All humans experience anger, and your child is no different. A child's brain often cannot process their emotions, especially during a stressful time. That can result in an emotional or behavioral outburst. Parents typically resort to one of two reactions when their child is acting out. A parent might “bring down the hammer” as Kim Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, puts it, trying to stop the anger/outburst through intimidation and punishment. Or, a parent may do everything in their power to change the situation and get rid of the child's adverse behavior.
Neither method is wrong, but they often don't diffuse the situation, nor do they create a positive learning experience for your child.
Changing how you speak to your child during these situations can help them develop the tools to properly deal with anger and other emotions. Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, author, and expert for Psychology Today, gives a perfect example of how to manage a child's emotional outburst without losing control of your own emotions.
When Whitson took her daughter out of school early to go to a doctor's appointment, she was met by her daughter crying and accusing her of always making her miss everything fun. With the outburst happening in the middle of the school's administrative office, in front of an audience, Whitson had to think quickly. Here's how she described her options.
“I could go old school and tell my daughter to lower her voice right away and show me some respect, or else…
This might even have been a reasonable parental response. I don't think anyone in the school would have thought me unjustified in being stern with my daughter at that point or in setting a limit on her disrespect. But I also knew that for my daughter, a rebuke in the moment would have created a new stressful event, on top of the one she was already obviously experiencing, and would have triggered all sorts of additional intense feelings in her young, emotionally-hijacked brain. Meeting her pain with harshness would have made things worse—of that I was sure.
My second choice was to turn down my daughter's invitation to fight.
Instead of turning up the heat on her behavior, as Option 1 would have done, I made a conscious decision to tone down the emotion of the moment—to meet her pain with sympathy—and help her begin to put language to all of her emotion.
When kids become overwhelmed by stress, their limbic system (the emotional part of their brain) is activated and their ability to access the rational thoughts of their pre-frontal cortex (the logical part of their brain) is greatly hindered. In the midst of this kind of ‘brain freeze,' adults are most helpful to young people when they recognize the biological forces at work and make conscious efforts to ‘drain off' the child's intense emotions through purposeful, planned, non-reactive responses.
So what did I do as my daughter walked down her school hallway, angrily accusing me of taking away all of her fun?
First, I took a deep breath. I am human and needed to take a moment to consciously stop my own emotional brain from taking over. My personal feelings acknowledged and owned, I then got down on my daughter's level and hugged her. I spoke these six words softly to her: ‘You are really upset right now.' In little more than an instant, she pulled away from the hug, looked me in the eye, let out one long sob, then softened into my arms, pulling me into a tight embrace. After about 15 seconds, she was completely quiet, but still hugging me tightly.
So, in the middle of the administrative wing of my daughter's elementary school with a growing audience watching from afar, I gave her more time. I hugged her. I wiped her tears. I validated her words instead of giving in to my defensive leanings: ‘You feel like I am picking you up too early and you are missing fun time with your friends in class.'
These calming responses worked. My daughter softened in my arms again and within two minutes, she was ready to leave school and head to her doctor's office.”
What if Whitson hadn't taken this approach and decided to try the old school method? Some people would deem that completely appropriate, but the problem with that approach lies in the reaction it triggers in the child's brain. By taking the second route, and showing her daughter compassion and understanding, Whitson helped her child develop critical life skills such as the ability to calm down, control her behaviors, and put language to emotions.
These emotional and behavioral outburst should not be forgotten, but discussed at a later time when then the child is calm and “in control of their emotional brain and more receptive to learning,” says Whitson. After the emotional intensity subsides, your child may recognize their earlier behavior and come to you with an apology or explanation of how they were feeling.
According to Whitson the bottom line is “some moments kids can use their logical brains and other moments they can't—especially during periods of stress.” Being aware of this can help you as a parent understand their behavior and respond in a manner that invites self-regulation and brain development.
Remember these tips the next time your child has an emotional outburst: (From empoweringparents.com)
- Don't try to control your child's emotions. You can't expect someone to control their emotions. You can only ask that they control their behavior. It's okay for a child to be angry, as long as that anger is expressed appropriately.
- Control your own emotions. If you start to feel your emotions getting away from you, take a breath and a mental step back. It may help to picture your child as a neighbor's kid to provide some emotional distance.
- Make sure your responses don't escalate the situation. Just because you choose not to argue with your child doesn't mean that you're giving in. If your child needs space to cool down, give it to them. The time to discipline your child is not in the middle of an emotional or behavioral tornado. Address these things later, when things have settled down.
- Help your child recognize when anger is building. Physical signs of anger, such as stomach clenching, tension, feeling flushed, or jaw clenching, are all things your child can recognize. If they begin to notice these things happening, they can dial down and hopefully begin to control their anger.
- Brainstorm with your child. Many kids experience or express true remorse after having an emotional meltdown. If your child is open to talking and willing to learn some anger management skills, you can help them work backwards to understand the incident. Ask questions like, “What happened right before you got angry?” “What was said?” “What other things were you feeling, i.e. embarrassed, frustrated, anxiety?” Learning to recognize underlying emotions is a powerful tood your child can use throughout life. Many kids may not be willing to go over the issue. If they resist, drop it, and see if you can make progress another time.
- Remember that emotion is different from behavior. The problem isn't the anger; it's the behavior that follows. You can validate your child's emotions while addressing the behavior that is a concern: “I understand you were angry when I said you couldn't go to your friend's house. Sometimes there will be rules or limits that may frustrate you, but breaking things won't change that rule and will only end in a consequence for that behavior.” Then help your child identify more positive ways to express their emotions.
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Helping your Child Learn to Manage Anger