How Can Parents Help Kids Handle Anger?
It goes without saying, perhaps, that our kids' most influential role models for handling anger are the grown-ups they're with day in and day out -- usually their moms and dads. But the kind of patient, caring adult guidance that helps kids learn to manage their anger requires a healthy investment of time -- an increasingly scarce resource in today's warp-speed society. "We want to think that quality time is enough, but all the research shows that quantity time with Mom and Dad is more crucial in promoting children's emotional growth," says Dr. Kazdin. With parents juggling job and home tasks, teachers and neighbors equally rushed, and extended family members more likely to live across the country than down the block, children are increasingly left on their own.
Of course, parenting styles count too. Studies show that harsh parents are more apt to raise explosive kids, while warm, authoritative fathers and mothers are more likely to bring up well-behaved, emotionally intelligent children. But what these findings don't reveal is that some kids have inherently challenging temperaments. "A lot of aggressive children start out with difficult temperaments -- a high activity level, intense emotional responses, and trouble with changes in routines," says Elizabeth MacKenzie, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Seattle. Such kids require consistent limit-setting. If parents don't adopt a calm-but-firm mode from the get-go, the child may quickly become hard to handle. "It's easy to respond with anger and coercive parenting approaches because you don't know what else to do," says Dr. MacKenzie. But this is a recipe for mayhem, she notes, because harsh, punitive responses, such as frequent and severe spankings, tend to ratchet up the child's aggressiveness.
Some parents manage to keep their own anger in check but find it difficult to carry out the nonstop boundary-setting. The problem with this survival strategy, however, is that it gives explosive children the wrong message. "They end up learning that defiance and aggression are allowed, and their behavior just gets worse," says Dr. Garbarino.