra. Parent coach Nicole Schwarz, LMFT, shares these examples in this piece:
- “I can be calm.”
- “Anger is just a feeling, it is temporary.”
- “Just breathe.”
- “I don’t need to fix this, I just need to be present.”
- “They have a right to be angry.”
- “I do not have to respond in anger.”
In general, you might engage in activities that genuinely nurture and support you, such as yoga, writing, dancing, painting.
If you need to explore further why your child’s anger is triggering you (e.g., because of earlier childhood experiences), consider seeing a therapist, Halloran said.
Validate your kids’ anger. Acknowledge its presence. “Instead of saying ‘You shouldn’t be mad about that,’ you can recognize their feeling by saying something as simple as ‘You seem mad right now,’” Halloran said. This helps your child identify their own emotions, and not be ashamed about them.
Halloran also stressed the importance of keeping talking to a minimum and repeating short, soothing phrases (like the below). “When a child is in fight, flight or freeze mode, they can’t process information as well as when their body is in rest and digest mode.”
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I love you.”
- “I want to help you.”
- “Let me know when you’re ready.”
- “I understand.”
Have your child draw their anger. Suggest your kids draw whatever is making them angry. Once they’re done with the drawing, they can rip it up or crumple it up and throw it away. “This helps kids process what caused their mad feelings in the first place, and can be a way to help them move on from the situation,” Halloran said.
Ask about their roses and thorns. Every evening, check in with your kids about the positive and negative aspects of their day. Ask them to share the good things that happened (roses), and what didn’t go well or what made them mad (thorns), Halloran said.
Help your kids release excess energy. You can have them pop bubble wrap or stomp their feet. They also can squeeze slime, play dough or stress balls and then relax their hands. These are all ways for kids to release their anger and extra energy safely.
Start discussing feelings. Weave feelings into your daily conversations. For instance, when you’re reading a book together, watching TV or watching a movie, ask your child how they think a certain character feels, Halloran said.
You also can label your own feelings out loud: “I’m so happy right now” or “I’m feeling a little frustrated.”
“Even asking the question, ‘what are you feeling right now?’ can start the process of helping kids more easily identify their own emotions.”
Help your kids process an incident. After your child has calmed down, have a conversation about what happened to trigger their anger. Ask them to talk about what happened earlier in the day or week, along with how that made them feel, Halloran said. This is “an opportunity to help kids start to explore their emotions and make the connection between their feelings and how they react.”
Encourage journaling. “Sometimes, it’s easier to write about than talk about hard things,” Halloran said. For kids who can do some writing, journaling may be cathartic. After your child is done journaling, Halloran suggested talking about something good or something your child is looking forward to.
Use anger-related resources. Two of Halloran’s favorite resources on anger and kids are: How to Take The Grrrr Out of Anger by Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis and What to Do When Your Temper Flares by Dawn Huebner. With the first book Halloran typically reads a chapter at a time and then works on some of the strategies. The latter title includes lovely illustrations and “anger-dousing” methods, she said.
Anger is a tricky emotion. It’s understandable why many of us feel uncomfortable around it. But when we teach our kids to ignore any of their emotions, we teach them to distrust those emotions. We teach them to bury their anger—until it intensifies and erupts, hurting them or someone else. We teach them to stay quiet, and ultimately to distrust themselves.
Along with trying the above suggestions, work on healing your own relationship with anger. It’s one of the best things we can do for our kids. Because it always starts with us, doesn’t it?