Helping Your Child Deal with Anger

Written by: Maddie McGarrah, M.Ed.
Helping Your Child Deal with Anger

Anger and temper tantrums/meltdowns in young children, especially under the ages of 7-9, are to be expected and even healthy for a child. It is important for children to be able to experience all emotions. Having these hard emotions helps build their emotion identification and starts the process of emotion regulation skills as well. When children are young, the part of their brain that controls their emotions is more developed than the thinking part of their brain. This is why children are more likely to have a tantrum about something that an adult would be completely okay with. It is first helpful to try and understand what might be laying underneath the anger. Many therapists call anger a secondary emotion, meaning that it is just the tip of the iceberg and there are likely other emotions going on instead. For example, when your child gets very upset about not being able to go to a friend’s house there is likely disappointment, sadness, and maybe even some worry over if they will get invited again or not going on underneath the surface. Additionally, for children with ADHD, the inattentiveness and impulsivity that their brain struggles with makes it that much easier for them to have bigger emotional outbursts and tantrums compared to a child that does not have ADHD. Here are some tips that can be helpful in addressing anger with your child:

Help them identify and manage potential triggers – An example can be if your child has a hard time with schedule changes. Review with them that they have this difficulty in times of calm and try to give them as much heads up as possible when know things will change. Also acknowledging the potential disappointment or anger can go a long way. For example, saying “I can understand why you are upset by the change of plans, it is really disappointing or angering.” By acknowledging the potential feeling it already helps your child feel heard.

Don’t give in & remain calm – While this can be extremely difficult in the moment if your child is extremely upset, in the long run it is better to not give them what they are wanting. If you give in enough times, you are reinforcing that they can get what they want by throwing a tantrum. By remaining calm, it helps reinforce you won’t give in to them and models for your child that it is possible to remain calm when upset or angry. Additionally reinforce positive behavior by pointing out to your child when they handle anger/disappointment in an appropriate way to help them learn what to do.

Use the three R’s – Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading child psychologist on childhood trauma recommends for when children are extremely emotional to utilize the three Rs – Relate, Regulate, Reason. We’ve already talked about the first of relating to how your child is feeling. Second, help your child regulate (calm down). I would not recommend saying to your child, “calm down”, this usually only amplifies their behavior. Instead engage with them calming activities or let them know calming activities they can do. For example, you can say “let’s start taking deep breaths together.” Or “I see you’re angry and I understand, I can help you when we are both calm. Let’s maybe draw together or you can draw on your own”. Then once they are calm, that is when you reason and talk about the situation to try and find a solution. Trying to reason through the situation will not work when they are upset because their thinking brain is not online, and you will get nowhere.

Use consistent and appropriate consequences – Try to have the consequence to their actions follow the behavior immediately so that your child can clearly put together that this consequence was due to their behavior. For example, if they’re upset and throw things because they’re angry, don’t have the consequence of being that they can’t go a friend’s house in a few days, instead maybe they lose their screen time for that night or need a time out in their room. Additionally, don’t give them multiple chances to make the right decision. Remind them once, maybe twice, what the consequence will be if they are about to break a rule, and if they break the rule immediately provide the consequence. The most important part of giving a consequence is following through each time, consistency will be key to helping them learn over time what are acceptable ways of expressing their anger.

Build a Calming toolkit with them – Things that could be included in this is drawing/coloring materials, fidget toys, stuffed animals, a book, something acceptable to rip or break (like old egg cartons), a list in the toolkit of deep breathing and calming exercises to use.