Sooner or later, even the sweetest child has an anger meltdown. How do you soothe the savage beast and regain control? It's easier than you think!
No parent wants to experience their child's angry meltdown. Not only is it challenging to witness the fury unfolding, but you know that the moment is even more difficult for your child. You may feel helpless or frustrated by fits of rage. But with the right tools, you can teach your child to regain control and manage anger in healthy ways.
Sooner or later, every child has an anger meltdown
I’ll never forget the first time one of my kids completely lost his cool. We were at Grandma’s house for a fun afternoon of fishing on the pond. Everything was picture-perfect—the weather, the new fishing gear, the delicious picnic lunch packed with my little guy’s favorite treats. The moment we arrived, my four-year old took one look at the row boat and the bucket of bait and totally lost it. In front of my in-laws. Eek!
My four-year old took one look at the row boat and the bucket of bait and totally lost it. In front of my in-laws.
Not certain what had set him off, I felt helpless as I watched his body stiffen and his face redden. Then he launched into a tirade about having to be at his grandparents with the stupid fish!
Have you ever been in a similar boat? (No pun intended!) Observing your sweet child’s volcanic eruption is unsettling. But how you react can make all the difference in how he recovers and moves forward after he explodes.
Instead of blasting back in a rage of your own, implement one of these strategies to defuse the tension and bring some cool back to your fired-up child.
Keep your own emotions in check
During the fishing incident, my first instinct was to get angry myself and demand an explanation for my son's ungrateful behavior. He was only four at the time, but his outburst was so unexpected it both surprised and frustrated me to see him behaving that way.
Fortunately, I didn’t respond in a volatile way. (Wouldn’t want to behave like that in front of the in-laws!) I was able to keep my composure and stay calm. And that's one of the essential keys to handling an angry child.
In 10 Tips To Help Your Child With Anger, clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham reminds parents: “Your anger will only make the storm worse. Your job is to restore calm, because kids can only learn and understand how to 'do better' when they're calm.”
Acknowledge and validate
When I’m struggling with a challenge at work or home, I want to have my feelings validated. Regardless of whether a co-worker or my partner can solve the problem, I want the situation and my emotional state acknowledged, not ignored. We all crave validation!
Kids are no different. They need and deserve to have their emotions recognized. Anger is a way to express an emotion of hurt and pain. In the case of my son’s angry outburst, I reached out and recognized how he was feeling. My script sounded a bit like this:
I see you're really upset right now. You don’t want to spend the afternoon fishing at Grandma’s.
We’re going to give you a few minutes to cool down, and then we can talk about it.
The key is to make your child feel heard and understood. This approach tells him that you're not discounting the issue and you want to help him after he's regained composure.
Ask yourself whether there's a physical trigger
Another factor to keep in mind is whether something physical could be going on.
Tune in to possible physical triggers that could be setting your child off.
Has it been a while since your child has eaten? Is she cranky from not sleeping well? Is she cold, tired, and uncomfortable from playing outside too long?
Tune in to possible physical triggers. Being overly tired, over-stimulated, physically uncomfortable, or hungry can easily set a child off. She may not know why she's reacting this way, but as an observer, you can look for clues.
Help your child label their feelings
When your kid storms into the house, slams his backpack on the floor, and glares daggers at you before stalking off and slamming his bedroom door , you have to wonder what the heck happened at school that day. Is geometry really that bad? Were soccer try-outs a total disaster? Maybe sending egg salad in his lunch wasn’t a good idea after all.
Some kids are more sensitive than others and can harbor feelings—good and bad—longer than others. That’s how they process their emotions and react to daily life. Sensitive types can fall apart at the drop of a hat over something as trivial as your tone of voice or a peer looking at them funny. When they react, it may come across as an angry meltdown even though it’s not anger they’re feeling.
What’s up with that? Marc Brackett, Ph.D. and author of Permission To Feel, joined me for a candid discussion in my episode How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Your Child Thrive. He was honest in sharing that he wrote his book because he had a difficult childhood.
He quickly added that he had good parents who loved him, but the message he received as a kid was not to discuss his feelings because it would upset them.
Brackett developed a tool known as RULER. RULER teaches the skills of emotional intelligence—those associated with Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotion. He advocates for parents to teach kids to appropriately label their feelings.
Young childred are especially unsure of how to label their feelings. Instead, they react in anger because that’s a feeling they understand.
Here's an example. Brackett noted that kids today feel stressed because they're overscheduled both in and out of school. Factor in the impact of social media, and there’s no escaping the daily pressure. Everyone touts their victories on Facebook and Instagram, so kids notice how well their peers seem to be doing. This makes them feel envious and inadequate. Bracket points out that young childred are especially unsure of how to label these feelings. Instead, they react in anger because that’s a feeling they understand.
By teaching our kids to identify their emotions, we can help them become emotion scientists. Now they’ll be able to express the real culprit—loneliness, frustration, incompetence, jealousy, and intimidation, to name a few—rather than relying on anger as a mask.
Encourage counting, not calming
Think about the last time you were upset. Did you raise your voice? Stiffen and get tense? If you're like me, your face quickly gets red. There's one thing many of us have in common when we're in the throes of rage—we don't want to hear the words, "Calm down!"
Once you’ve validated your child’s feelings, suggest a coping mechanism rather than telling her she shouldn’t feel angry.
As mentioned in my first tip, angry people want to be acknowledged, not ignored. Once you’ve validated your child’s feelings, suggest a coping mechanism rather than telling her she shouldn’t feel angry.
Counting is a great tool for young and old alike. One age-old strategy is counting to ten. Stepping back from the situation and counting to ten can help us keep or regain our cool. In fact, a 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that participants who delayed their angry reactions made less aggressive choices, particularly if getting angry would have negative consequences.
You can make counting into a game. For younger kids you can play the candy counting game. Teach your child to name twenty candies as a way of distracting them and giving them time to cool off. One is for Skittles, two is for licorice, three is for bubble gum, etc. By the time they reach twenty, hopefully the angry storm will have passed and you can help them regroup in a calm, positive way.
Create a safe zone
Most are familiar with the time-out disciplinary method. The child is removed from the situation and placed in a designated time-out area so he can think about what he’s done wrong and come back with a better attitude.
A safe zone is similar, but the intention is to soothe, not punish. A safe zone is a comfortable place where a child can go to feel safe and secure. It can be something like a quiet nook in your home with a blanket and some books or a favorite stuffed animal. The point is to choose an environment that will have a calming effect while your child is upset. (I even have a safe zone. My writing alcove in my bedroom offers instant respite when I need to quiet my nerves.)
Find a coping tool your child relates to
The irate reaction my son had to the fishing experience was one of many throughout his childhood and tween years. He was extremely shy and introverted. He would often lash out when he wasn’t comfortable in social situations. We spent years developing coping strategies to help him manage his feelings.
One of the most helpful coping tools was recommended by our pediatrician. The pediatrician suggested we help our son keep his anger in check by using something he could relate with. He loved playing with trucks and cars and would create elaborate scenarios driving them through pretend villages and down highways. He even gave the scenes their own soundscape, making noises like beeping and the growl of vehicles racing down the road.
When cars have to stop, they slow down and put on their brakes. We taught our son to use this as a tool when he was feeling overwhelmed or angry. When he didn’t feel he had control over his feelings we’d remind him to act like a car—slow down and put on the brakes. It took some practice, but eventually he could do it by himself and still uses that technique now in his twenties.