"My child seems so angry all the time. She hits her sister, argues with me, kicks and throws her toys around, and is generally in a bad mood. Even her teacher complains about her attitude. What can you do with an angry child?"
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
There is a difference between experiencing a feeling and displaying emotions, such as a temper tantrum. Anger usually follows the belief that we can't get what we want, or that we are powerless in a situation. It can also be a cover-up for hurt feelings. Children who seem angry may be frustrated with their parents, other children, themselves, life, or other people who are angry with them. Children usually have good reasons for feeling angry, even if they don't know what those reasons are. When children are bossed and controlled and have no choices, they will probably feel angry. Children who are overprotected often feel angry. If adults abuse children either physically or verbally, children will feel angry. Parents often respond to anger with more control and intimidation, making the situation worse. If you or your child feels angry, there may be a power struggle going on, and it is important to disengage from the power contest and work for cooperation.
1. Say to your child, "You're really angry. It's okay to feel angry, but can you tell me in words instead of actions who or what you are angry with?" Wait for the child's response and listen with interest instead of saying, "You shouldn't be angry."
2. Sometimes children can't identify their feelings when they are upset. Let your child know it is okay to wait awhile, and to talk with you as soon as he is ready.
3. You can help you child defuse her anger by finding out (perhaps through guessing) what she wants and helping her obtain it, such as, "You're angry because your sister gets to stay up later and you wish you could, too. When you are her age, you'll be able to stay up as late as she does."
4. Don't choose sides when your children fight. Tell them, "Kids, I see you are having a hard time working this out. You can take some time to cool off and try again later, or you can both finish this fight somewhere else, or you can work it out here, but I'm not taking sides."
5. If you have children who argue, try letting them have the last word or hugging them instead of arguing back. Ask your children for their opinions instead of telling them what to do. When you recognize a power struggle, stop and say, "I don't want to control you, but I would appreciate your help. Let's see what we can work out after we calm down."
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
1. Set up family meetings so your children know there is a place and time each week where they can talk about the things that bother them, be listened to, and solve problems if needed.
2. Use limited choices with younger children instead of telling them what to do.
3. Set up a routine, so that the routine is the boss and not you. Children respond better to "It's time for dinner" than "I want you to come to the table now." Children feel even more empowered when you ask them, "What is next on our dinnertime (bedtime, morning) routine chart?"
4. When your child is in a good mood, mention that you notice she is often angry and ask for her help to think of a way she could show her anger that won't hurt anyone. Suggest a pillow she can punch, or listening to a tape of her favorite music, or finding a special cooling-off place. For older children, suggest they write down what they are angry about or draw a picture of their anger.
5. If you are a single parent, avoid any derogatory comments about your children's other parent. Do not expect your children to take the place of another adult.
6. Don't be afraid of your own anger. Anger is an important feeling that warns you of possible abuse--physical and emotional. Learn to say, "I'm angry." You provide a good model for your children when you express those feelings in words, instead of with displays of temper.
7. Model respectful ways for dealing with your own anger. Use emotional honesty: "I feel ____ about _____ because _____ and I would like ______." Model taking time out until you can calm down and handle your anger in respectful ways.
8. Model using your anger as a motivator to solve a problem in respectful ways.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that what they feel is different from what they do--that it is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hurt others or to act disrespectfully. Children can learn that they can have power and control over themselves and their lives. No one enjoys feeling powerless, and children prefer to know how they can contribute and succeed without having to fight for their needs.
1. Anger may be a sign that your children see themselves as powerless and out of control. They may think you are trying to run their lives instead of empowering them to be capable and successful. Instead of trying to stop children from expressing their anger, talk with them about ways they are feeling frustrated and how they might respond differently.
2. Look for places you may be inviting anger. Are you sticking your nose in your children's business, such as lecturing about schoolwork, friends, clothing, and so on? Do you nag your children instead of setting up routines and using follow-through?
Often, we are unaware of how we are upsetting our children and are treating them disrespectfully. They get angry when that happens. Usually, if we ask our children what they are angry about, and are willing to listen, they'll tell us. A young man of fifteen came to a counseling appointment with his mother. She was concerned about his anger problem. He would soon be driving, and his mother was afraid that if he didn't get some help, he might take it out on other drivers once behind the wheel. The counselor asked him what he was angry about. He said that when he agrees to do a job for his mother, she takes it back and does it herself. His mother explained that she does this because it doesn't look like he is going to do it.
Her son exploded, pounding his fists on the table and screaming, "You never trust me! I told you I would do the job! Why can't you believe me?" His mother was amazed at the intensity of her son's rage over what to her was an insignificant problem. When she realized how upset he was, she asked, "How can we work this out so we both feel good? I'm not willing to let the job go undone, and you don't want me to nag." The counselor suggested they have a nonverbal signal between them if the mother was wondering if the son was going to remember his chore. The son said it would be okay if his mother asked him if he was still planning to do what he agreed to--just not to do the chore for him.