Young children often don't know how to handle their anger -- but you can help them learn to relax and let it go.
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."
How to Discipline Your Kids
Talk it through
Once he's gotten distracted, your child may forget what was bothering him. But if he's still angry, ask him what he might do differently next time to avoid getting so upset. If he draws a blank, offer some suggestions ("If your brother is too busy to play soccer, ask if he'll kick a ball around when he's done with his homework"). Eventually, your ideas will become part of your child's own toolbox.
It can also be a shrewd strategy to leave the outcome of a situation in your child's hands. When Jennifer Chambers's 6-year-old son, Quinn, starts melting down because she won't buy him a toy or a treat when their family goes shopping, for instance, she gives him an ultimatum disguised as a choice: He can stop asking for things in the store or he can go home with Daddy. "That way, he's the one who decides what happens," says the Veneta, Oregon, mom.
Use your funny bone
People who can make light of their problems (and themselves) are more likely to roll with the punches in tough situations. "Humor puts you in a better mood," says Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Irvine, California. When your kids see you brushing off your troubles with humor, they might start to do it too. If you're caught in traffic, turn the jam into a joke ("I wish we'd bought that flying car your dad test-drove last week!"). And if you notice they're stressed out, try to inject a little comic relief ("Are you mad because your baby sister knocked your ice-cream cone on the ground? We have to teach her that cones are for eating, not planting, don't we?").
Create a scream-free zone
It's pretty much a no-brainer (and studies prove it to be true): Parents who yell are more likely to raise kids who do so themselves. "You can't expect your kids to control their anger if you can't manage your own," says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice.
Christine Alonso, of Berkeley, California, decided to institute a no-shouting policy in her home. Now when her kids, Maisy, 7, and Malachi, 6, start bickering about who should put away their toys or screaming because they can't have a cupcake, she reminds them, "We speak in a normal voice. We talk about our problems."
If you establish such a rule, have a plan in place for what to do when one of your kids breaks it. For instance, you might offer a reminder the first time ("Remember the rule -- we don't yell"), then a warning ("If you raise your voice again, we'll cancel our plans to go to the movies this weekend"). Be prepared to enforce the consequence if it happens a third time.
Of course, your child might not be the only violator. If you're the one who raises your voice, apologize. Keep it simple and say, "I was annoyed by your behavior, but I'm sorry I yelled at you." When you sense you're about to lose it, give yourself the same kind of break you've taught your kids to take. Just announce, "I'm too upset to discuss this right now. I'm taking a moment to calm down, and then we'll talk." That way, you're not only respecting the no-screaming policy but also providing your child with a firsthand lesson in anger management.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.