Thayer Allyson Gowdy
Sure, you may have good reasons to get angry (traffic jams, job challenges, dropping your iPhone in the tub), but put yourself in your child's shoes. Her life might be filled with all manner of frustrations: other kids who want to play with her stuff, grown-ups who end a playdate when she's having fun, a big sibling who has privileges she can only dream about, and a whole world of things she hasn't mastered, from brushing her teeth solo to making her own chocolate milk. It's no wonder that young kids spend so much time in meltdown mode.
While you can't eliminate the triggers that enrage her, you can teach a child as young as a 2 or 3 to control her temper. "Your job is to help her develop strategies for expressing and dealing with this powerful emotion," says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City. Parents may be tempted to try to rein in their child's reactions ("It's just a game of Candy Land; you don't have to get so upset about losing"), but doing so will probably just fuel her fury. Instead, you want to empathize while still emphasizing the importance of finding a better alternative to simply freaking out.
Kids who manage to stay composed when a maddening situation arises are better prepared to succeed in life. A study at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, showed that children who were good at regulating their emotions did better both academically and socially than those who had poor impulse control. And researchers at Arizona State University, in Tempe, found that such kids also tend to be more resilient in tough times.
Of course, some children have a harder time staying calm under pressure than others, but whatever your child's natural m.o., there's still plenty you can do to help her navigate life with a light heart and a cool head.
Young kids may not realize they're angry; they simply vent. However, you can help your preschooler recognize the sensation before he has a full-blown fit, says Deborah Ledley, Ph.D., author of Becoming a Calm Mom. Try using the analogy of a volcano: Explain that lava will bubble beneath the surface for a while before it erupts. Reassure your child that anger works in a similar way, but he can learn to prevent it from exploding.
A large part of that process is helping him attach a name to an emotion. You might say something like, "I think you're angry at your friend because he teased you, right?" When her 3-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, stomps her feet and huffs and puffs in frustration, Ashley Hampton, of Charlotte, North Carolina, gives her a phrase that helps her express her feelings. "I'll say, 'You're angry because you don't want to eat your veggies,' or 'You're frustrated because you don't want to stop playing to take your bath.'"
Once your child has a better understanding of the emotion, help him identify the physical warning signs ("My face heats up") as well as the situations that trigger it ("I get mad when my big brother does things I'm not allowed to do") so he learns to recognize his feelings.
Give anger a break
Talk to your child about how it's difficult to think clearly when she's very upset, and that prevents her from fixing the problem that made her mad in the first place. Let her know that taking a little pause when she's feeling this way can help her calm down and come up with a solution. Ellen Kellner, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, taught her 7-year-old daughter, Acadia, a routine she calls "choosing the 'tude." When Acadia begins to lose her temper, she goes off by herself to chill and then decides when she's ready to return. "If she's irked that she can't watch TV at dinnertime, she needs to leave the table and calm down," says Kellner.
If your kid really loses it, you may need to pick her up or walk her to a quiet place. Do this in a matter-of-fact way ("Sweetie, you need to settle down") to avoid antagonizing her further. If removing your child from a situation doesn't work, you'll need to try something else, whether it's putting on mellow music or having her run around the yard.
When Beth Blair, of Egan, Minnesota, saw that her then 5-year-old son, Jeb, was about to have a tantrum (he would often get frustrated by trying to read aloud, for example), she snapped him out of it with a special song and dance sung to the tune of "Shake Your Sillies Out": "You've got to stomp, stomp, stomp your anger out" and moving on to "shake," "jump," and "pat."
Another technique we all know (but it's worth repeating) is deep breathing. Explain to your child that anger can make her breathe too fast, and that breathing in slowly through her nose and out through her mouth will help calm her mind and body. "Even a 2-year-old can do it," says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., author of The Big Book of Stress Relief Games. "And if you learn it when you're 2, it becomes second nature."