Dealing with Children’s Anger – Reactively and Proactively

Published Categorized as A look at one emotion, Anger, emotional literacy

A lot of what is included in this post can also be found in my blog posts elsewhere but as anger is the emotion most parents and carers show concern about (alongside anxiety), I thought I would write a post that is specifically about helping children manage their anger.

This first thing I want to highlight is that many of us simply respond to children’s anger in the moment it arises and often understandably forget to also work proactively with children on this powerful emotion. To help a child learn to manage their anger well, it is far more effective if we work both reactively and proactively. This means we handle a child’s anger in the moment as best we can, but that we also take time to teach children about anger at other times (and definitely not when they are in the grips of rage).

Reactive Responses

There is no one right way to react to a child’s anger and what helps one day, won’t always work the next. However, here are some general guidelines to help you think about how you deal with situations where a child has become angry.

  • The first thing to consider is your reaction. What happens to you when your child escalates? Do you start feeling anxious, dread, panicked, irritated or angry yourself? Do you start thinking ‘oh no here we go again?’ If you are in the grips of a strong reaction each time a child becomes angry, you are unlikely to manage the situation as well as you could. Try to make your reaction more conscious and this will help a child’s anger have less and less impact on you and help you be more flexible in how you respond.
  • With very young children, an emotional meltdown or tantrum can be the result of a cocktail of uncomfortable emotions: upset, confusion, frustration, hurt, shame etc. A very young child cannot develop the skills to avoid meltdown and it’s one of the few ways they can express their emotion or that they have a need, so they ultimately need comfort and love. The best thing a parent/carer can do in this situation is be a calm, loving and understanding presence who provides comfort. This will eventually help them to self-regulate as they will eventually become less overwhelmed by strong emotions.
  • This might seem counter-intuitive to many of us as it’s probably the opposite to what happened to us as children but considering many children express anger when they are actually feeling overwhelm or anxiety, aim to soothe the child. Those children who are OK with touch can be given a sideways hug or you could rub their upper back in a circular motion. Others might just need your calm, steady and reassuring presence showing genuine concern for their emotional state.
  • Always validate children’s anger with comments like, ‘I can see you’re angry and I can understand why’ or ‘I would find that difficult too’. Trying to dismiss, ignore or distract a child from their anger can end up confusing them and make them feel like they are bad or unlovable for feeling angry, or that they were wrong for becoming angry. Becoming angry is very much a part of being human and it is healthy to accept this (more on this in the proactive section).
  • When a child becomes angry, speculate about what happened to trigger their anger. ‘I am wondering if you’re angry because…’ This does a few things. It helps children start to acknowledge their anger as it arises, it makes them feel understood (and therefore less frustrated), it makes their emotional responses seem important to you and like you care, it engages the thinking part of their brain and it has more chance of opening up a dialogue which can lead to greater understanding and possibly solutions for the situation that triggered the anger.
  • If your child becomes angry as a result of a request you have made, consider what your child ‘gets’ from becoming angry. Do you back down and give in to a demand? Does the anger mean the child gets out of doing something or does it result in the child getting more of your time and attention? If their anger is being rewarded in some way, it will persist of course. You could chat to your child later to try and see if you can work out together what the underlying need might be: needing time together, finding something difficult, feeling nervous about making a mistake, wanting to feel loved etc.
  • If a child becomes aggressive when they are angry, they will definitely benefit from chats (outside the heat of the moment) about the difference between feeling angry (a feeling) and being aggressive (a behaviour). If they become aggressive towards you, you need to make it very clear that it is unacceptable (‘This needs to stop’), disengage and remove yourself from harm. You can explain that this is what you are doing. e.g. ‘That is hurting me, I am going to go where you can’t hurt me. I will come back when I am sure you won’t hurt me.’ When you return and they are no longer hitting you, you can make reparations. This could be a hug or an ‘I love you’. It’s important for your child to feel that you rejected the behaviour and not them.  (I appreciate teachers have to manage this differently and might need to remove a child from where they can cause harm to others).
  • Using short, repetitive scripts can help. ‘Use your words’ or ‘make a good choice’ can work to remind children that they can say they are angry and choose how they behave rather than expressing anger destructively. This works especially well if you have discussed anger proactively.
  • Make space for children (and you if needed) to cool down. Never tenaciously or forcefully persist in trying to sort a situation out when everyone is angry. Disengaging from a situation rather than locking horns with it removes the energy that causes escalation. You can let a child know you are still interested in what happens by occasionally saying, ‘let me know when you’re ready….to chat, to try and sort the situation, to do what you’ve been asked to do, etc. ‘When you’re ready,’ (calmly delivered) is a great phrase for this.
  • Be aware that sometimes a child (especially boys) can express anger when they are actually feeling another emotions like anxiety, shame, fear, overwhelm, humiliation, upset, etc. to cover up their vulnerability and look ‘tough’. When this happens, help the child speculate about the underlying emotions. Some children need support understanding that acknowledging and expressing all emotions does not make you weak.
  • Always wait for a time when your child is calm to discuss situations after they have occurred. This sort of follow-up can be extremely valuable, not to mention connecting, for you and the child. The aim is to start a conversation, explore what happened and see if together you can find a better way of sorting out the situation so it’s managed in a better way next time.
  • If your child is becoming angry over the same trigger again and again, check that what is happening is something that definitely needs to happen. For example, if every morning a 4-year-old has a meltdown over you asking him to get dressed because you are anxious for him to be self-reliant in this way, remind yourself that this is unlikely to remain a problem forever. He won’t need you to dress him into adulthood so this probably isn’t a battle worth having every time!
  • Always try to role-model managing anger! Declare you are angry when you are, what triggered your anger and consider your choices out loud if you can!

