Inside: Four ways to help your child manage angry feelings. The problem is not the emotion itself, but how your child learns to express that emotion. Teach your child how to manage their anger in healthy ways. The solution is healthy anger management.
Anger is a valid emotion. It is not something we as parents should be stopping our children from feeling.
Even if we wanted to stop them from feeling anger, we couldn’t. And many times we don’t realize we are dismissing our children’s anger. We have been socialized to do that — we say things like, “I don’t know why you are making such a big deal out of this.”
Or, we see the behavior, the expression of the emotion — the aggression, the outbursts, the temper tantrums and we focus on that and not the underlying emotion.
All together, unintentionally we teach our children anger is wrong and is something to be suppressed.
What if instead, you could teach your child to manage their anger in a healthy way?
The Development of Anger in Childhood
Expression of anger typically increases from ages two to five (source), as seen in those all too common toddlerhood tantrums. From the ages of three to six anger typically decreases and levels off (source).
As self-regulation skills mature, the need for tantrums and outbursts decreases. Just imagine the difference between a 6-year-old getting mad and a 3-year-old, the older child will be better able to handle their anger due to developmental maturity.
Yet, the 6-year-old still gets angry and in some ways, this anger may be deeper than before — more meaningful. It will be linked to social relationships, hurt feelings, and perhaps anxiety — complicated feelings they didn’t have at age three. This is the beginning of a more adult-like temper.
Looking for anger in toddlerhood? Check out my post on Toddler Defiance: Toddler Defiance and the Brain: They Know Better, But Can They Do Better? (yes, but they need help)
Anger Management Skills to Teach Your Child Healthy Ways to Express Themselves
1. Make it Concrete and Specific
When your child is really mad — dismissing their big emotions or trying to talk to them about “using nice words” is not going to be effective or what your child needs.
Help your child figure out that what they feel is anger and that anger is natural, normal, and expected. Anger is less scary when you know what it is.
However, it can be equally dismissive to say something like “Wow you are really angry” depending on tone and intent. The intention here isn’t to simply put a “label” on an emotion, it is to help your child identify anger in a concrete way — so that they know what is happening, and why they feel so upset in their body.
Be as concrete and specific as possible: “I see your fists are clenched and that you are really trying to control your feelings.”
Say exactly what you see in a non-judgmental tone. Imagine yourself like a sportscaster — say what you see and you can get to the “why” a bit later.
Children can respond to this coping strategy in different ways. Some may lean into the anger and some may feel the anger diffuse a little bit because they feel that you understand what is happening even if they don’t. With time, knowing that it is anger that they feel will help them more because they will have experience working through anger and will know what steps to take.
The first step to healthy anger management is to be mindful of what is happening in the body. Recognizing the signs of anger (e.g., clenched fists, tight chest, etc.) is the first step to stopping it.
Here is an example of what this could look like.
- Parent: “I can see your body shaking. It’s like a steam engine like the smokestack is blocked.”
- Child: “I feel like I want to explode!”
- Parent: “I have felt like that before like I have so much anger I want to explode! When you have all that steam inside we can find ways to let it out so you don’t have to explode.”
This exercise is in my anger management workbook for kids! I use science-backed information to help your child understand their anger, identify signs of anger or triggers, learn to vent anger in healthy ways, and refocus their “mad energy.” Get your printable copy today!
2. Define the Limits and Set Boundaries
When children feel out of control it is important to set clear boundaries. This actually reduces their stress and distress, even as they test and resists those boundaries. The boundaries are there to keep them safe and to keep others around them safe.
Even though children push back against boundaries, knowing that you will keep them safe does promote a baseline feeling of calm. Once you do this consistently, they will know they can rely on it.
The key here is to differentiate between emotion and behavior. If your child expresses their anger with aggressive behavior or angry outbursts put a clear limit on what kinds of behavior are acceptable ways of expressing their big feelings.
Practice saying this with your child:
When I am Angry and I am full of Steam, I need to vent my steam.
When I Vent I will…
Keep my hands and feet to myself.
Keep angry words to myself.
Notice that the focus isn’t just about suppressing behavior — that in the end will not work. What needs to happen is to teach kids what to do instead.
In the moment, setting boundaries could look like this: “It is okay to feel how you feel, it is not okay to hit. I will keep you safe and not let you hit.”
3. Teach Your Child How to “Vent” Their Anger
So, what do you teach your child to do instead of angry outbursts or angry behaviors?
Research suggests that aggressive venting, like punching a pillow, screaming into a pillow, or stomping your feet, is not effective and could be harmful.
On the other hand, non-violent venting that helps to release the pent-up emotion is an ideal way to help your child learn to express their anger in a healthy way. This is a great emotion-regulation strategy to help kids learn to manage their anger.
