Stop and think for a moment: When your child or teen is in the throes of a tantrum or an all-out rage, what is your initial reaction? Do you get angry yourself and start yelling, do you freeze and say nothing, or do you become frightened and give in? Maybe your answer is even, “All of the above, depending on the day!” You are not alone. Dealing with childhood anger and explosive rage is one of the toughest things we are faced with as parents. Not only is it hard to do effectively, it’s exhausting and can easily make you feel defeated, even if you don’t lose your cool.
You can’t in any way control the way your child feels about things—all you can do is give him consequences and hold him accountable for his behavior.
We all know the above reactions (yelling, freezing and giving in) aren’t helpful, but why exactly is that so? Simply put, if you freeze and do nothing, lose control and yell or give in to your child’s demands, he will know that he can push your buttons—and that it works. Even if your kid can’t put it into words, on some level he understands that if he can scare you or wear you down by throwing a tantrum, he’ll get his way. As soon as your child realizes you have certain weak spots, he will continue to use them, because now he has a handy tool he can use to solve his problems. Instead of facing consequences or being held accountable, he’s figured out a way to get off scot-free. Here’s the good news: Learning to overcome your knee-jerk reactions of either freezing or becoming angry and “losing it” will be the start of turning around your relationship with your child—and the first step in teaching him appropriate ways to manage his temper.
Don’t get us wrong, as therapists and parents, we know firsthand how difficult this task can be—but fortunately we also know what really works to manage angry kids. Before we tell you some techniques you can use in the moment (and afterward) to turn this pattern around in your family, understand this: anger is always a “secondary emotion.” What this means is that another unpleasant feeling is always underneath an angry or enraged response; anger just leaves us feeling less vulnerable than hurt or fear do. If you can stop and remember that something else affected your child first, whether it was disappointment, sadness or frustration, you will be one step ahead. Another key point to understand is that anger serves a purpose. It lets us know something’s wrong in the same way burning your finger lets you know the stove is hot. It hits quickly and the reaction is immediate: Your child is disappointed he can’t go to his friend’s house and kaboom, you have a fight on your hands. (We’ll explain how to get to the bottom of these emotions later.)
Keeping all of this in mind, here are 7 things for you to avoid doing when your child is angry.
1. Don’t get in your kid’s face: When your child is having an explosive anger attack or enraged response to something, do not get in his face. This is the worst thing you can do with a kid who’s in the middle of a meltdown. As long as your child is old enough, we would recommend that you not get anywhere close to him. You have to remember that kids with explosive anger are out of control. The adrenaline is pumping and all rationale has left the body. They are in fight or flight mode, about to blow up. How close do you really want to get to that? By getting in there with your child, you will likely only further ignite their anger. And if you try to say something to them in the middle of it, you’re just going to fan the flames. We often feel like we have to stand right there and handle the meltdown with our kids. But if nobody’s getting hurt and it’s not a life-threatening situation or safety issue, it’s better to back off and give them some distance. After all, if you saw an angry stranger in a store, you wouldn’t go up to him and start yelling or rationalizing, would you? You’d probably leave the area as soon as possible!
2. Don’t react out of emotion. When your child is angry, rather than reacting out of emotion, which will escalate things, do whatever you need to do to step out of the situation. Walk away, take some deep breaths, and try your best to stay objective and in control. Take a time-out if you need one (and if your child is old enough for you to leave the area). Use some phrases to remind yourself, “I’m going to respond to this logically instead of emotionally. I’m going to stay on topic. I’m not going to get off track.” You might also remind yourself, “One step at a time. None of this is going to happen overnight.” Part of our job as parents is to model how to handle emotions appropriately. (Easier said than done, we know!) When you’re upset, your job is to show him good ways to deal with the emotions at hand.
3. Don’t jump to conclusions about your child’s anger. Your child may not be wrong for feeling upset. There may be some justification for his anger, even if the behavior is not justified. When parents tell us they’re upset with their child for being angry, we say, “Is it not okay for him to ever just be disappointed and unhappy and mad? Because everyone feels that way sometimes.” Remember that people can be justifiably disappointed and may present that in an angry way. If your child can’t be respectful in explaining his viewpoint, then you’ll need to leave him alone until he calms down. You can say, “I understand you feel angry; I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then leave it alone until he’s cooled off. If it turns into a temper tantrum where he’s saying foul things, breaking objects or hurting others, then that’s when you want to address the behavior. You can’t in any way control the way your child feels about things—all you can do is give him consequences and hold him accountable for his behavior. Getting mad at your child for being mad will only escalate the situation.
Understand that it’s normal for kids to get angry. We all get angry. In actuality, it’s not anger that’s the problem, it’s the resulting behavior. Kids have notoriously low frustration tolerances. Just because your child is angry doesn’t mean it has to turn into an unrecoverable situation. Don’t expect your child to always be happy with you or like you or your decisions. Accept that it goes along with the territory that sometimes they’re going to be angry with you—and that’s okay.
4. Don’t try to reason with an angry child. Avoid trying to hold a rational conversation with your angry child; it’s not going to work. If she’s disappointed about something and you try to reason her out of it, it’s probably only going to make things more heated. Don’t try in the moment to get your child to see it your way because you don’t want her to be mad at you. When you jump in and try to make her see it your way, it really isn’t helpful. And you’re going to come away from that more frustrated yourself, especially with ODD kids. They’re not going to have any of it and will turn the tables and try to rationalize with you in order to get their way. Instead, just give everyone a cooling off period. You can say, “I can see that you’re really upset; we can each take a timeout and get back to this later.”
5. Don’t give consequences or making threats in the heat of the moment. Along these same lines, wait until everything has calmed down before you give consequences to your child. If you try to punish her when emotions are running high, chances are you will cause further eruptions. You might come back later and say, “You were really angry. I’m wondering if there was one part of how that went that you wish was different. What could you do differently next time?”
You might also think about whether or not consequences are really necessary after a tantrum. Sometimes, parents will give consequences to kids just for blowing up. We’ve had kids come in to a therapy session and tell us that they’ve lost all of their privileges because they’ve had a tantrum. Let’s say a teen girl slams the door and mutters something under her breath on the way out before going for a walk. When you look at it objectively, a child who’s working on her anger has actually handled it fairly well—going for a walk to cool down. In this situation, you might decide to forego consequences. While every family has different rules about what is allowed and what isn’t, there should be some latitude to allow your child to express anger appropriately. Again, don’t give consequences for feelings, give them for inappropriate behavior.
6. (For older kids) Don’t miss a chance to talk with your child later: If it’s appropriate and if your child is old enough—and seems willing to talk about what made them so angry—try sitting down and discussing it. You can say, “You were really mad earlier, but I’m just wondering if that came from you feeling so hurt about what happened at school.” Wait to hear what your child says, and really listen. Don’t interrupt or preach. If they do open up, try asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think you could do to handle it better next time?” Or, “Is there anything I could do that would be helpful to you?”
Most of the time when older kids or teens throw tantrums or lose control, it’s because they have very poor problem-solving skills. They haven’t yet learned to solve their underlying problems in healthy ways, so they scream, break things, and call people names. Problem-solving skills don’t come naturally—they come with practice. Sometimes by talking to your child and finding out what’s going on, you can guide them to those problem-solving tools.
7. Don’t lose sight of your goal: Always ask yourself what you’re aiming for as a parent. What is your end goal? One of our most important jobs is to show them appropriate, healthy ways to behave as we give them some problem-solving tools. It’s not only important to discipline our kids, but also to teach and to guide them. Sometimes lessons don’t require a consequence, but are rather an opportunity to talk and help your child come up with a better way to handle the situation next time.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.