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Dealing with a child's anger

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What causes anger in young children?

Anger. It's one of our feelings, and it's an okay feeling to have. Just as children have a right to be happy, sad, lonely, or bored, they also have a right to feel angry. Many parents find it difficult to deal with a child's anger. It's hard to know how best to respond, and anger takes a toll on parents, both physically and emotionally.

Because anger is inevitable, parents need to help children learn how to deal with this often confusing and frightening feeling. Parents also need to learn how to handle an angry child, and how to manage their own anger to keep the relationship between parent and child safe and open.

Children may feel angry if they:

  • Feel frustration.
  • Need attention.
  • Feel powerless.
  • Feel misunderstood.
  • Do not feel good about themselves.
  • Feel helpless.
  • Feel belittled or made fun of.
  • Do not have physical needs taken care of.
  • Have a parent take over instead of asking if he or she wants help.
  • Feel disappointed.
  • Have difficulty saying what they need.
  • Are being punished.

How can parents keep children from getting angry?

There are lots of strategies that parents can use to keep their children from getting angry.

Catch children being good. Pay attention to the good things children do and tell them. For example, “I appreciate your hanging up your clothes, even though you still wanted to play.” We often tell children more about what is wrong than what is right about their behavior. When children hear good things about what they do, they feel better about themselves. They learn how to act in ways that please their parents.

Make sure their physical needs are met. A child who needs exercise or is hungry, thirsty, tired, or sick is more likely to get angry when something doesn't go right.

Plan the environment. Take a look at the places your child lives in. If there are too many objects she shouldn't touch, no place just for her, or not enough space for play, make some changes. Move objects out of reach and don't leave things she shouldn't have about. Child-proof the house.

Show interest in your child's activities. Children will often try to get you involved in what they're doing, and sometimes you may act annoyed at the interruption. The result may be that your child will misbehave to get your attention. The best prevention is to balance your attention to your child's activities with your own needs. If you cannot give attention to what your child is doing at that time, explain why and promise to spend time later with the child.

Interpret situations. Explain to the child why a particular situation or behavior is causing a problem. For example, when another child is acting mean, explain that it could be because the child is tired. Even very young children can learn to understand the reasons for problems, and this helps children learn how to understand their own behavior better.

Build a positive self-image. Help children see themselves as valued and valuable. Encourage them to do their best. Believe in them.

Demonstrate appropriate behavior. Remember, you're a role model. The example you set will be reflected in your child's behavior, both good and bad.

What can parents do when a child starts getting angry?

There are different strategies parents can use if they find that their child is starting to get angry.

Show affection. Sometimes all a child needs to help regain control when frustrated or anxious is a sudden hug or some other show of affection.

Ignore minor misbehavior. Often children misbehave to get your attention. Ignoring behavior that both of you know is inappropriate is one good way to send your child a message that you don't approve. Make sure you don't ignore the child, just the behavior.

Ease the tension through humor. Gently kidding a child out of a temper tantrum offers her the opportunity to save face. Be sure not to tease or be sarcastic.

Appeal to the child's sense of right. Tell your child how you feel about a particular behavior and ask him to consider your feelings. For example, if a child is making an annoying noise, ask him to stop it and explain how the noise is making your headache worse.

Say NO! Limits should be clearly defined for children. When a child breaks a rule, letting her know she has stepped over the line is important. This helps remind her of the rule and lets her know she is responsible for the consequences of breaking the rule.

What should parents do when a child has a temper tantrum?

Many children go through a period of having temper tantrums at some point in their life. Here are some strategies to explore if your child is having a temper tantrum.

Avoid physical punishment. Hitting or spanking a child for acting aggressive or doing something wrong is guaranteed to backfire. Don't demonstrate behavior you don't want your child to imitate.

Accept your child's anger. Let your child know his feelings of anger are appropriate. Make sure your child knows you are there to help him with the problem when he is ready. If the anger is being expressed in inappropriate ways, suggest other ways the child can express his feelings.

Teach a child how to express anger with words. Talking is a good way to get rid of feelings of anger and frustration. When your child becomes worked up, encourage her to use her words rather than hitting, grabbing, or using some other physical action.

Respond to temper tantrums with care and concern. When your child resorts to a tantrum to express his needs, your response is critical. This is the time your child needs you most. He needs you to remain calm (not an easy thing to do), he needs to be comforted and he needs your help to regain control. Some strategies include:

  • Ignore the tantrum if you can.
  • Use a time out to give your child a chance to calm down.
  • Take a time out yourself.
  • Remove your child from the situation.
  • Hold your child closely.
  • Talk softly to your child.
  • Try to figure out what your child wants and needs.

Tantrums are powerful tools for children to use to get their needs met. Parents need to help children find other ways of expressing their needs. If you give in to tantrums, whining, and other negative methods of expressing anger your child will find it hard to understand other points of view, to develop assertive ways of dealing with anger and to relate well to other people.

Your attitude is the key

Remember anger is a feeling we all have. It is normal for children to feel anger. And when they do, they often find it frightening. Parents need to help children learn how to manage their anger and how to channel it into positive action.

Rose Allen, University of Minnesota Extension educator emeritus in family resource management

Reviewed 2016 by Lori Hendrickson, Extension educator in family resiliency.

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