When my son was three-years-old our go-to with tantrums and frustration was “throw away that angry ball.” It wasn’t an aggressive act, it was silly and my son thought it was hilarious.
Silly venting can work with younger kids especially. Even something like stomping feet, as long as it is done in a silly way and not an aggressive way, can be helpful.
It works with older kids too. Now that my son is 7 when he gets really worked up he does the “running man,” which is literally running in place for a few minutes until the steam vents out and the laughing starts.
If you can release that temper, frustration, or anger by making them laugh, it has a two-fold effect. First, the anger dissipates and the laughter and silliness provide a natural stress release in the body.
Counting Down or Up
For younger children try counting up from four. There is a great Daniel Tiger episode and book that teaches this: “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four!”
With older children, you can count down from 10. Counting works because it engages the mind with something else and helps release the grip on the anger.
The other day I was stressed getting out the door for school– everything that could go wrong did and my son said — “Mama your steam tunnel is blocked, you better countdown!” I took his advice and indeed, it did work. Partly, because there was this little person being so rational, it had to work!
Breathe Through It
This can be combined with counting down described above. Breathing is such a great skill because it turns off the stress-response system in the body and turns on the rest-digest system, bringing calm from the inside out. The only way for this to really work is to teach your child mindful breathing outside of angry situations.
The key is to have playful ways to breathe — much better than saying “take a deep breath.” When kids are really angry, that won’t work.
Try things like asking them to breathe like they are blowing bubbles, breathe out like a dragon, or blow out the birthday candle.
Find these venting exercises and more in my Anger Management Workbook for Kids. Print, laminate, and cut and add to your child’s time-in or calm down kit. Get your printable copy today!
4. Help Your Child Understand and Harness Their “Mad Energy”
Ultimately all emotions have a function. Frustration can bolster persistence, sadness can encourage withdrawal during a time your immune system may be compromised, and so on.
What is the function of anger? Protection. When we feel angry, we feel threatened and even possibly anxious.
Anger, literally defined, is “an unpleasant negative emotion accompanied by behaviors, sensations, and cognition, that motivate pre-emptive, or retaliatory action (Source).” In other words, you don’t care who or what is in your path — you simply want to lash out with anger.
Why would we ever feel like that? Most anger comes from feeling insecure or threatened. In young children especially, a surprising level of anger can be a response to something they viewed as unjust. Often times anxiety is intertwined with anger.
Once your child is calm and has had some time to recover talk about the situation and what some of their common anger triggers are. Was your child jealous? Anxious? Threatened? Once you have an idea of the root cause of the anger you can talk through that emotion. What was it that made them feel threatened or anxious?
Maybe feeling mad is going to help them be able to voice something they deemed unfair, maybe will help them think of different ways to tackle a difficult problem, or do something that is hard to do. That anger they feel is a lot of energy — that mad energy can be harnessed in many ways.
This is an important step that helps to solidify that anger isn’t the problem. What is your anger trying to tell you? Sometimes anger is so big you can’t hear what it is saying, so vent a little steam and listen again. Ultimately, this is a coping skill your child will use their whole life and will give them a strong voice.
5. Anger Management for Kids: Tools and Books
Reading a book about anger, playing a game about anger, or telling a story about a time you were angry and what you did are great ways to teach children to understand and manage their own anger.
Books on jealousy, friendship troubles, or anxiety, can show kids that what they are feeling happens to other people. And it can also give them concrete examples of how to work through those feelings.
Reading or hearing about others’ anger shows kids that they are not alone, not strange, and also gives examples of how other people worked through their anger. Below, (aff links) I listed some great books and games for understanding and managing anger. They are listed in order of age, so the books for younger children are listed first.
Children’s Picture Books About Feeling Angry
I’m Feeling Mad (2-4 years)llama llama mad at Mama (2-5 years)I was So Mad (3-7 years)How Do Dinosaurs Say I’M MAD (3-5 years)Cool Down and Work Through Anger (4-8 years)Angry Octopus (4-8 years)Mad Dragon Card Game: Learn that they have choices about how to express anger (6-12 years)What To Do When Your Temper Flares (8-12 years)How to Take the GRRR Out of Anger (8-13 years)
When to Seek Professional Help
If your child has consistent issues with angry behavior that cause issues in the classroom or with peers it is a good idea to speak with your pediatrician or therapist. Children who have frequent outbursts or uncontrollable anger can benefit greatly from CBT therapy. Children with ADHD may struggle to think before they speak or to inhibit impulses. Again, certain kinds of therapy and structural support can be greatly beneficial.
It is important that punishment or shame is not used with these children. Instead, positive reinforcement, humor, and coping skills can be very effective. To read more about helping a child who has frequent or troubling anger outbursts, Dr. Ross Greene has many free resources on his website: Living in Balance.