Screaming fights. Destructive behavior. Volatile moods. Do your child’s anger and rage make you feel exhausted and out of control?
In an Empowering Parents poll, Angie S. made the following comment:
“I walk on eggshells around my 15-year-old son. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m afraid of his explosive temper.”
In that same poll, more than 50 percent of respondents said that they end up “losing control and screaming back” when their child’s anger reaches the boiling point.
But responding to your child’s rage with anger is not the answer. Instead, it’s best to have what I call a rage plan so that you know exactly how you will effectively handle the next outburst or temper tantrum. A rage plan puts you in control of yourself and the situation. The following steps are the basis of this plan:
Ensure that the area around your child is safe and that no one can be hurt if and when your child lashes out. Remove yourself and any siblings from the area.
Reduce any stimulation in their vicinity. Turn off the TV, lower the lights. The idea is to let your child wear themselves out. This step applies to adolescents as well as to young children.
Even if emotions are running high, work to calm yourself down. Talk to your child in an calm tone, even if you feel like screaming at them.
Tell your child that his or her behavior is unacceptable and that you’ll speak with them when they’ve calmed down.
Model good behavior for your child. Remember, kids learn from their parents, which is another reason you want to remain calm. You’re teaching them appropriate ways to manage stressful situations.
If your child is screaming things at you, calling you names, or saying you’re “the worst parent in the world,” do not respond. And don’t take it personally. Instead, leave the room or send them to their bedroom.
Also, don’t yell back at your child because it will suck you into their rage and make you the focal point of their anger.
The time to talk is when you and your child are both calm. If they’re yelling in their room, they should not be getting your attention, period.
Don’t worry if it seems as if you’re ignoring the inappropriate behavior. What you are doing is not reacting to the yelling. Or, to say it another way, you are not letting your child’s yelling control your actions.
Later, when things are calm, and at the time of your choosing, you can explain to your child that their behavior was not acceptable. Tell them there are better ways to deal with anger than losing control. But do it on your terms, not your child’s. After all, you’re the CEO of your household.
You might also have your child make amends if they broke something or hurt someone else. If your child is very young, you may want them to draw a picture that says, “I’m sorry.” If your child is older, ask them to do something more meaningful for the person they’ve wronged.
Don’t give consequences because your child got angry. Instead, give consequences for your child’s specific inappropriate behaviors, such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, or property destruction.
Your child needs to understand that it’s okay to feel angry. We all feel angry from time to time. And sometimes we yell. Nevertheless, we need to learn to manage ourselves appropriately when we get angry.
In other words, let your child know that anger is normal and that there will always be things in life that make them angry. Then stress that they’re responsible for and will be held accountable for all inappropriate behaviors resulting from their anger.
Related content: Angry Child? Fix the Behavior, Not the Feelings
If your child has just begun to lash out in rage when angered, this plan going to work fairly well—especially after you go through it a few times.
Your calm and matter-of-fact response is going to teach them that explosive anger is not the way to deal with their frustration. And it won’t get them what they want.
But if the behavior has been going on for a long time and it’s more ingrained, prepare to go through your rage plan repeatedly until your child learns to manage his anger better.
Some kids have been engaging in destructive behaviors associated with extreme anger for years. For these kids, you need to understand their triggers.
Once your child has calmed down, talk with them about their explosion. You can ask them:
“What happened before you blew up today?”
If your child comes home angry and in a volatile mood after school, you might have to call their teacher and find out if there was a problem that day. Ask pointed questions like:
“Was my child picked on? Did they do poorly on an assignment? Were they disciplined in class?”
But remember, even if your child had a terrible day at school, it doesn’t excuse their behavior at home. After all, there are other ways to deal with having a bad day than by calling their siblings foul names, screaming in your face, or punching a hole in the wall.
When you talk to your child about their triggers, always ask:
“How are you going to handle this differently next time?”
That’s the real purpose of looking at triggers—to help your child better understand them and learn to respond differently the next time they get angry or frustrated.
The most important thing to remember is that helping your child deal with their anger now will help them manage these feelings later on in life.
Many parents of defiant kids walk on eggshells around their children, trying not to upset them. I understand why parents do this. Angry outbursts are unpleasant, and you do what you can to avoid them.
But remember, your child isn’t learning to behave differently when you walk on eggshells to accommodate their behavior. In fact, by getting you to walk on eggshells around them, they’re teaching you to behave differently. They’re training you to anticipate their angry outbursts so that you leave them alone or let them get what they want.
Therefore, don’t alter your behavior to suit your child’s moods. Just have your rage plan ready and respond to your child’s behavior accordingly.
With some kids, their explosive anger escalates until it becomes destructive. If your child breaks their own things during one of their rages, they should be made to replace them with their own money—or go without. That’s known as a natural consequence.
If your child is breaking your things or punching holes in the walls, make them pay to fix the damages.
For kids too young to earn money outside the home, use chores to earn things back.
If your child is older, they can get a part-time job. This is a great lesson because your child will see that their behavior caused the problem: they threw their phone against the wall, and they have to replace it themselves.
If you are threatened or physically harmed, don’t be afraid to call the police on your child.
Look at it this way: if you don’t do anything to protect yourself, other family members, or your home, what’s the message that’s being sent to your child? They will learn that they’re in complete control. And they will learn that the best way to get what they want is with threats and physical abuse.
If your child or teen has developed a pattern that includes threats or physical abuse, part of your plan would be saying to them ahead of time:
“If this happens again and I feel unsafe, I’m going to have to call for help. I’m going to call the police.”
Remember, there’s no excuse for abuse.
Keep in mind that you should never try to reason with your child in the middle of a rage or tantrum. Any attempt to engage them at that point will agitate them up and reinforce their anger.
Additionally, your child is not listening very well at that time. Your attempts to reason, lecture, or talk about the issue at hand aren’t going to sink in when they’re in the middle of a rage.
Instead, give short, clear, calm directions. Say:
“This is not okay. Go to your room until you can get it together.”
If you have screamed back in the past or reacted angrily to your child, really practice that calm voice. If this is a challenge for you, try practicing what you will say ahead of time. Say it out loud in your car when you are alone. Rehearse the words you will use and your rage plan will be easier to execute.
If at any point you feel like your child’s behavior is beyond a normal temper tantrum, or if you really can’t hang in there any longer as a parent, be sure to seek the help of a professional.
I want to stress that these behaviors don’t necessarily mean that your child has a mental health problem—child anger is often a normal emotion. But, whenever there is a doubt in your mind, talk to your child’s pediatrician or trusted health care professional.
Here are some times when you should seek a professional opinion:
Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t handle things the way you wanted to when your child lost control in the past. Maybe you screamed back or gave in when they had a tantrum or lost their temper.
But none of us automatically knows how to deal with everything our kids do. We make mistakes. We learn.
So give yourself a break work on your rage plan for the next time your child explodes. Be patient and persistent, and you can manage these outbursts and restore peace to your home.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.