Do you find your child lashing out? While your child is growing and still learning how to cope with anger, she may tend to instinctively use anger as a defense against physical and emotional pain. As her parent, there are many ways you can help your child through these emotional moments.
Here are some helpful tips to teach your child how to cope with anger:
1. DO recognize and acknowledge your child’s feelings. If you validate your child’s feelings, then your child doesn’t need to defend those feelings and is less likely to respond in anger. Acknowledging feelings causes your child’s anger to soften and leaves a safe space in which she can learn empathy and coping skills. On the other hand, if you discount your child’s feelings and experience, her anger will intensify as she fights to establish and validate her own sense of self.
2. DO practice empathy. By listening to your child’s feelings without interruption or defense, you create space for her anger to dissipate, as she no longer needs to use up energy defending the fairness of her position. By empathizing with your child’s feelings, you are helping her regulate the cortisol — the fight-or-flight chemical — that emerges through emotional stress. The consistency of your open reception to your child’s anger teaches her to react less emotionally and more critically. Ultimately, this is how nature and nurture come into balance, as your child’s behavior affects body chemistry and therefore, her emotional control.
3. DO teach your child problem-solving skills. Neurological tracking occurs when your child creatively problem-solves. The more she practices problem-solving rather than emotional reacting, the more her neurological pathways assist her in controlling impulses. You can teach her how to recognize, acknowledge and appropriately cope with her feelings by asking questions that prompt her to think up her own solutions, such as “What do you think would happen if you did Choice A instead of Choice B?” or, “What sort of options do you think are available to you and what do you need to do to find a resolution?”
4. DO establish clear standards for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This means that though you want to validate your child’s feelings, allowing those emotions does not translate into the acceptance of bad behavior. There are common rules of engagement, including: no hitting, throwing, breaking objects, or disrespect. By involving your child in establishing the consequences for her behavior, you will find that she is more likely to respect the rules. By limiting her aggressive behavior, you are establishing a safety container for her feelings.
5. DO teach your child relaxation methods. By teaching progressive relaxation, breathing techniques, and other self-managing tools for stress, your child can calm herself down when confronted with anger. These techniques not only change the neural pathways, but also affect impulse control. Like every habit, the more your do it, the better you become. For example, if your child learns to breath in before giving in to the impulsive act of hitting, it gives her a sense of control and lessens the need to establish control by acting out.
6. DO try a “time in” instead of a “time out.” As the parent, you are your child’s main guide in life, and as her guide, she relies on you to be there through her emotional experience. Therefore, no time out, no isolation. Instead, try a “time in” — sit with your child and incorporate other methods mentioned in this post: work on breathing with her, ask questions about her feelings. The important thing is to be fully present to help her through her emotions. Remember, you are teaching your child social cues and skills to be in relationships with others, rather than acting out alone. When your child is isolated, she may ruminate and feel guilty for her behavior. This only serves to create concrete reasons for low self-esteem, which often cycles back to creating bad behavior.
7. DON’T attempt to orchestrate your child’s feelings. It is important to value what your child is experiencing. For example, if your child is hurt or crying, never say: “Stop crying.” Rather, validate your child’s experience, saying, “I know that hurts; that would make me cry also.” This makes an ally out of you, rather than a target for free floating anxiety and anger.
As an ally, your child learns to trust you, realizing you are there for her — no matter what, right or wrong, and that she can count on you. If your child can trust you, she can learn to trust herself and the outer world. If, for example, your child tells you she hates you, or wants you to leave her alone, it is important to assure her that you will be nearby and that you will always be there for her — no matter what.
8. DON’T go down to your child’s level of behavior. Consciously and deliberately step into your role as the adult and remain there for the entire stressful episode. Your child can really work herself up emotionally, especially while defending her position. Your job as a parent is to stay composed. Your state of calm allows your child to feel safe in the midst of chaos. You are always your child’s touchstone, the one she looks toward, for security and safety. Your child may become afraid when you display anger. By staying in your adult role, you are teaching your child that it is okay to feel angry, and that when the feeling passes, you are still there, holding a secure space for her.
9. DO teach your child to recognize anger cues. If your child can self-monitor, she can self-manage. By recognizing the feelings that accompany anger, she can recognize the onset of those emotions. This gives her time in which to self-manage before she is caught in the chaos of emotion. If you see that your child is over-tired or cranky, you have the opportunity as a parent to teach her to recognize her oncoming emotions by resting with your child, reading to your child, or spending some cozy time together.
10. DO teach your child how to bring her feelings to consciousness. By recognizing the emotions that drive her behavior, your child can learn to skillfully manage that behavior. Writing, drawing, and painting are wonderful ways to express the issues that are bothering her, especially if she has trouble verbalizing emotions. Once those feelings are out in the open, you can collaborate with your child to find empathic ways of coping with these feelings.
11. Invest your child in the process of managing her anger. Ask your child to give you some tips on how she could positively manage her emotions. Make a list of five actions she can take — such as breathing deeply for one minute or drawing a picture — and leave the list somewhere your child can see it, such as her bedroom door or on your refrigerator.
12. DO bond with your child. A well-bonded child can learn to cope and manage her emotions, to problem-solve, to process and to stick with a problem until it is resolved. A well-bonded child is also more adventuresome and will creatively explore different options as solutions to problems.
In the end, remember that you, the parent, make all the difference. By following these tips, you can help strengthen your relationship with your child and give her the tools she needs to cope with anger. If you notice that your child has relationship problems, is a bully, or tries to hurt herself, others or animals, do consider seeking professional help for both you and your child.
If you would like to learn more about how children process anger, please visit my website www.DrGailGross.com