As a child I could throw a tantrum like no other. Like most children (and many adults), I didn’t know how to process anger. And when I acted out, the adults in my life responded with more anger.
It makes total sense. Anger is aggressive, combative and scary. Orbiting rage prompts our nervous system to react with fight, flight, or freeze.
When a child is angry, adults usually engage with a fight response. Maybe it’s because a child’s rage can feel like a challenge to our authority. We instinctively feel we have to make our anger bigger than theirs so that they remember who is boss.
This response is deeply flawed. It is based on the assumption that the child is raging at you, and that this is about their respect for you, when it’s actually more about the fact that developmentally they don’t know how to calm down. When you respond with more anger, this only fuels the fire, making the situation worse than it needs to be.
And as far as authority goes, nothing diminishes your credibility as the alpha dog more than flying off the handle. The true pack leader is calm and assertive, putting everyone at ease because it’s clear they have everything under control.
I have worked hard to create an environment in my home where both safety and anger are honoured. Here’s what works for me when my four year old daughter gets mad.
Anger is not bad. It’s just a feeling like any other. Sometimes people process anger in unhealthy ways, but anger is not a bad thing. It just needs ventilation and a chance to move through the body. In our home we read a lot of books about feelings, some of our favourites are In My Heart and Today I Feel Silly. We talk about all the feelings, including anger, as just a part of being human.
Not every angry impulse is a productive one. Limits create safety for children and those around them. My daughter knows I will not allow her to use her hands to hurt someone. She can’t throw breakable things or engage in hazardous behaviour. She can’t direct her anger at people since it might scare them. Her feelings are always okay, but some actions are not.
I teach my daughter strategies she can use when anger erupts. We encourage her to get some space, punch pillows, throw soft toys and yell. When she gets mad she makes a beeline for her room and we can hear her wailing on her pillows, throwing teddy bears and shrieking in frustration. But not for long. After a brief spell, she emerges calm and contrite, like yesterday when she smiled and said proudly: “I got the anger out of my body mama.”
Don’t Mirror the Behaviour
When your child escalates, focus on calm. Feel your feet on the ground, keep your expression neutral and your voice even. Breathe. This simple (but not easy!) resistance to being a mirror is sometimes enough to throw a wrench in the spokes of a tantrum.
Don’t Take it Personally
When we make sense of a child, when we start to understand the developmental reasons for their actions, their aggression can feel less personal, their opposition less provocative, and our focus can turn to creating the conditions that foster growth.
My daughter’s anger isn’t about me. It’s simply a natural reaction to being thwarted. It’s my role to help her make sense of her emotions and express them safely and appropriately.
Instead of fearing and silencing a child’s anger, we can teach them to process it effectively so they don’t grow up to become adults who can’t.
Do you have some great ways to help young people process anger in a constructive way? Please share them in the comments below.