When your child is in the middle of expressing anger, your verbal response is extremely important. Though it remains true that your non-verbal signals will speak more loudly than your words, we must not underestimate the power of the spoken word, particularly during intense emotional experiences.
For a very young child, or if the anger is being expressed mostly in non-verbal ways, say something to the effect of, “Wow! I can see that you are really angry right now. I’m sure you have good reasons to be angry. Your anger seems really strong to me. I want you to know that it’s okay with me for you to be angry, and I want to help you deal with it so that nobody gets hurt—including you.” In these and other words, communicate the idea that “There’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, the important thing is what you do with it.”
Practice reflective listening. Repeat back to the child what you hear her saying in a non-judgmental, soothing tone. This provides a comforting effect and lets the child know she’s being heard. Start with phrases like, “So what I hear you saying is…” or “So you’re saying…” Stick with their words and references, using as little interpretation and a few of your own words as possible.
Express empathy and understanding. This is simply a matter of imagining yourself in the child’s position and attempting to see things from his viewpoint. Use phrases like, “When I put myself in your shoes, I can see why you would feel that way,” or “From where you stand, it looks like…” or “I think I see what you mean” or “That makes sense to me.”
Avoid teaching, correcting or instructing while your child is angry. Only when the child starts to calm down and relax, you may want to share some of your own similar struggles or experiences. The goal is to help them deal with and understand their anger. Discipline needs to be kept separate from this kind of communication and administered when both you and the child are calm. That way the child gets the clear message that it is not their emotion that is being disciplined, it is their behavior. What to do—If your child is small enough, you might want to try holding her during her anger episode. This has been found to be highly effective in many cases. It provides loving, powerful and safe boundaries when the child is feeling out of control. The non-verbal message is, “I’m here. I’m not going to leave you. I’m not going to hurt you, and I won’t let you hurt yourself or anyone else. I’m going to hold you until you feel safe again.” Here are some recommendations to make this procedure safe and successful:
- If you are extremely afraid or angry yourself, do not try this technique. Your emotions will feed the anger and fear of your child and make the situation worse.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, hold the child from behind, ideally with him sitting in your lap. Protect your face in case he tosses his head back toward you. The goal is for no one to get hurt.
- There needs to be both love and power in your embrace. Strong but not too strong, relaxed but not too relaxed. This lets the child know you are in charge, that you love her and can and will protect her.
- Be ready and willing to devote some time to this. If you don’t complete the process, you may do more harm than good. Hold the child, and wait until he calms down and relaxes. Often he might cry or even fall asleep as the anger subsides.
- Through this gesture, you are communicating love, acceptance, safety, protection, and power all at the same time. What to have the child do—In some cases, the child may need to release anger physically. This can be accomplished in a number of ways:
Supervised play with toys, or play therapy in a professional setting, can be very effective in helping children release anger. The violence that occurs between the toy characters is non-destructive and can be very informative to the therapist and/or the parent who is observing. This can also include drawing pictures or throwing clay against a wall or board where no harm can be done.
Children may sometimes benefit from the “temper tantrum technique.” Parents should use their own judgment as to when it is necessary to contract for the services of a professional for this type of exercise.