6 Ways to Help Your Child Manage Their Anger

Why do young kids get physical when they're angry, and how can you better understand their behavior? Experts offer up their best tips for helping your child manage their anger.

I stand and watch helplessly as my usually cute 4-year-old screams and kicks on the living room floor because we're not going to the playground. She's clenching her fists and gritting her teeth so hard that her jaw is shaking. Sound familiar?

These dramatic and sometimes terrifying displays of anger come from a "lack of language," explains Meri Wallace, LCSW, parenting expert, child and family therapist, and author of Birth Order Blues. In other words, infants and toddlers can't tell you what's wrong or what they need. "Instead, they express these feelings and needs in a physical way," says Wallace. "They will cry and scream, thrash around, or kick their feet."

Young children also lack impulse control, so when frustrated or angered, it becomes an almost instant stimulus-response reaction. Since they can't effectively communicate their want, need, or feelings, they may lash out with aggressive behavior, like hitting, biting, and other behaviors.

An image of an angry little girl sitting on a couch.
Getty Images.

"Toddlers see their wishes and desires as urgent," Wallace continues. "'If you don't give me that ice cream or that new fire engine on the shelf, I will die.'" A tantrum is a child's form of protest about having their desires thwarted and feeling certain powerlessness.

While watching your toddler convulse in anguish over a missed playground visit may feel anything but normal, anger is a perfectly natural emotion. Not only that, but it follows children through all the stages of development into adulthood.

During the pandemic, some parents saw more flashes of anger due to kids feeling cooped up, but, as Wallace says, it's important to keep in mind that parents would be facing the developmental issues of physical expression of anger anyway. So, it's your job to teach children the best ways to handle it.

Read on for some anger management tools to help you and your little person manage their emotions.

Accept Your Child's Anger

When your child has an angry outburst, acknowledge it. Say something like, "I can see you're angry." If you know why they are mad, you can add the reason: "I can see you're angry because you love swinging on the swing, and we have to leave the park."

Next, accept their anger. Tell your child, "It's OK to be angry." You want your child to feel that both they and their emotions are OK. You don't want them to think that they have to hide their feelings.

Encourage Them to Use Words

Children do not naturally know what words to use, explains Wallace. So you have to teach them this social skill. For example, you can tell your child: "When you feel angry, you need to use words," or "I want to hear what's upsetting you. If you use words, I'll understand better and can help."

If they can't figure out how to explain their anger, you might help them with a script: "When you're angry, say, 'I'm angry,' and I will help you." Over time, children internalize your voice and your rules. By age 5, children develop their superego, which acts as an internal stop sign and helps them to control aggressive impulses.

Find a Positive Solution

For generations, tantrums were viewed as manipulation attempts. Experts advised parents to let children "cry it out" or risk spoiling them. Though parents can indeed fall into a negative pattern of gratifying a child's every wish to avoid a meltdown, letting children cry it out doesn't teach a child a more positive way to handle themself. In fact, children need help moving out of their anger. It's better than letting them sink into it.

So, try to find a solution—a slice of apple before dinner instead of ice cream. Or use distractions or redirection—"I know you're upset that it's raining, and we can't go to the park. Why don't we go play in the tent in the living room?"— to motivate your child toward something that excites them. Of course, you can also offer an alternative or compromise.

Slow Down

Stop a tantrum before it starts by not immediately saying "no" when a child requests something. Instead, pause and say aloud, "Let's see. You want that new toy. Let's talk about that." Taking a beat allows you to think about the request and how to positively deny it, if necessary, or divert your child's attention.

Slowing down and discussing it also lets your child understand the reason for a refusal and accept it more agreeably. You want to give your child the feeling that you hear them, care about their desires, and let them know they can trust you to help them through life's disappointments.

Sometimes a change of location can also stop a tantrum in its tracks or break through an impasse. For example, you can say, "Let's go to see that doggy you like at the pet store," or "Let's go to the pharmacy and get the hair clips you need. We'll keep talking on the way."

Find a Quiet Space

If you're in public, try to move away from an audience. Focus on your child and yourself, not other people's judgment. This focus shift relieves any pressure you might feel from onlookers and allows you to relate to your child privately. The less noise and fuss there is, the easier it will be for you to help your child find calm. Take their hand and say, "Come sit on my lap, and we'll talk this over."

Set a Firm Limit

While you want to convey that it is OK if your child feels angry, you need to make clear that the physically aggressive behavior is not. For example, if your child hits their sibling, you can say, "It's OK to be angry. Your anger is OK. But, you cannot hit." Then add, "We don't hit or kick anyone."

Next, direct them toward a positive way to react to the situation. Explain your limit: "Hitting hurts. We don't hurt anyone." Children are more likely to cooperate if the reason is plausible.

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