Many parents want to know how to manage anger in their children. Maybe your child acts out and is belligerent, and you’re at a loss to help him control those feelings. Not only is it upsetting to see, it impacts the entire family.
But here’s the truth: Whenever we want to manage someone else’s feelings, particularly our child’s, not only is it impossible, but it will also make the child angrier. No one likes to feel managed or controlled, and trying to figure out ways to contain someone else’s intensity will just add fuel to the fire. The natural reaction for a child—or anyone else—is to resist feeling controlled.
“Believe it or not, the best way to help manage your child’s angry emotions is to stop trying to manage them.”
If you’re trying to figure out how to manage your child’s anger, you might want to take a closer look at the basic relationship patterns that exist between the two of you currently. Is your pattern one in which you try to manage him in other ways as well? Do you carry the common parenting myth that you’re responsible for the outcome of your child’s behaviors, feelings and thoughts? If you believe you’re able to succeed at that, your child will go out of his way to show you that you’re just not that powerful by resisting you through defiance and anger.
Believe it or not, the best way to help manage your child’s angry emotions is to stop trying to manage them. Recognize that you’re not responsible for how he feels or behaves; you’re only responsible for how you feel and behave toward him. Allow him to have his own feelings, perspectives and identity. Be with him as he experiences intense feelings of anger, rather than jumping into his box and trying to make him feel differently. This is when you can start being instrumental in helping him with this issue. If you’re emotionally untangled from your child, you will also see him more clearly and realistically, rather than from your own perspective.
For example, let’s say your 14-year-old daughter wants to stay out late and asks for your permission. This situation already has a catch, because as far as she’s concerned, there’s only one right answer and she already knows it. But let’s say your answer is no. She immediately starts tantruming, throwing things, and threatening you. Her anger is in full force and continues to escalate. When you try to give her your logical reasons for saying no, she just gets more infuriated.
It’s very easy to want to manage her anger at this point by giving in to her wishes—or by yelling or screaming back. But instead, pause, breathe, and give the problem back to her. If she wants permission for something, don’t feel compelled to say “yes” or “no” so quickly. Let her do the work instead of you feeling it’s your job. How do you do that? You can say, “I’m willing to consider letting you stay out past your curfew after the homecoming game, but how will you make it work for us? Dad and I give you curfews for your own safety. If we are to say yes, and I’m not promising that we will, what steps would you take to ensure your safety? And if we do say yes to your request, how will you make us feel like responsible parents when you are out until one in the morning?” In other words, it’s her job to get you to yes. This changes the pattern and often de-escalates a power struggle very effectively.
Here’s another scenario: Let’s say your six-year-old son is angry because he wanted to go for breakfast at the pancake house, but instead your family went with his brother’s preference, the diner. Your six-year-old spends the entire meal furious and sulking, and this mood continues for the rest of the day. Make no mistake, one of the aims of his fury is to keep an intense emotional engagement with you. You might feel annoyed by his sulking, or even guilty for not giving him what he wanted. Perhaps you respond by getting angry back at him or trying to talk him out of his feelings. You say something like, “Oh c’mon, Josh, it’s only a restaurant. Cheer up.” Realize that any of these reactions—guilt, irritation or your attempt to cheer him up—will usually only intensify his anger. He knows you’re trying to get him to stop feeling a certain way so he’ll just dig in his heels and prolong the uncomfortable situation. At this point, you have to be careful not to get angry at him even though your attempts to change his feelings didn’t work; this will only cause a counter-attack. Don’t give in or give him anything to respond to—remember, his aim is to keep the emotional interaction going. Seeing that he’s made you feel bad—or hearing you beg him for forgiveness—will only serve as ammunition.
So what can you do? Absolutely nothing. Allow him to be angry and sulk. Act towards him like you would any child who’s in a bad mood and not talking. Don’t force a response from him. So if you’re at the diner and you say, “Josh, could you pass me the bacon? “ and he ignores you, continue with something like, “Oh well, I’ll have to reach over and get it myself.” Essentially what you’re saying to him is, “You may be very angry right now, but I’m not. You can be in a bad mood and I will continue to be in my good mood.” The other important message you’re sending is the following: “I’m not mad at you for not feeling and behaving the way I would like you to. And I don’t love you any less because of it.”
But what about those terrible, awful temper tantrums? We all want to manage those because they’re hard to take. (I’m not talking here about a tantrum where your child is frustrated and just needs a hug—I’m talking about an “I want my way” tantrum.) It doesn’t matter if your child is three or 43, no one likes the feeling of trying to be emotionally controlled or contained. What is a child, or an adult for that matter, saying through his or her tantrums? “I am not getting my way; I want my way; and I want that to change now!” But again, trying to stop your child’s fury will only make it worse.
