Generally, anger is a natural response to distressing issues or situations — yet, it is often felt or expressed in ways that are scary, confusing or even unhealthy. As a result, we often consider anger to be a “bad” emotion, and we view its expression as destructive. Accordingly, experiencing anger can be difficult for both children and adults.
Naturally, anger is a feeling most people prefer not to experience. But when we understand anger, it can become a healing, transformative and empowering force. Anger in children can be a response to a situation that's in need of a solution. It can alert others that more love, safety or protection is needed. Anger in a child can help them learn more about their own needs and self-care or how to vent feelings of frustration. Anger does not have to be a negative experience.
Most children require guidance, support and instruction as they learn to identify and regulate their anger. It’s not always easy for little ones to understand feeling mad. What we don't want to do as adults is to stigmatize or present anger as a bad emotion to feel or express. We want to encourage children to be mindful about their frustrations — why they occur, how to express them and what they can do to problem solve.
1. Teach children that anger is natural.
You can explain to little ones that anger is an emotion that arises when we feel frustrated, disappointed or hurt. Teach them that anger is something adults and children feel — even babies, too. Help them understand that anger is a natural reaction, but there are ways for it to be expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways.
2. Distinguish healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger.
Anger can be expressed in adaptive ways (mindful words and problem solving) or maladaptive ways (yelling, getting physical or being aggressive). Helping children to understand healthy expressions of anger will give them self-confidence, teach them positive social interactions and encourage them to self-regulate confusing emotions. Remind children to "Use your words" when anger presents. This will help little ones move away from using physicality, like breaking toys, hitting or other aggressive behaviors to express anger.
When your child shows maladaptive anger, you can redirect them by prompting, “Instead of throwing your toys, tell me what’s bothering you.” “Instead of hitting your brother, tell him what’s making you mad.” Make sure you praise the adaptive expression of anger so your child can feel good about their choices and you can reinforce that behavior.
3. Teach about the “whys” of anger.
It’s important to help children understand why they are angry. Encourage them to identify what the situation is that’s made them react. What need is not being met? Who or what is frustrating them? This helps children construct a mindful view of anger and why it's happening.
4. Brainstorm ways to reduce anger.
You’ll also want to teach your children ways to problem solve their anger. Does the situation need a compromise? “Maybe you and your brother can take turns playing with the swing.” Do they need boundaries? “I know you’re angry that it’s getting late, and we have to leave the park. You can choose only one more ride at the park before we go home, or we can go home now. What would you like to do?” Or is your child’s anger from fatigue, hunger or sleepiness? “Do you think you’re hungry for a snack? Or you’re sleepy? Could that be why you’re mad right now?”
5. Be a healthy role model.
Make sure you take the time to model these strategies whenever you can. When you show your child your own angry feelings, how you express them in healthy ways and problem solve the situation to reduce your anger, you reinforce their evolving skillset.
Ultimately, anger is an emotion that can be difficult for children to understand and experience. With guidance from adults, little ones can learn how to identify irritability, express it in adaptive ways and determine that “being mad” can lead to meaningful outcomes.
Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist and author of “Sometimes When I'm Mad” by Free Spirit Publishing.