Honestly, I can’t remember what the situation was — but I do remember the look on my son’s face. His jaw was clenched, his fists were clenched, and he was literally shaking. He was MAD, really mad. And this wasn’t like the tantrums you see at ages 3 and 4, this was a full-blown adult-like TEMPER. I say adult-like because as much as I hate to admit it, I recognized that look. In fact, I knew exactly how he felt. I have a temper too, my husband not so much. So, reluctantly, I’ll take credit for this one (and in fact, there is a strong genetic component to anger) (1).
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Expression of anger typically increases from ages two to five (2), as seen in those all too common toddlerhood tantrums. From the ages of three to six anger typically decreases and levels off (3). As self-regulation skills come online and mature, the need for tantrums decreases. Just think of a 6-year-old getting mad opposed to a 3-year-old, the older child will be better able to handle situations and emotions 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 may mean the beginning of a more adult-like temper.
So what was my response to this temper I saw in my son? I murmured something vague about “not being nice” or “not saying nice things” and then self-reflected. My inner voice kept screaming at me — how can you teach him to deal with his temper when you don’t always control your own? While my temper is rare to come by, it does exist and I am a work in progress when it comes to staying calm.
The answer? We’ll learn together! Children are wonderful tools for self-reflection (whether we like it or not!).
Teach Your Child To Manage Anger
Step One: Make it Concrete and Specific
Vaguely saying something about not saying nice words or not being nice wasn’t effective at all (to say the least). I realized I wasn’t identifying his feelings on a concrete level. It’s one thing to say “I see you are angry,” it is another to say “I see your fists are clenched and that you are really trying to control your feelings.” You want to be as specific and concrete as possible to help them identify the signs of anger. Later you can get to the “why”. The first step is to be mindful of what is happening in the body. Recognizing these signs of anger (e.g., clenched fists, tight chest, etc.) is the first step to stopping it.
On the drive home from school one day, my son told me about something that happened at school that made him really mad. He was still upset and stressed about it. In that moment, I thought of an analogy that would work for describing anger in a concrete way.
“It sounds like you got really angry. I get angry like that too sometimes. I can see your body shaking because you had so much emotion built up inside. It’s like a steam engine. What if the smokestack of a steam engine was blocked, what would happen?”
My son: “It would build and build until it wanted to explode!”
“Yes, it would. Is that how you feel? Like you have so much anger inside you could explode?”
My son: “Yes.”
“What do you feel like doing when you have all that steam inside?”
My son: “I want to hit something!”
“Yes, I know, it feels like you want to let that steam out. But when we have all that steam inside, that is when our control panel is turned off in our brain and we make unwise choices. Instead, we have to think of other ways to let out the steam without losing control of our control panel.”
Note: We use the word “control panel” to refer to my son’s self-regulation center in his brain. This is something we often refer to — e.g. “Seems like we forgot to turn on our control panel.” Teaching children to think concretely about self-regulation is a great parenting tool and a life skill for them. If there is a phrase you often use to talk about self-regulation, use that instead. If you don’t have one, there are some great strategies for talking to your child about their brain and regulation in this book.
Step Two: Define the Limits
It is important to define the “unwise choices,” even with kids who already know better, it is a good idea to lay it out.
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.
Step Three: Manage the Anger Through Venting
Interestingly, research suggests that angry venting, like punching a pillow, screaming into a pillow, or stomping your feet, is not effective and could be harmful. Non-violent venting in ways that releases the pent up emotion, but that don’t enhance the negative emotion are ideal.
When my son was three our go-to with tantrums and frustration was “throw away that angry ball.” It wasn’t a violent action, it was simply throwing away the anger in the air 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 a violent way, can be helpful.
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 count down!” And I did and it worked. Partly, because here was this little person being so rational, it had to work! Talk about self-reflection!
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. I highly recommend Sitting Still Like a Frog for 5-year-olds and up. We do these exercises on a semi-regular basis, so when I tell my son to breath like a frog he knows exactly what I mean. Also, this book, The Angry Octopus, incorporates progressive muscle relaxation as a way to manage anger and is great for 4-year-olds and up. Other ways to get kids to take deeper breaths is to ask them to breathe like they are blowing bubbles, breathe out like a dragon, and blow out the birthday candle. My son literally breathes like he is releasing steam from a steam engine — but hey, it works!
Step Four: Manage Anger Through Understanding
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 cognitions, that motivate pre-emptive, or retaliatory action (4).” 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 surprisingly 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. 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?
Reading a book about anger, playing a game about anger, 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. If you child did lash out in anger, it is important to talk concretely about how they could have managed that anger through counting, breathing, etc. and then what they could have done instead to solve the problem.
Reading or hearing about other’s 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.
Tools and Books for Teaching Anger Regulation
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)