You're visiting a friend's house for a play date when your child bursts into the room fuming because his playmate was not following the rules of the game. You apologize to the hostess for the outburst, but you'd really like to crawl under the table.
Anger is a difficult emotion because it feels big and out of control to kids and even adults, says Jennifer Kogan, a licensed independent clinical social worker and parenting blogger for the Washington Post. Your own anxiety and intense feelings get magnified when your child is emotional. Teach him that feelings are okay, as long as he knows what to do with them. Be your child's coach in handling anger.
When your child is upset, it's important to acknowledge his feelings and frustrations, says Kara McCarten-May, school psychologist at Bear Road Elementary School in North Syracuse, N.Y. Responding to and labeling the feelings helps a child put words and a name to the behavior. Stating "I see you're angry" helps your child understand and become aware of when he's angry, says McCarten-May. It opens the door to talking and problem-solving. It's important to discuss why he's angry and whether he really needs to be angry. Be a good listener.
One important step is to help your child identify how anger makes her body feel, says Jill Klein, school psychologist at New York City's Léman Manhattan Preparatory School. Children have to recognize the signs of anger. Many of these signs are physical sensations like dizziness, tingling, sweat, heat (especially in the face or stomach), increased heartbeat, and tense muscles. It's important to encourage your child to make a connection from her physiological reactions to her emotions, advises Klein. For example, she is getting hotter as she gets angrier. The faster your child recognizes physical signs, the sooner she can use strategies that will keep her from hitting a boiling point.
Create a Safe Space
Once your child can recognize the sensation of anger in his body, talk about how to express it constructively, recommends Jude Bijou, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., and daughter of pioneering child behavioral psychologist Sidney Bijou. At a neutral time, decide the best way for him to safely express frustration. Maybe it's hitting a pop-up doll, stomping around the room like King Kong or kicking cardboard boxes. Agree on a safe place, such as a playroom, a bathroom or a garage, for him to release his emotions freely. When tempers escalate, lovingly escort your child to the chosen location, says Bijou. Don't make fun of him, tease or make demeaning comments while he's releasing anger. Be there to witness and acknowledge that he's just feeling angry and it is okay. This is not the time to be instructional or teach a lesson.
When your child learns a new anger-management tool, her brain learns a new way to cope with intense feelings, says Kogan. Demonstrate these tools and have your child practice them when she is not feeling upset. She'll be able to resort to these strategies when she needs them. Belly breathing helps your child relax her body so she can breathe through an upset feeling. Imagery is an effective tool. Ask your child to think of a picture of an animal or a place that helps her relax. Remind her to think of it when she's upset. Kogan also suggests creating a feelings chart so you and your family can talk about all the feelings you've had in a given day. Ask your child to draw a picture of how she feels.
Be a Role Model
Model anger management for your child, advises Bette Freedson, a private therapist and school consultant in South Berwick, Maine. Refrain from the "Do what I say, not what I do!" model when you are helping a child manage his anger. Learn the basics of anger management to use in your own circumstances and practice them in front of your child and in your life. The calming-down effect you get from successful anger management can spill over into subtle intuitive modeling for your child. When you are less emotional, your child is infected with calm, says Freedson.