Like many parents, you may have used different types of anger management on your child in the past when he was in the throes of his explosion. You might have given in to his demands, or gotten angry and threatened him with punishment. You may even have tried reasoning with him. But any of these attempts probably just prolonged the tantrum and deepened its intensity. Remember, your child feels like the tantrum was a success once he has an audience and/or gets a reaction from you. What you want to do instead is make the annoying behavior as ineffective as possible—and to do this, you must ignore it. When ignoring it is no longer possible, separate yourself from the tantruming child. Separation is necessary until the tantrum is over. Understand that this is not a punishment. Let your child know that he’s welcome to return when he is calm. In effect, you’re saying to your child, “You are welcome to tantrum but not around me. And it won’t get you what you want.” If you continually make the behavior ineffective, there will be fewer tantrums.
What to Do When Your Child or Teen is Angry and Defiant
Teens who are oppositional, defiant or angry much of the time will frequently try to draw you into arguments and power struggles. The best thing you can do is be your solid self and figure out what your limits are: what will you or won’t you put up with? Then disengage and let your child learn how to regulate his emotions of disappointment and frustration. And when I say “disengage,” I mean truly disengage. One word of caution: disengaging can enrage people, so don’t do it as a reactive, emotional response to your child. You can calmly say, “You have my answer. We can talk about this when we’ve both calmed down,” and then walk away. After that, don’t respond to him or “get into it” again, no matter how much he tries to draw you in. Your child’s goal is to keep things stirred up and continue the engagement with you. The more you react, the more he’ll pull you in, so you’re just fueling the power struggle if you continue. Now let’s say you go into your bedroom, but your child keeps banging on the door or keeps coming in to argue with you. Just ignore his attempts to pull you in—turn on the radio or the TV. If your child is old enough, you can go for a walk or a drive. Note: If you feel endangered at any point—if your child is kicking down your door, for example, or threatening you—then one option is to call the police and tell them you don’t feel safe.
6 Tips to Help You Deal with Your Angry Child Effectively
Here are 6 things you can do that won’t escalate the situation—or result in a power struggle—when your child is angry.
1. You can’t manage anyone’s feelings or behaviors—stop trying. You will only increase your child’s anger and resistance. Let him feel what he’s feeling; allow him to sit in his anger or disappointment. Remember, finding ways to cope with his uncomfortable feelings is a crucial part of developing into a mature adult.
2. Try to see your child as objectively and clearly as possible. Work on becoming emotionally separate enough to be able to see him without taking his behavior personally—or taking it on yourself. Understand what your child might be going through by seeing things through his lenses, not yours. Allow him to have feelings that make you uncomfortable.
3. Your child is not you. By accepting that your child has feelings that make you uncomfortable, you can better determine your response—and ways you can be most useful to her. And you can best help her manage her strong emotions by managing your own.
4. Think instead of react. Ask yourself, “When my child gets angry, what gets stirred up in me? What can I do with my feelings that won’t add fuel to the fire?” Remind yourself that your child’s job is not to behave or feel the way you think he should so that you can feel good—that’s your job. Your child is entitled to his own experiences. Pause and think, “What are the values and principles I want to live by in response to my child’s behavior?”
5. Wait until your child asks you for help in managing their anger. If you try to jump in and give advice without your child’s consent, she’ll probably feel you attempting to change her—and she’ll resist and get even angrier. If she asks for guidance or seems open to hearing ideas, you can talk to her and help her discover her triggers—the things you’ve observed that cause her to get angry or melt down. It might happen more when she’s tired, hungry or stressed about a test, for example. Maybe your teen daughter gets upset when her tween sister takes her things without asking. Talk to her about what you’ve observed. Next, help her with a plan of action. For older kids, it’s often useful to give them an acronym, like STOP, to help them calm down. This stands for “Slow down, Think, Options, and Proceed.” So an example conversation might be,
“Next time you’re really angry, Slow down and take a breath. Think about what you want to do or say. And then review your Options. Next, Proceed to action. Think about what you could do instead of screaming at your sister or pulling her hair. What will you do differently instead of getting into trouble?”
Remember, attempting to control or manage anger is going to make it worse, not better. Get yourself out of that role and try to understand what’s going on with your child and see things from her point of view. Ask yourself, “Is it really anger at me that I’m trying to deal with, or is my teen son angry at everything in general?” Pay attention. If his anger is impacting you, you’ll have a different response than if he’s upset about his homework. Use “I” statements with him to let you know how he’s impacting you. “I don’t like it when you yell at me as soon as you walk in the door.” If your child is often angry at his teachers, his friends, or his siblings, then you can simply empathize and try listening reflectively by paraphrasing what he’s saying. Just be there with him—not joined to him, feeling as if you have to calm him down every time he’s upset about something. Instead of getting into his box, sit next to it. You can say, “Wow, that must’ve been tough. Let me hear more about it. What do you think you can do about that? What really got you upset there? Let me know if you want some of my thoughts on this—I think I could help.”
Instead of blocking communication by judging, criticizing, shaming, ordering or lecturing, just listen. When your child feels truly accepted for who he is and where he is in his life, then he’ll be free to move on from there. He’ll begin to think how he wants to change and will begin to understand that inappropriate behaviors will no longer work to get him what he wants.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.