– by Marianne Clyde, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
“My four-year-old got so angry at his brother that he took the TV remote and threw it, shattering our $1,500 television!”
It is not unusual to be shocked, hurt, or enraged by your child’s angry behavior. Sometimes children spiral out of control, leaving you at a loss as to how to respond.
Have you ever wondered what you could do to prevent such outbursts?
See Through Your Child’s Eyes
First, view the situation through your child’s eyes. Children experience the same gamut of feelings as adults, but they have not yet developed the cognitive skills or emotional resources that help them recognize, control, and express their feelings constructively and effectively.
Anger tends to be a catch-all emotion for kids. Loneliness, fear, embarrassment, anxiety, hurt, physical discomfort, and feelings of powerless all masquerade as anger. Children who don’t know how to express their emotions in a clear, succinct way often act out. A child who acts out in anger needs better ways to express his or her feelings.
Anger is not Aggression
It is important to distinguish between aggression and anger as they are not the same thing. Anger is an emotion. Emotions are never bad; they are simply a form of information. When you have the information that something made you angry, you can stop and calmly decide how to respond to this information. Aggression, on the other hand, is a behavior or disposition that hurts or intimidates someone else or infringes on someone else’s rights, threatening or causing harm.
Anger is an acceptable emotion. Aggression is unacceptable behavior. It is the parent’s responsibility to teach children the distinction and how to recognize, control, and respond to angry feelings appropriately.
Help your children learn to diffuse anger and avoid angry outbursts with these four steps:
1) Teach your child how to de-escalate feelings.
Have him or her take a deep breath. It might help to look him in the eye and breathe
deeply together. “OK, Tommy, breathe in and blow it out. Do it again. Do you feel your body calming down? In, out. In out.” This deep-breathing exercise will help you keep your own emotions under control as well, helping you refrain from flying off the handle in reaction to your child’s behavior. When your child has calmed down, it is time for the next step.
2) Help your child identify and name them feelings.
Your child may be experiencing a tangle of emotions that are confusing and overwhelming. You can help your child learn to distinguish anger from embarrassment from fear and sort out the messy emotions that led up to the outburst.
3) Ask your child what behaviors or incidents triggered his feelings.
Here’s how you might guide the conversation:
He says: “Jimmy was making fun of me!”
You clarify: “You felt embarrassed because your brother made fun of you in front of his friends.”
He says: “Sandy won’t give me my turn!”
You clarify: “You felt powerless because you didn’t know how to get your sister to give you your turn playing with the video game.”
4) Brainstorm ways that your child could have responded that might have been more effective and less hurtful.
“You could have used your words instead of your hands to tell someone how you feel.”
“You could have played something else for a while and then taken a nice long turn when your sister and her friend were done.”
Encourage your child to think of additional alternatives, so he feels more empowered to take responsibility for controlling his actions next time.
Remember: More is Caught Than Taught
It is certainly important to share your genuine feelings with your child in a calm and straightforward way. Remember, more is caught than taught. If you scream and yell and overreact, then you are teaching your child something that is at odds with what you really want for him or her to be learning.
Instead of reacting to your child’s angry outburst with your own angry response, try talking with him calmly instead. Say something like, “I am really sad and angry that you broke the new TV. I worked very hard to earn the money to buy the TV, and I feel hurt that you didn’t consider my feelings before you threw the remote and broke the TV. Let’s try to figure out what you will do next time you are this angry so that you don’t break more things and hurt other people again.“
Next, you will need to discuss, “What do we do now? We have a broken TV which will have to be replaced.” Since you worked hard to earn the money in the first place, you could ask him to tell you what he thinks would be a fair consequence for the results of his behavior. Of course, he won’t be able to reimburse you for the $1,500 it will cost to replace the TV. But he could be required to do some chores around the house and put the money he earns into a “replace the TV” money jar.
The fact that the TV cost you $1,500 should not be the issue. Even though the loss of the TV is financially painful to you, the consequences for your child should be proportionate to your child’s age and capabilities. A four-year-old child won’t be able to understand the vast difference between $1,500 and fifteen cents. The consequence for him should be the same as if he broke a lamp or a glass. The problem that needs to be addressed is how he expressed his anger and how he can deal with it next time in a healthy, constructive way, without aggression.
Your Child Needs Direction, Not Punishment
Remember, your child needs direction and coaching by a loving adult. He needs to be taught that all human beings experience the same range of murky, difficult, and tangled emotions, and that part of growing up entails learning how to understand, manage, and control his emotions for his own benefit as well as the benefit of those around him.
The last thing your child needs is for you to inflate and escalate the situation by reacting to his child-sized anger with your adult-sized anger. As his parent and role model, teach him how to do better next time. help your child understand that your love cannot be broken as swiftly or irreparably as the TV. Give him a hug and have him help you sweep up the mess.
Children need to know they can control their emotions, even when those emotions are strong. All children need reassurance that big emotions don’t scare you and won’t drive you, their parent, away.
Children need to learn better, more effective ways to express strong feelings. He can be part of solution, make amends, and know he is still loved.
Reinforce Desired Behaviors
You can help prevent future tantrums and outbursts by recognizing and reinforcing the behaviors you want from your child. For example:
1. Compliment his selfcontrol when he resists the temptation to throw something next time he is angry.
2. Show appreciation when he refrains from slamming, hitting, and yelling.
3. Step back from watching over him constantly to ease his tension.
4. Encourage him to engage in regular physical activity, both organized and free play.
5. Show an interest in him. Ask him to share information about his activities, interests, and ambitions, so he feels valued.
6. Maintain a sense of humor when appropriate.
7. Make sure you address the issue that caused the uproar in the first place with big sister or big brother. Everyone needs to accept his own responsibility in the ordeal.
Model Good Behavior
The most important thing you can do to ensure your child’s healthy behaviors is to model healthy behaviors yourself. Your goal should not be to control your kid, but to help and guide him to develop self control. The goal isn’t even getting your kid to obey you or act appropriately. The goal is to cultivate and preserve a loving and harmonious atmosphere within your home and among your family members. Ultimately, you want to raise happy, healthy, secure kids who want to be with you and willingly listen to you because they feel secure in your relationship with them and don’t want to disappoint you.
Marianne Clyde is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Warrenton, Virginia and the author of Peaceful Parenting. Visit her website mommy-zen.com.