During a morning rush-hour, in a heavily-populated subway train, a pre-schooler, whose seat has been just occupied, turns to her mother and exclaims “I’m showing you my angry face!”
Every parent, at one time or another, has dealt with their child’s anger. Where anger is a transient emotion that everyone experiences, aggression is often a behavior, an attempt to hurt someone or destroy property (i.e. by hitting, biting, kicking, throwing objects, etc.). A child may react with anger and/or aggression when they are sad, worried, scared, frustrated, unable to control a situation (i.e. parental discord), experience physical distress (i.e. hunger, fatigue, etc.) or are stressed. For many parents it is difficult to know what to do in situations when their child is angry and/or aggressive.
Here are some suggestions of how to effectively address your child’s anger and aggression:
Prevent aggressive outbursts. Reinforce desirable behaviors by giving your child attention and sincere praise; positive feedback should be immediate and specific. Allow your child to expend their energy through physical activities (i.e. running, dancing, swimming, etc.). Avoid situations that may encourage aggressive behaviors (i.e. violent games, toys such as guns, etc.).
Accept your child’s feelings. Let him or her know that it is okay to feel angry, just as it is okay to feel sad, happy, frustrated, excited, etc. Allow your child to express him- or her-self; older children may do this verbally, but younger children might need to do this through play (i.e. puppets) or drawings. Teach your child words (i.e. angry, mad, frustrated, furious, irritated, etc.) which would allow them to express their internal world. Talking about an issue often helps the child to have an outlet for their emotions and to calm down.
Deal with your child’s aggression immediately by telling him or her that their behavior is not acceptable. Remain calm and emphasize that it is the behavior that you disapprove of, and not the child. Do not ignore aggressive behavior. It is important to be clear and consistent with the limits regarding behavior. If your child’s behavior poses a safety threat to himself or to others, hold him or her, or remove your child from the situation until he or she calms down. Consistent and logical consequences should follow immediately (i.e. being removed from the situation, time-out, etc.). Avoid lengthy lectures as well as physical punishment which shows your child that hitting is an acceptable way to behave.
Teach your child more acceptable ways of expressing their feelings. During a calm moment, try to figure out together what caused the anger/aggression. Also, think about more acceptable behaviors that the child can use next time (such as walking away, deep breathing, listening to music, talking to someone, counting to 10, etc.). These ideas can be written down or drawn by the child. The parent can remind the child to use one of these ideas next time they are feeling angry.
Be mindful of your own reactions. Remain calm when your child is angry or aggressive. Model appropriate behavior when you yourself are angry, verbalize your own feelings and how you are going to handle them.