Isn’t it great when our children are happy, content and calm - as parents it conveys a sense of balance and for that moment we feel we have got things just right. But when children demonstrate the trickier emotion that is anger we can panic, guilt enters and we feel they are showing a lack of compliance; we can respond impatiently and with a lack of compassion or tolerance.
This sends a strong message to our children; these emotions are not welcome here and we do not have time for them. This can result in children being unable to self-regulate or manage their anger, as doing so requires specific skills, skills that need to be modelled and learned.
With that in mind, here are some tips on how to respond when a child is experiencing anger:
Acknowledge their feelings
When your child shows any emotion it is vital that you acknowledge it. For example if your child falls over rather than say “you're okay, get up, you're fine” say “oooh that looked like it could have really hurt you, are you okay?” This way the child is given permission to feel whatever they are feeling - in this case it may be pain, sadness or anger. Another example is a child going to bed at night, they call you in and say they are scared because it's dark - reply with “ah, you are feeling scared because it’s dark” by repeating back what they have said you are showing them that you have listened and understood their feelings and concerns; this alone is comforting.
Be with them
If they have reached crisis point (screaming, rolling around etc) they will not be able to have a rational conversation with you and analyse their actions and feelings. At crisis point the front part of their brain (Prefrontal Cortex) has lost its ability to think rationally. Just be with them, ensure they are safe and comfort them with your words or just a hand on their back (they may want neither of these things so be respectful and respond to their individual needs at that time). If they are an older child it may be that they need time alone, this space must be respected. Wait for when they have calmed down to then talk to them and analyse what has just happened and why. Then, think together about what you can put in place for the next time it happens.
Make a calm box
One of the ways to empower your child is to create a box of things that will help them to calm when anger presents itself. Ensure that you put the box together when your child is in a happy mood and when the child can rationally think about the objects that make them happy and that are special to them. Put it somewhere they can independently access when required.
Model managing your anger
Children learn from us. They are watching us all the time and mimicking our behaviour. If you cannot manage your own anger they will not have any hope in dealing with their own. Explore your own responses to anger - what is it you do when your child frustrates you, how do you respond to them? Take deep breaths, count to 10, ask for some space, in front of them - this shows them that you also have to manage your anger. When you change your angry responses to calm and considered ones, they will begin to model your behaviour. Please be kind to yourself; there will be times when you shout, we all lose patience at times. If this happens then when you have calmed down, approach your child and apologise. Explain why you think you may have shouted and show them that you are responsible for your own behaviour.
Although many may associate mindfulness as a way to calm down more importantly mindfulness allows us to explore our reactions, feelings and body sensations, enabling us to have a positive relationship with them. It develops our ability to show self-compassion and make way for looking at situations from various angles. Practice mindfulness yourself so that your child understands its importance and engage them in mindfulness too. There are lots of mindfulness guides for children on apps like Headspace and perhaps ask your child's school if they do any mindfulness in class. Organisations like the Mindfulness in Schools Project enable schools to make mindfulness part of their day to day school life. Mindfulness for learning also offer a What is mindfulness? school workshop which is a good introduction to schools as to what mindfulness can offer them.
Focus on positive emotions
The Dalai Lama in his book ‘The Art of Happiness’ states that “In our day-to-day life experiences, tolerance and patience have great benefits. For instance, developing them will allow us to sustain and maintain our presence of mind. So if an individual possesses this capacity of tolerance and patience then, even in spite of living in a very tense environment, which is very frantic and stressful, so long as the person has tolerance and patience, the person’s calmness and peace will not be disturbed”.
In simple terms, if we cultivate and give time to the positive emotions, particularly tolerance, patience and compassion, the negative emotions will become less present in our lives. Teaching your child to choose love and think before acting is a vital part of their development. It takes a lifetime of practice to develop this kind of thinking but a great starting point for them is to think and talk about this very deep and meaningful approach.