Got a time bomb ticking in the other room, where a simple no from you – or persistent pestering from little sister – is all it takes to make your kid explode?
Whatever it is that sets your kids off, keep in mind that “anger is as legitimate an emotion as joy or sadness and it’s the most common way children express feelings of frustration,” says Sal Severe, PhD, a school psychologist and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!
But anger can get backed up in the pipes.
According to Mitchell H. Messer, retired director of the Anger Clinic in Chicago, children who don’t learn to express their anger properly can develop an attitude of perceived unfairness. This mindset can linger into adulthood and contribute to social maladies such as road rage, violence and the syndrome in which grown men and women act like 4-year-olds when the going gets tough.
To manage their anger constructively, children need their parents’ help. Here are some temper-taming tactics that can help your kids learn to handle this powerful emotion-and help you keep your sanity.
Be a role model. “Children learn by imitating your behavior and emotions,” Messer says. So if you don’t want them to carry on when they’re angry, be sure to avoid that behavior yourself. “If you’re setting an example of craziness, your kids will model that behavior,” he says.
Don’t take it personally. When your child lashes out at you-“Mommy, I hate you!”-don’t strike back in anger. “Reacting angrily teaches children what to say and do to push your emotional buttons in the future when you do something else that hurts their feelings,” says Severe. Instead, neutralize your child’s anger by acknowledging it with phrases, such as, “I’m sorry you’re so angry,” or “I’m sorry you hate me today, but I still love you.”
Give your child choices. After you’ve acknowledged your child’s anger, give her choices. “What do you want to do about this?” “How long do you want to stay angry?” The goal: You want your child to calm down enough to talk about solutions to the problem. The talking-it-through tactic is one Lisa Russell, a 26-year-old mom of three, finds particularly useful with her 4-year-old daughter, Meagan, who is prone to anger “episodes.”
“When we see Meagan ‘heating up,’ we say, ‘What’s going on? You look a bit frustrated,'” Russell says. “Then we discuss different ways to constructively handle the situation. I make sure to listen to Meagan’s ideas, even the ones that sound terrible.”
Recently, for example, when Meagan was frustrated because her sister kept moving the crayons out of reach, she suggested solving the problem by dumping the crayons on her sister’s head and hitting her with the box. “We discussed why that wasn’t such a good idea,” Russell says. “Ultimately, Meagan decided to tell her sister she was frustrated because she kept moving the crayons. I praised her for having such a good idea on how to handle it.”
“Brainstorming has taught Meagan how to make decisions on how to handle angry situations without lashing out. Her new communication skills have made our home so much happier and more peaceful,” Russell says.
Negotiate. To avoid conflicts that can arise from a power struggle-for example, you allow your son an hour of computer time a day, a rule he won’t abide by-“don’t hit him head on by forcing him off the computer at the end of the hour,” Severe says. Instead, sit down and talk with your child about solutions to the problem. “He might have a better resolution than you do,” Severe says.
When you come up with a rule, write it down-even make it a contract for both of you to sign. By soliciting your child’s cooperation, “you’ll take away the reason for the power struggle,” Severe says. Also, allow your child the opportunity to earn bonuses for good behavior-as in more computer time, for example. You decide what constitutes the reward but it could be something as simple as doing his chores without complaining.
Don’t spank. According to a recent survey of 1,532 parents across the U.S. by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., one in five parents spank their kids for discipline.
If you’re among them, keep in mind that spanking may get your child to improve his behavior on the spot, but it won’t teach him to alter his behavior in the future. “Kids don’t internalize the message behind spanking,” says Severe. “It’s a meltdown for the parent, and most parents feel guilty afterwards.” A better idea: Try to talk with your child about the misbehavior after both of you have had a chance to cool down.
Think ahead. Anticipate tough situations that are likely to cause your child to have an outburst. If you’re food shopping, for example, engage your kids in the activity and make them part of the process, such as helping you pick out a healthy breakfast cereal. “The more involved they are in any situation, the better they’re going to behave,” says Severe. If that doesn’t work and a tantrum ensues anyway, leave the store and try again later.
Reinforce good behavior by praising kids for what they do well. “It’s a very simple idea, but it’s something we all forget to do,” says Severe. For example, you might say, “Thanks for listening to me the first time and bargaining with your brother instead of fighting,” or “I appreciate you doing that without an argument,” or “thanks for getting off the computer when I ask you to do it.” “Kids live for acknowledgment and approval,” says Severe.
Be consistent. To manage your child’s anger with any of these tactics, keep up the good work. “Consistency is the most important factor in your relationship with your child,” says Severe. “It’s more important than love, which is almost biological.” It’s also a lot of work. “Consistency takes tremendous commitment and dedication.”
The payoff is worth it. You’ll have kids who learn to stay calm and problem-solve through situations rather than get angry. “It’s something a child as young as 4 or 5 can learn to do,” says Severe.
And what if your child is a teenager? “It’s never too late to start anger management,” he says, “but the sooner, the better.”