An angry child can present quite a challenge to the conscientiously attached parent. Strangers and family members alike can be quite critical of parents and children in these situations. Children are frequently manipulated into behaving differently through bribery, punishment, or praise. The downfall of these strategies is that they don’t help children to manage extreme emotions, they simply teach them to suppress emotions.
Parents should aim to help their children manage anger in a way that doesn’t shame, embarrass, or harm their emotional wellbeing, at the same time as being respectful of others. So how do we do that?
We need to have realistic expectations.
When your child is the one thumping other kids at playgroup, it’s pretty embarrassing! When they do it at Aunty Maude’s house over lunch, or in the supermarket near the chocolate biscuits, embarrassment can hit an all time high. However our society has unrealistic expectations of children. It’s actually unfair to expect a small child (let’s say any child under 10) to control themselves so that we never feel embarrassed by them, so we need to find the middle ground.
If parents expect angry outbursts as a normal part of childhood, then they can help avert them – not always, but definitely sometimes.
Some people believe that by avoiding these situations you will have to give in to your children all the time, but this is not true, and also unrealistic. You can’t avoid lunch at Aunty Maude’s house indeterminately, nor can you avoid the supermarket.
Other people believe that by simply being a gentle parent from birth, their child will not express such strong emotions, but outbursts are the nature of childhood, the question is whether the way you manage it will help or hinder.
Once we realign our expectations of raising children with our child’s actual developmental stage, it becomes easier to anticipate instances that might cause anger. It also becomes easier to remain in control of our own emotions, while Aunty Maude arches her eyebrow and tells you how it wouldn’t have been tolerated in her day.
Realistically speaking, your only responsibility in public is to ensure that no one else is endangered. Expecting our children not to embarrass us is unrealistic, and expecting them to control their behaviour so that no one can accuse us of being bad parents is adult privilege. Which brings us to the next point….
Children need help to manage their anger
The best way to help children manage their anger is to help them express it appropriately, and the best way to do that is to model it ourselves. This can be quite a challenge when we ourselves, didn’t learn ways to express anger. However what this shows us is that our kids will naturally have fewer outbursts as they get older. Eventually everyone can walk past chocolate biscuits without shouting.
When we model healthy expressions of anger, it imprints on our children, and when we model unhealthy expressions of anger, we must acknowledge it, and explain to our children how anger management is a lifelong struggle. We can use our failings as well as our successes, to demonstrate humanity. Everyone gets angry, even loving parents!
Two Steps to Help Anger Management
- 1) Validate the anger: Start out by saying something like:
”I can see that you’re feeling really angry about that, do you think you could talk about it?”. Next you need to offer a suitable sentence, and encourage them to say it. You might suggest something like “I’m mad because <insert reason here> I really need <insert need here>” or for a younger child simply saying “I’m mad” is a good start. Of course if they prefer NOT to talk about it, it’s ok and we should respect that, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set a boundary. If their angry behaviour has the potential to cause physical or emotional harm to someone else, then we are obligated to intervene in a respectful, peaceful way.
2) Make like an onion (some people prefer parfait) and layer it up: Be sure to cash in on every opportunity you can to discuss anger. When you get angry, talk about it, when you see an angry face in a book, talk about it, talk talk talk! Reaffirm that anger is NORMAL, and everyone gets angry, that there is nothing wrong with anger, it’s what we do with it that causes problems. Never miss an opportunity to talk anger. Have a debrief in the car on the way home from Aunty Maude’s lunch, validate the anger, and talk about how it could have been handled. Talk about how sometimes we feel angry in the supermarket when we see the tastiest biscuits and don’t buy them. Talk about how it feels when we are at playgroup and various situations arise. And always keep in mind their developmental stage, and update the talks to match.
Helping children with anger is something that we must start as early as opportunity presents. Throughout the various ages and stages there will be many, some will be embarrassing, some will make us angry, but – reassuringly – most will be perfectly normal. If we can keep our own expectations in check, and we strive to acknowledge and channel, rather than crushing their emotions, we give them skills for life, rather than just skills to keep ourselves from red faced moments at Aunty Maude’s luncheons.