Proactive Learning

Proactive actions are about helping children understand anger. Children can become better at managing their anger if they learn the following:

  • Everyone feels anger at times.
  • Some people lose their temper more easily than others but everyone can learn to manage anger in a way that does not make things worse.
  • Different things make different people angry and we don’t all react in the same way in the same situation.
  • Anger is a normal emotion and part of being human and we should expect to feel it, but aggression (hitting, biting, shouting etc.) is a behaviour and a response that is very unhelpful and often hurtful.
  • When we feel angry, it might not feel like it sometimes but we always have a choice about how we behave.
  • There are lots of words to describe anger. Developing a greater emotion vocabulary can help us express emotions and become more aware of them– including anger words.
  • We can become more are of, and learn, the physical symptoms of anger. Noticing these symptoms helps us develop greater awareness of anger as it arrives and helps us focus inwardly, rather than reacting outwardly.
  • Anger can affect how we think and how we want to behave. It can help to notice angry thoughts and see how they keep our anger going and we can consider the different choices that we have in how we behave.
  • We rarely make sensible decisions when we are angry. We need to cool down before we act, when we are angry.
  • There are strategies we can use to cool down when we are angry.
    • With older children…
  • Anger tends to make us only think of ourselves and our own needs. Often after we have cooled down, it can be helpful to wonder what might be going on for anyone else involved in a situation that triggered our anger. They might be struggling with something we don’t know about, they might have misunderstood the situation, they might be upset about something we did earlier etc.
  • Using I messages helps us to be assertive and express our emotions and needs.
  • Learning to be curious about our anger can help us decide if it’s most helpful to just calm down and gain a perspective that helps us accept we can’t do much about the situation, or if we need do actually something: like tell someone how their actions affected us, try and prevent something from happening again, change how we think about something, accept something, understand something about ourselves etc.
  • Considering how our interpretation of something that happened can affect how we feel – including how angry we might become.
  • When another person becomes angry, you can consider what they might find helps and what hinders!

There is also a video I made a while ago called: What Can We Say About Anger aimed at children and young people.

A slide from training on this…