"Sending children away to get control of their anger perpetuates the feeling of '"badness" inside them ... Chances are they were already feeling not very good about themselves before the outburst and the isolation just serves to confirm in their own minds that they were right." — Otto Weininger, Ph.D., Time-In Parenting
When our kids get angry, it pushes buttons for most of us. We want to be loving parents. Why is our child lashing out like this?
Many parents are tempted to send an angry child to her room to "calm down." After all, what else can we do? We certainly can't reason with her when she's furious. It's no time to teach lessons or ask for an apology. She needs to calm down.
If we send her to her room, she will indeed calm down, eventually. Unfortunately, she'll also have gotten a clear message that her anger is unacceptable, and that she's on her own when it comes to managing her big, scary feelings. No wonder so many of us develop anger-management issues as adults, whether that means we yell at our kids, throw tantrums with our spouse, or overeat to avoid acknowledging angry feelings.
So what can we do instead when our children are angry? We can help them learn to manage their anger responsibly. That begins with accepting anger—without acting on it.
One of the most critical tasks of childhood is learning to tolerate the wounds of everyday life without moving into reactive anger. That gives us the opportunity to address those challenges and resolve them more constructively. Kids don't learn this through banishment, but by us teaching them to honor all their feelings, while being responsible for their actions. How?
When your child gets angry:
1. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that there is no emergency. Keep yourself from moving into fight or flight. This will help calm your child, and model emotional regulation.
2. Remind yourself that tantrums are nature's way of helping small people let off steam. Their brains are still developing and they don't yet have the neural pathways to control themselves as we do. (And please note that we don't always regulate our anger very well, even as adults!)
The best way to help children develop those neural pathways is to offer empathy, while they're angry and at other times. It's ok—good, actually—for your child to express those tangled, angry, hurt feelings. After we support kids through a tantrum, they feel closer to us and more trusting. They feel less wound-up inside, so they can be more emotionally generous. They aren't as rigid and demanding.
3. Remember that anger comes from our "fight, flight, or freeze" response. That means it's a defense against threat. Occasionally, that threat is outside us. But usually it isn't. We see threats outside us because we're carrying around old stuffed emotions like hurt, fear or sadness. Whatever's happening in the moment triggers those old feelings, and we go into fight mode to try to stuff them down again.
Losses and disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a child, and kids will do anything to fend off these intolerable feelings, so they cry and rage and lash out. If they feel safe expressing their anger, and we meet that anger with compassion, their anger will begin to melt. That's when they can access the more upsetting feelings underneath. So while we honor our child's anger, it's the expression of the tears and fears beneath the anger that's healing (for all humans).
4. Set whatever limits are necessary to keep everyone safe, while acknowledging the anger and staying compassionate. "You're so mad! You wish you could get what you want right now. I'm so sorry, but you can't have that. You can be as mad as you want, but hitting is not ok, no matter how upset you are. You can stomp to show me how mad you are, but I won't let you hit me."
5. Set limits on actions only, not on feelings. The more compassionate you can be, the more likely your child will find her way to the tears and fears under the anger: "Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry this is so hard...You're saying I never understand you...that must feel so terrible and lonely." You don't have to agree, just acknowledge her truth in the moment. Once she feels heard, her truth will shift.
6. Keep yourself safe. Kids often benefit from pushing against us, so if you can tolerate it and stay compassionate, that's fine to allow, even good. But if your child is hitting you, hold his wrist and say, "I don't think I want that angry fist so close to me. I see how angry you are. You can hit the pillow, or push against my hands, but I won't let you hurt me." Kids don't really want to hurt us—it scares them and makes them feel guilty.
7. Stay as close as you can. Your child needs an accepting witness who loves him even when he's angry. If you need to move away to stay safe, tell him, "I won't let you hurt me, so I'm moving back a bit, but I am right here. Whenever you're ready for a hug, I'm here." If he yells at you to "Go away!" say, "You're telling me to go away, so I am moving back a step, ok? I won't leave you alone with these scary feelings, but I will move back."
8. Don't try to reason or explain. When she's awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can't have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister. Acknowledge her upset and reassure her that you will stay with her until she calms down.
9. Don't try to evaluate whether he's overreacting. Of course he's overreacting! But remember that children experience daily hurts and fears that they can't verbalize and that we don't even notice. They store them up and then look for an opportunity to "discharge" them. So if your kid has a meltdown over the blue cup and you really can't go right now to get the red cup out of the car, it's ok to just lovingly welcome his meltdown. You can usually tell when your child just needs to cry.
10. Acknowledging her anger will help her calm down a bit. Then help her get under the anger by softening yourself. If you can really feel compassion for this struggling young person, she'll feel it and respond. Don't analyze, just empathize. "You really wanted that; I'm so sorry, Sweetie." Once you recognize the feelings under the anger, she will probably pause and stop lashing out. You'll see some vulnerability or even tears. You can help her surface those feelings by focusing again—repeatedly—on the original trigger: "I'm so sorry you can't have the _____ you want, Sweetie. I'm sorry this is so hard." When our loving compassion meets her wound, that's when she collapses into our arms for a good cry. And all those upset feelings evaporate!
Gradually, your child will internalize the ability to weather disappointment, and learn that while he can't always get what he wants, he can always get what he needs—someone who loves and accepts all of him, including the yucky parts like rage and disappointment. You'll have taught him how to manage his emotions. He'll be more resilient. And you'll have strengthened, rather than eroded, your bond with him. All by taking a deep breath and staying compassionate in the face of rage. Sounds saintly, I know, and you won't always be able to pull it off. But every time you do, you'll be making a small miracle.