Ask The Experts: How Do I Help My Child With Anger?

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Every month, we will ask our experts to answer the questions most important to YOU. What are your most pressing issues? LET US GET YOU SOME ANSWERS!

This month’s burning question:

“How do I help my child to appropriately express his anger and other big feelings?”


Betsy Brown Braun, Parenting Pathways, Inc:

Sometimes it feels like a scene from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when your young child expresses his big feelings—feelings like anger, fear, distress. Where did that come from? you might think. A child certainly doesn’t arrive equipped with the ability to appropriately process and express these big feelings. In fact, his more primitive brain is so much in charge (his rational brain is very much still in process), that he is the victim of his emotions and impulses. It’s not his fault; he can’t help it.

It is a parent’s job to help a child to learn to regulate his big feelings, anger in particular. This is a crucial lesson not only because his big feelings are overwhelming and can be scary to him, but also because you have to live with the out-of-control-little guy. In order to grow up and function in the real world a child needs to acquire the tools to deal with all the anger provoking things that life will toss his way.

Here are a few tips for helping your child to express his anger appropriately:

  • Never punish or berate your child for being angry or for expressing his anger.
  • Don’t tell your child, “It’s okay.” Or “You’re okay.” Or “You don’t have to be angry.” It undermines his ability to recognize, access, name, and express his real feelings.
  • Validate his feelings. “You are so angry right now. You really don’t like it when Steven takes your truck.” Let your voice reflect his real feeling too. No psycho babble, please.
  • Try to catch the feeling before it builds to an explosive state. Give the child an appropriate outlet for his anger. “You are so angry right now. Let’s go get those angry feelings out. Let’s go outside and scream really loudly (or stamp the floor hard, or go stomp on some poppy paper or throw some rocks at the safe place.)
  • Consider buying a punching bag or a Bozo Doll (the weighted, plastic 3 foot doll that bounces back up when you knock it down.)
  • If he melts down, stay with your child in his explosive state. You need to help him ride the scary wave. Abandonment will make it worse. But don’t talk, don’t touch, and let it run its course. The train has left the station.
  • Be sure that your child gets to see you dealing with your own anger. You are a model for how grown-ups handle their big feelings. “I am so angry right now. I just need to go in my room and cool off.” or “I am so angry that I am going to go for a run and get some of my angry feelings out.”

Click here for more information about Betsy Brown Braun.

Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, Co-Founder of Sleepy Planet:

Learning how to feel – and manage – our feelings is arguably one of the most important skills we can learn in life. A child who is comfortable with the emotional ebb and flow inside of him will be better able to navigate the ups and downs of the outside world. For kids and adults alike, it’s not just what happens in life but how we respond to what happens that shapes our overall sense of well-being – and our first response to what life brings is always how we feel about it. Here are some tips to help your child learn to express and regulate his emotions:

  • Create a safe emotional environment. Kids need to have permission to feel what they feel – and know that they will not be judged or shamed. Rather than, “You don’t need to cry because you can’t have a cookie,” try, “I know you’re disappointed that mom said no cookies before dinner. It’s OK for you to feel upset about that.”
  • Separate her feelings from yours. No matter how upset your child seems, even at you, don’t take her feelings personally; when you do, you’re putting a burden on her that translates as, “I can’t handle what you feel.” If she yells, “Go away!” after you’ve set a limit, instead of responding with “That’s not nice! It hurts mommy’s feelings,” try, “I can see you’re angry with me right now – I’ll be in the kitchen while you take some time to calm down.”
  • Let it flow. Don’t short-circuit your child’s emotional process by trying to distract him out of his feelings. If emotions don’t have a chance to express fully, they’ll pop up again later in another set of circumstances – and will likely pack twice the punch, as he’ll have leftover, unresolved feelings on top of the current ones. If your child accidentally breaks a favorite toy, rather than immediately promising a new one or trying to cheer him up, try, “I know how much you loved that truck. I’m just going to stay right here and keep you company while you’re sad.” You can offer a hug, then redirect to another activity if he doesn’t calm after a few minutes.
  • Help her understand the mind-body connection. You can often spot the early warning signs of a child’s escalating feelings of anger or anxiety: tense muscles, a change in facial expression, an edgy or high-pitched tone of voice, a red-faced flush. As you reflect your observations back to her, your child learns how to recognize – and regulate – her emotions as they begin to build: “Hey, I can see your body tensing up, and your voice sounds angry, like you’re getting really frustrated. This puzzle is pretty hard; let’s stop for now and come back to it a little later, and we’ll try again.”
  • Educate kids about feelings when they’re calm. If you’ve never discussed solutions for dealing with anger, telling your child to count to 10 while he’s mid-tantrum will only frustrate him more. Instead, when you have some quiet downtime, read picture books together about feelings; look at photos of people and talk about the feelings you see on their faces; brainstorm together about what to do when you’re hurt that someone doesn’t want to play with you, when you’re angry that a friend grabbed your toy, when you’re scared in bed after lights out.
  • Teach by example. When you’re feeling strong feelings, show your child how you express and manage them: “I’m so angry that someone dented our car door! I’m going to take some deep breaths and calm down before I start driving.” Don’t be afraid to allow your child to witness you dealing with anger, even in the form of conflict between you and your spouse – the key is to also show them how you work through it.
  • Stay calm when your child is upset. When a child’s feelings grow too big for him to handle, he will feel most supported – and will most successfully be able to ground himself again – if you hold a calm, loving space for him while he is upset. If he runs to you in tears while on a play date, rather than frantically asking what’s wrong, calmly say, “Wow, something really upset you. Can you tell me about it?” Avoid the trap of jumping into problem-solving mode right away; start with “It really hurt your feelings when Tyler knocked down your tower” before moving on to “Let’s find Tyler and see if we can start over.”
  • Watch your own triggers. If you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction to your child’s emotions, take note: he’s bringing something to light that is unresolved within you. When you have time, see if you can connect back to your earliest memory of feeling that way, which will likely be your own childhood experience with a parent. Lovingly hold space with the child in your memory and let her feel and express, just as you would with your own child in the here and now. If you and your child seem to engage repeatedly on a particular issue, you may be amazed to find that once you shift within, the pattern with your child begins to shift, too.

• Learning about feelings is a work in progress. Unlike teaching your child a behavior, which he can learn and master with consistent repetition, teaching your child how to tolerate and express his feelings will be an ongoing journey you take together for his entire childhood – if not for life! While your child will become quite competent at dealing with his emotions with your loving guidance, there will always be new life challenges that bring new feelings – and new opportunities for growth.

—Click here for more information about Jennifer Waldburger.

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn