Kids are not little adults, but they certainly experience many of the same emotions that we do. Anger is something that everyone endures – from “typical” kids to kids who have other health diagnoses like depression, anxiety, or ADHD. And there are also some kids who are just naturally more irritable than others.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for helping kids manage their anger. But there are some strategies we can employ to help them regulate it. They’re tactics that can help them later in life as well. Here are some steps I work through with my patients:
9 Steps to Help Kids Manage Their Anger
1. Recognize and label emotions
Before kids can start managing their anger, they need to be able to recognize and label their emotions. Kids of all ages can benefit from this – even babies. With babies you can make and label different faces: sad face, happy face, angry face, etc. With older children, you can help them identify their emotions by describing and labeling them. Wow, you got really annoyed when I asked you to clean up your mess. Include their physical symptoms, too: I can tell you’re angry because your hands are in a fist and your face is red. Similarly, some kids may enjoy drawing their emotions instead. Have them sketch what they look like when they’re sad, happy, or scared.
2. Normalize their emotions
Help them understand that it’s okay to experience and express emotions, even if it’s anger. I often hear parents tell their children to quit crying, or that there’s nothing to be upset about. It’s actually okay for kids to get mad. What’s not okay is their inappropriate behavior that follows the anger. Getting angry is acceptable, but hitting your sister is not.
3. Question their negative thoughts
The fastest way to change your kids’ feelings is by helping them to change their thoughts. Try to talk through their emotions, before they spiral out of control. Some kids have big, negative thoughts. I can’t do this. Everyone thinks I’m stupid. Ask them if that’s really true? Your teacher doesn’t think you’re stupid. And Luke asked you for help with his homework yesterday, so he probably doesn’t think you’re stupid either.
4. Teach positive self-talk
When your kids are thinking negatively, teach them to repeat positive phrases in their heads. Say, every time you think you’re stupid, let’s remember this: You like school. You can do this. You work hard in math and it shows.
5. Identify the triggers
Is there a pattern to when your child is getting angry? Does it happen every time she plays with a certain kid? Or when she’s not getting her way? Once you identify a pattern, you can help her with tactics to try and prevent them. You seem to get angry every time you play with the neighbor. What happens right before you get angry?
6. Utilize positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is more effective than focusing on a punishment. Once you’ve identified a trigger, praise your children when they handle things appropriately. For example, I noticed that you told Johnny you didn’t like it when he breaks your Legos. Great job using your calm words.
7. Practice calming down before the alarm goes off
All children can benefit from learning how to recognize they’re getting angry before the alarm goes off and it turns into a full-blown outburst. This takes practice. Try relaxation techniques and self-awareness when they’re not angry. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to calming music. Find some kid yoga videos. Help them notice what it feels like to be calm, so that when they feel themselves getting angry, they can utilize their relaxation techniques.
8. Teach what to do when the alarm does go off
When anger does turn into a full-blown outburst, there’s not a whole lot parents can do until they calm down. They can’t be reasoned with in the heat of the moment. But you can let your child know that you’re going to sit next to them until they’re calm and ready to talk about what happened. It’s also okay to let them walk away, cool off and return later.
9. Model how to handle emotions and arguments
Kids need to see how their parents handle strong emotions. It may feel silly at first, but when you’re feeling angry, talk about how you’re working through the emotions aloud. I am upset right now because I had a bad day at work, then the car broke down, and now I can’t find my phone to call the insurance company. I’m going to sit here for a couple of minutes and take some deep breaths. It’s also okay to have heated discussions or debates in front of your kids, as long as they can also see the resolution. In fact, it may help them learn how to work through a problem, find a resolution, and move on.
It’s normal for everyone to get angry from time to time – from little kids all the way up to adults. Trying some of these strategies over time may help your children learn how to manage it better. If you’re still having concerns, talk to your child’s doctor about it. Anger that results in aggression or violence, or anger that goes from zero to 60 so fast you can’t even use these strategies, are all signs you might want to seek help. Your child’s doctor may recommend a visit with child psychologist.