- Handle your own emotional responses first.
- If your child sees you manage your anger well, they will learn how to do the same.
- Try putting feelings—yours and your child's—into words.
- Talk about the anger—and the hurt and wounds that led to the anger.
Anger is one of the nine basic affects. It is an SOS signal: ”Please help. I am in trouble!” It may also be the signal that is toughest on parents and most often misunderstood. It’s so hard not to take it personally; an angry child can be hard to console.
What Triggers Anger?
Babies usually express distress because of hunger, fatigue, pain, and, sometimes, illness. Older infants may feel distress for an ever-expanding number of reasons—frustrations or boredom, for example.
As the infant gets older and more verbal, the triggers of distress are likely to become more complex and psychological (associated with a feeling of disappointment, shame, humiliation, fear, loneliness, a sense of abandonment, and tension).
At any age, anger can arise if any signal becomes too intense or shifts into distress that is excessive and sustained. Interruption of interest also can produce anger—when your child becomes upset when you stop what he feels is a great time.
How to Deal with Anger
Coping with your child’s anger requires you to handle your own emotional responses first.
Anger can be highly contagious. It is easy to misinterpret anger and see it as a personal attack and react defensively. However, if you control your own anger when confronted by your child’s, your child will begin to connect this process of acknowledging the anger, helping to remove the trigger and minimizing your reaction to the anger with positive change. This is how a child can begin to learn self-soothing and tension regulation.
This is not always easy to do, however. Ask yourself, how do I handle anger? What do I think and feel about it?
If you sense you are uncomfortable with or unable to control anger in yourself, try to analyze where your feelings come from and get a handle on them. Ask: How did my family deal with anger? How do I express anger in adult relationships, today? You may see that there are some interesting correlations between your personal reactions to anger and your child’s angry outbursts. This may help you gain control of your reactions and modify your response to your child’s signal for anger.
If your child sees you manage your anger well, they will learn how to do the same.
If you get into a screaming rage in traffic jams, your child will learn that this kind of expression of anger is an appropriate response to frustration. If you yell when you are tired, grumpy, hungry, or displeased, your child will think this is the way they should behave in such situations as well.
But, if you understand how these emotions work, validate your own feelings, develop a playful attitude about frustration, and are more resourceful about finding ways to cope with difficulties, then your child will learn to be more easygoing as well. Most important, you would be showing her how to problem solve and self-regulate by your calm coping with the situation. Ultimately, the baby can internalize this capacity to observe and regulate and have a sense of confidence that if things go wrong and distress or anger sets in, somehow someone, somewhere (and later themself) can figure out what the problem is and do something about it.
The next thing to do is put the feelings—yours and his—into words.
This will help you regulate your own tension and provide a good role model for your child’s developing capacity to regulate his own tensions. Talk to your child about the angry outburst. If he threw his peanut butter sandwich across the floor, ask what was distressing: Not hungry? Not feeling good? Expecting something else? Then perhaps you can more beneficially explore the behavior of throwing the sandwich.
And finally, go through a mental checklist when the signal for anger appears: Ask yourself, Is my child hungry? Tired? In need of a clean diaper? In pain or physical discomfort? If the answers to those questions are no, think about the possibility that your child is getting sick or teething. Ideally, you will learn not to take your child’s anger personally, and you will not get as angry yourself.
You may also work to reduce the intensity of your child’s anger by acknowledging the anger—don’t stifle, deny, criticize, or ridicule it. Instead focus entirely on taking care of the situation that triggered it.
For example, you’ve put your child into her high chair and given her a car to play with. She’s eating and playing with the car at the same time. When the car falls, the baby starts whimpering. You ignore it, figuring she should be concentrating on her food anyway. She continues to whimper. You nicely suggest she eats her food. Suddenly, the baby is in a rage. If you determine the importance of the car, pick it up and gently say, “Okay, here’s the car”, and you say it in a tone that is not critical but soft and soothing, there’s a good chance the baby will stop crying. She has “spoken,” and she has been heard.
The final point to remember is that there are always alternatives.
If you have to interrupt your child’s expression of interest, there are many other activities or objects available that can restimulate interest. The trick is to think of them instead of simply reacting.
Sometimes, however, all the best management skills at your command won’t work.
Anger may have its own momentum. It may be the result of an accumulation of frustrations, a reaction to “the last straw.” There may be no one trigger for the distress and no simple way to offer solace to your child. Or anger may simply feed on itself. Your child may be so revved up that it becomes difficult for him to calm down.
When that happens, it may take some time to restore equilibrium. If your child is biting or throwing things, you may need to do whatever you can to cool down the situation. You can sort out what happened later. You may have to contain your child by holding him in your lap, or you may say, “I’m just going to leave you alone. Here are some of your friends” (a pet, favorite stuffed animals, lovies, and so on—items the child uses to soothe him/herself). After your child has calmed down, you can talk to him about what happened.
The best success I have had with parents and the anger of an infant/young child is a triad:
- Is the child sick?
- Is the child tired?
- Is the child hungry?