Dealing with an angry child is doubtless among parenthood's least favorite experiences—yet all parents go through it.
"Anger is as legitimate an emotion as joy or sadness, and it's the most common way children express feelings of frustration," says Sal Severe, PhD, an Arizona psychologist and author of several parenting books, including How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!
But daily meltdowns shouldn't be a way of life in your house. "If you're in pursuit of well-behaved, well-adjusted children, you need to understand how your behavior is connected to your child's behavior," says Dr. Severe.
To manage anger constructively, children need their parents' help. Dr. Severe offers the following tactics that can help your children learn to manage this powerful emotion—and help you keep your sanity.
When your child lashes out—"Mommy, I hate you!"—don't yell back. For one, "your child doesn't really hate you," says Dr. Severe. "Young children don't have a large, expressive vocabulary, so they use the word hate because it comes closest to expressing how they feel. They're not sophisticated enough to say, 'I'm feeling frustrated because you're not letting me have my way.'"
Second, children learn to manage anger by observing and imitating how their parents handle emotions. "If you don't want them to carry on when they're angry, avoid that behavior yourself," says Dr. Severe.
You can calm your child's anger by acknowledging it with phrases, such as "I'm sorry you're so angry." After you've recognized the anger, give the child choices: "What do you want to do about this? How long do you want to stay angry?" Ultimately, you want your child to calm down enough to talk about solutions to the problem.
To avoid conflicts that can arise from power struggles, solicit your child's cooperation by discussing solutions to the problem. By doing so, "you'll take away the reason for the power struggle," says Dr. Severe. If your son won't get off his computer after his daily allotted hour, tell him how he can earn extra computer time for good behavior. "It might be for something as simple as doing his chores without complaining. You decide what constitutes good behavior," says Dr. Severe.
Spanking may get your child to stop problem behavior on the spot, but it won't alter future behavior. "Kids don't internalize the message behind spanking," says Dr. Severe. "Moreover, most parents feel guilty afterward."
Manage your child's anger with the tactics described above, and don't slack off. "Consistency is the most important factor in your relationship with your child," says Dr. Severe.
Unfortunately, consistency is also a lot of work that takes tremendous commitment and dedication. The payoff: Kids learn to stay calm and problem-solve through situations rather than get angry. "It's something a child as young as 4 or 5 can do," says Dr. Severe.
And finally, praise your kids for what they do well. "It's something we all forget to do," says Dr. Severe. You might say, "Thanks for listening to me the first time" or "I appreciate your doing that without an argument." "This tactic is surprisingly powerful because kids live for parental acknowledgment and approval," says Dr. Severe.
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