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Dealing With the Angry Child

Handling children’s anger can be puzzling, draining, and distressing for adults. In fact, one of the major problems in dealing with the anger in children is that angry feelings are often stirred up in ourselves. It has been said that we, as parents, teachers, counselors, and foster parents need to remind ourselves that we were not always taught to deal with anger as children. We were led to believe that to be angry was to be bad, and we were often made to feel guilty for expressing anger.

It will be easier to deal with children’s anger, if we realize expressing anger is not a bad thing. Our goal is not to repress or destroy angry feelings in children, or in ourselves, but rather to accept the feelings and to help channel and direct them to constructive behaviors.

Parents must allow children to feel all of their feelings. Adult skills can then be directed toward showing children acceptable ways of expressing their feelings. Strong feelings cannot be denied, and angry outbursts should not always be viewed as a sign of a serious problem.

To respond effectively to overly aggressive behavior in children, we need to have some ideas about what may have triggered the outburst. Anger may be a defense to avoid painful feelings; it may be associated with failure, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation; or it may be related to anxiety about situations over which the child has no control.

Angry defiance may also be associated with feelings of dependency, and anger may be associated with sadness and depression. In childhood, anger and sadness are very close to one another and it is important to remember that much of what an adult experiences as sadness is expressed by a child as anger.

Before we look at specific ways to manage aggressive and angry outbursts, the following points should be addressed:

In dealing with angry children, our actions should be motivated by the need to protect and teach, not by a desire to punish. Parents should show a child they accept his or her feelings, while suggesting other ways to express the feelings. An adult might say for example, “Let me tell you what some children would do in a situation like this…” It is not enough to tell children what behaviors we find unacceptable. We must teach them acceptable ways of coping. We must be able to communicate our ideas to them.

Responding to the Angry Child

Catch the child being good. Tell the child the behaviors that please you. Respond to positive efforts and reinforce good behavior. An observing and sensitive parent will find countless ways during the day to make positive comments to the child. For example, “Thank you for coming in when I called you” or “I’m glad you shared your snack with your sister.”

Ignore inappropriate behavior that can be tolerated. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the child, just the behavior. The “ignoring” has to be planned and consistent. Even though a behavior may be tolerated, the child must recognize that it is inappropriate.

Provide physical outlets and other alternatives. It is important for children to have opportunities for physical exercise and movement, both at home and in school.

Manipulate the surroundings. Aggressive behavior can be encouraged by placing children in tough, tempting situations. We should try to plan the surroundings so that certain things are less likely to happen. Stop a “problem” activity and substitute, temporarily, a more desirable one. Sometimes rules and regulations, as well as physical space may be too confining.

Use closeness and touching. Move physically closer to the child to curb his or her angry impulse. Young children are often calmed by having an adult nearby.

Express interest in the child’s activities. Children naturally try to involve adults in what they are doing, and the adult is often annoyed at being bothered. Very young children (and children who are emotionally deprived) seem to need much more adult involvement in their interests. A child about to use a toy in a destructive way is sometimes easily stopped by an adult who expresses interest in having it shown to him. Be ready to show affection. Sometimes all that is needed for an angry child to regain control is a sudden hug or other impulsive show of affection. Children with serious emotional problems, however, may have trouble accepting affection.

Ease tension through humor. Kidding the child out of a temper tantrum or outburst offers the child an opportunity to “save face.” However, it is important to distinguish between face-saving humor and sarcasm or teasing ridicule.

Appeal directly to the child. Tell him or her how you feel and ask for consideration. For example, a parent may gain a child’s cooperation by saying, “I know that noise you’re making usually doesn’t bother me, but today I’ve got a headache, so could you find something else you might enjoy doing?”

Explain situations. Help the child understand the cause of a stressful situation. We often fail to realize how easily young children can begin to react properly once they understand the cause of their frustration.

Encourage the child to see his or her strengths and weaknesses. Help them to see they can reach their goals.

Use promises and rewards. Promises of future pleasure can be used both to start and stop behavior. This approach should not be compared with bribery. We must know what the child likes-what brings him pleasure-and we must deliver on our promises.

Say “No!” Limits should be clearly explained and enforced. Children should be free to function within those limits.

Tell the child that you accept his or her angry feelings, but offer other suggestions for expressing them. Teach children to put their angry feelings into words, rather than physically expressing them.

Build a positive self-image. Encourage children to see themselves as valued and valuable people.

Use discipline. Learn appropriate discipline techniques for children and use them when needed. Remember, discipline is teaching.

Model appropriate behavior. Parents should be aware of the powerful influence of their actions on a child’s or groups’ behavior.

Teach children to express themselves verbally. Talking helps a child have control and thus reduces acting out behavior. Encourage the child to say, for example, “I don’t like your taking my pencil. I don’t feel like sharing right now.”

The Role of Discipline

Good discipline includes creating an atmosphere of quiet firmness, clarity, and conscientious-ness, while using reasoning. Bad discipline involves punishment which is unduly harsh and inappropriate, and it is often associated with verbal ridicule and attacks of the child’s integrity.

One of the most important goals we strive for as parents is to help children develop respect for themselves and others. While arriving at this goal takes years of patient practice, it is a vital process in which parents, teachers, and all caring adults can play a crucial and exciting role. In order to accomplish this, we must see children and worthy human beings and be sincere in dealing with them.