Ever notice that anger is contagious?
Just let your two year old throw a temper tantrum in a public place, or listen to your elementary kid tell you she hates you, or witness a melt-down with a teenager, and you’ll find it’s true. You get angry too. Here’s how to help kids deal with anger.
Everyone gets mad.
It’s not the sole province of either adults or children. And anger is not always wrong or bad. There are very legitimate reasons for anger.
In infancy, babies cannot communicate their needs. So they cry. And when the need is adequately met, they quit crying. But when the need is not met—possibly because the mother can’t figure out what’s wrong—the crying gets louder until suddenly the infant has balled up fists, a red face, and is breathing so hard she sometimes actually loses her breath. That’s developmental anger. Of course, all you can do is try to figure out what’s wrong. Wet diaper? Hungry? Hot? Cold? Lonely? Thirsty?
In toddlerhood, kids understand many more words than they can use. They still cannot adequately express themselves and this leads to frustration and then to anger. The child not only has trouble expressing herself to adults, but to other kids as well. But other kids are more her own size, so expressing anger may result in injury to another child.
Teaching about alternatives.
This is the time we start to teach appropriate ways to handle anger. The one constant most people can agree on is that hurting other people or their possessions is not to be tolerated. When I was teaching a nursery school class of two and three year olds, one little girl came to class almost every day angry. She would scream and cry and flail her arms and legs, and woe to anyone in her path. So we set up an area padded with pillows and stuffed toys, and giving her a hug, we laid her down on the pillows. Then we walked away and ignored her. When her anger was spent, she smilingly came and joined the rest of the class—every time. She had learned an appropriate way to handle her anger. At this age, talking about future events is not very productive, because children of two or three have no clear concept of time. (That’s why it doesn’t help to say, “Mommy will be back after work.” The child lives in the now, not the later.)
Somewhat older kids.
Elementary aged kids still get mad at other kids for many of the same reasons that toddlers do. Another child took his baseball mitt or cut in line or said something mean. And often the response to that anger may look like a toddler’s reaction. But at this age, kids can start to learn about anger when they are not angry. When you and the child are both calm, that’s the time to talk about what’s okay and what isn’t. Is it okay to go outside and scream? Is it okay to punch a pillow? How about a wall or another person? Talk about how the child may act when he gets angry next time. Set ground rules and stick to them. Consistency is the single most important thing (next to love) that a parent can do to make sure a child grows up into a responsible, caring, compassionate adult.
What are you modeling?
Of course, it works in reverse too. If you consistently show your irritation, yelling when something doesn’t go your way, that’s what your child will learn. As your child approaches adolescence, it is very important to be sure you model proper response to situations where anger could arise. This time is so important because it is the time that your child is testing you as she tries to discover who she is. Should I count to ten when I’m angry? Mom doesn’t. She just yells. She tells me to count, but she doesn’t and that makes me mad! Be sure you are setting a good precedent for your teen to follow.
Unresolved anger is dangerous!
It’s important at any age to try and discover the source of your ire so that it can be dealt with in a healthy way. Unexpressed exasperation will show up later, and it may not be expressed as anger. For example, many adults who have never dealt with the source of their anger suffer from ulcers or even heart disease. There is a major difference between expressing anger inappropriately and suppressing it. Deal with anger when it arises. Don’t put it off, or you may hide it from yourself and have much more difficult problems later.