It’s evident to any parent that children wear their hearts on their sleeves. When they feel something, they feel it big. Often this can mean they act out in ways both good and bad. A deliriously happy child will run around, screaming and laughing, without thinking of whom he might be disturbing. Similarly, an angry child may react with hitting, screaming or crying to show their fury. But keeping the child safe, as well as protecting others from getting hurt can be tricky. Trying to figure out how to help an angry child can be tough for parents and lead to more frustration on both sides. Thankfully, there are some tried and true ways to restore a sense of calm.
Distinguish Between Anger and Aggression
Everyone gets angry at times. With children, anger is usually a very temporary state caused by a minor catalyst. Allowing a child to be angry is actually a good thing, as it is important to help them recognize their emotions and learn how to deal with them in the right ways. Aggression, on the other hand, is a very negative behavioral effect of anger, and it can cause children to try to hurt themselves or others. By knowing the difference, we can more easily reason with kids to help them learn how to manage their emotions. It is also imperative to know the difference between an emotional problem and a behavioral one. Either way, as parents, we must meet their emotional needs and help them through our abilities to reach and protect and not our desire to punish. If you want to learn how to help an angry child, start by understanding that emotions are never bad – it is how we deal with them and act on them that can be a problem.
Ignore Behavior That Isn’t Aggressive
Once you know the difference between anger and aggression, you can more easily learn to help your child manage. The first step to restoring a sense of calm is to ignore them. This may seem counter-intuitive if you’re the type of parent who jumps at any chance to talk to your kids about things, but it is important not to give them attention for negative behavior. If they are screaming and crying, ensure they are in a safe space and then do not engage with them. Sometimes it is best to place them in their room and let them scream until they are too tired to go on. They may try to open the door or hit or kick it, but if you continue to ignore them (while ensuring they are safe), they will eventually wear themselves out. Once they are calmer, you can go in and talk to them about what they are feeling and why they are acting out.
If, on the other hand, their behavior is getting dangerous, ignoring them can be the wrong thing to do. Aggressive behavior that could hurt them or anyone else needs to be dealt with swiftly. Once again, remove them to a place that is safe and ignore them until they calm down. In learning how to help an angry child, you must know that you’re doing the best thing for them, even if it sometimes feels unnatural.
Distract With Conversation and Closeness
Many times, we can see the direction our children’s emotions are going just by paying attention to simple signs. If your toddler is holding a hefty toy aloft and looks like they might be about to use it to hit someone, it is very simple to step in and ask them to show you the toy or tell you about it. This simple distraction will make them forget all about their desire to hit and will instead give them a new and positive outlet for their emotion. With older kids, there are signs again that their anger is brewing. Look for tight lips, squinted eyes or a red face for a clue that they may be about to react. Come in close for a hug or ask them a question to distract them from what they are feeling. Once they have calmed a little bit, you can then ask if everything is okay and discuss any outstanding issues.
Use Humor to Ease Tensions
Many times a child, especially the over five set, can be embarrassed by their outbursts. The embarrassment they feel will often make them angrier, and so they continue to react in negative ways. Sometimes, using humor in the right way, we can help them to save face and ease tensions. It is important to keep the humor as loving as possible and to be aware that sarcasm, ridicule or teasing can reignite a child’s anger issues. A short quip is usually best, and it’s even better if you can make yourself the butt of the joke. Something like, “I felt the same way when Ben & Jerry’s stopped making Oatmeal Cookie Chunk!” will often bring a smile to their face and can even get them to focus on something better – the possibility of ice cream later!
Appeal to Other Emotions
Most kids are eager to please adults. They want to be thought of as kind and considerate, and they love getting praise for it. When a child is acting out of anger – yelling or crying loudly – and nothing you say can calm them down, try to appeal to their other emotions. Say something along the lines of, “Buddy, I know you’re really upset, and I’m so sorry you’re feeling badly. But I have a terrible headache today, and it would be really wonderful if you could calm down and talk to me instead of screaming.” Most kids will continue yelling for a moment or two while they process what you’ve just asked of them, but they will slowly begin to calm down and do better.
Do Not Challenge Your Child
When a child is angry, they are not thinking logically. In that, they are the same as the adults in charge. By yelling at them or getting angry yourself, you will only fuel the flames of their passions. It is incumbent on the parent or guardian to stay calm and lead by example. Use soothing words, a calm demeanor and if you find yourself getting angry, simply do not speak. Words said in anger can’t be taken back, and it is best to say nothing if you are angry. Learning how to help an angry child often requires learning how to overcome your own anger. Once you are sufficiently calm, you can re-engage with the child and try to work things through.
Create an Anger Ritual
When kids are angry, they often don’t know what to do about it. Their anger often comes from a feeling of helplessness in a situation. By teaching them some tried and true calming techniques, we can help them not to feel so helpless. When my kids are angry, I give them a couch cushion and tell them to do their “warrior cry.” This involves them screaming as loudly as possible into the pillow. Screaming is an incredible release that can help calm very quickly. It’s one reason that people scream on roller-coasters. By screaming as long and loudly as they want (while muffling it in a cushion), they can begin to calm down enough to feel other emotions than anger. Then, they can begin their anger ritual. Have them take a deep breath. As many as it takes to get them to feel somewhat stable. Then have them smile. Even if they don’t feel like smiling, the act of doing so has been proven to lift spirits. Finally, have them give the biggest fake laugh they can give. Usually, fake laughing will lead to real laughing. But even if it doesn’t, by the time they are done they will be feeling far more calm and able to talk things through.
Use Stress Relief Toys
There are many products on the market that are made precisely to help de-stress and calm children. A fidget cube is a good one that can help kids and adults to focus for a few moments on something other than their feelings. A sensory fidget slap toy bracelet is also a good one, as it’s a tactile toy that will distract younger kids with colors and fun pictures of dinosaurs or dragons. Even giving your child some coloring books and crayons can help them to calm down and get through their upset.
Rethink Your Language
Most preschools these days have signs up on their walls with words and phrases to use with their students. Teachers are very aware that kids need to learn good behavior through positive reinforcement rather than through punishment. Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!” to a child, they may say, “You do that really well, but right now we are doing something else, so let’s see how well you can do this!” PsychCentral has a great list of phrases you can use to help calm an angry child without using negative language. It’s worth checking out and picking a few favorites to use next time your child is acting out.
At the end of the day, it can be tough figuring out how to help an angry child. But by teaching them good coping skills when they are young and reinforcing those skills throughout their lives, you will have given your child everything they need to live a full and happy life.
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