Anger is a Scary Emotion (Guest Post by Kate Russell)

Kate Russell is unafraid to lay bare her personal parenting struggles. With insight and refreshing candour, Kate’s blog “Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids” chronicles the bumpy path she’s taken transitioning from a more reactive, punitive approach to the respectful recommendations of my mentor, child specialist Magda Gerber. As a reader and a fan, I was thrilled when Kate accepted my request to write a guest post about a recent challenging experience.

“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow” ~Chinese Proverb

Anger is a Scary Emotion by Kate Russell

One of the first practices I adopted upon reading about Magda Gerber’s to parenting was accepting and acknowledging feelings. Instead of using distractions to will away sadness, pain or frustration, I began to support my children through these feelings; naming them so they could develop their emotional intelligence and offering comfort for as long as they needed it. It was revolutionary for me, and I have embraced this change in our parenting wholeheartedly. Of course, it isn’t always easy.

While I am usually comfortable with expressions of most emotions, there is one that I have found it difficult to accept and encourage: anger. This is especially true when it is directed at one of us — Mum, Dad or baby sister. There is something about having my child scream in my face or lash out physically that triggers some pretty strong and counterproductive emotions of my own, namely ANGER. It can be incredibly difficult for me to maintain my own composure in these situations, never mind encourage or support what my daughter, L, clearly needs to express.

L is two and a half, and anger is something that she has in abundance at the moment. Getting to the root of this anger is a story for another day and something we are working towards as a family. In the meantime, we have resolved to help her work through it by showing her it is okay to feel this way, and at the same time supporting her to not use physical aggression.

The other day we were having a particularly difficult afternoon. We had just come inside from some water play. It had been a lot of fun, but I was starting to see some signs of pent up emotion in L. She was becoming intolerant of her younger sister P, especially when she moved into her space. I had already blocked a few attempts at grabbing and pushing, and so when we came inside to start the bath, I decided it would not be safe to put both girls in the tub together. L had stated that she did not want a bath, so I put an eager P in and sat on the edge of the tub to give her a wash.

L then decided she wanted a bath too, but I couldn’t allow her in at that time. She confronted me with the kind of raw, primal scream that you would associate with someone being tortured (or worse). “Get away!” came her guttural roar as she lunged at me repeatedly trying to push me off the edge of the bath.

Immediately, I felt my fight or flight response kick in. It took several moments of conscious thought to gather myself and determine the best unruffled response. I kept repeating to myself: ‘She needs me to be calm, she needs me to be calm…” which is my mantra when faced with these situations.

You see, every time I lose patience or snap at the kids I see the impact it has on them not only in the moment, but also in the long run as they continue to test my ability to respond with confidence. So when I am being pushed in this way, I am constantly repeating to myself, “She needs me to stay calm, she needs me to stay calm, I can do this…”

On this occasion, after gathering myself, I was able to block her hands and calmly state: ”I can see you are very angry at the moment. You really want to get in the bath and I’m not letting you. I won’t let you push me.”  I then repeated, “I won’t let you hit me” as I blocked her hands.

I also let her know it was okay to scream. ”You feel really angry right now, it’s okay to scream, loudly if you need to.” All the while, I kept myself level and matter of fact. At this point she left the bathroom sobbing. From what I have read about tantrums, the sobbing indicates that she has ridden the wave of anger and perhaps the cortisol in her system is starting to subside. So I let her go because I felt she needed a little bit of space, and she had expressed all the angry emotion she needed to for now.

About 30 seconds later she came back into the bathroom eating a pear. She climbed straight onto my lap and started chatting to me about the little barking dog in the neighbour’s backyard. All signs of her very recent outburst had completely dissipated. I took the opportunity to let her know I was listening to her earlier. ”Boy, you were really angry before. You screamed very loudly and that’s okay. I want you to know that I understand and want to try to help you when you feel that way. I will always stop you from hurting P or me.”

I gave her a few moments to absorb and process in silence before P stood up, indicating she would like to get out of the bath. I then said,” P is ready to hop out of the bath now, would you like to climb in?”

“Yes,” came the reply but not before standing up on my lap and kissing my head.

So, as excruciating as it can be to have my child scream at me and lash out, and no matter how much it evokes my own anger, I am resolute in my quest to be that rock for her to trust and lean on whenever she needs. It can certainly be frightening and difficult, but I try to consider that whatever emotion she is evoking in me, she is feeling it ten times over. While it frightens me when she expresses her anger in this way, I have realized ‘frightened’ probably doesn’t come close to describing the fear she must have when she is gripped by this scary emotion. Therefore, it is even more important that she sees that I am strong for her, not stressed out, flustered, and definitely not angry.

While I can’t be sure where L’s anger is coming from, I trust that every feeling she has is perfect and necessary for her healing. I am confident that by using this form of respectful parenting, she will eventually come out the other side stronger, more at peace, and more trusting of the strength of my support and love for her.


Kate Russell is the mother of two beautiful girls born 13 months apart. She believes that it is never too late to change how we parent and has learned that being a conscious and reflective parent will empower children to grow with confidence and trust in themselves. A former high school teacher, Kate now dreams of opening a school for parents to learn about the joys of respectful parenting.

I share my advice for responding to our children’s anger in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wow! It continues to amaze me how an article falls into my hands the moment I need it… This really hit home. I too am struggling with anger with my 3 year and have been beating myself up over my own poor reaction to it. Thanks for helping me to realize that each day is another opportunity to try it better. Great article!

  2. Great article, I hear my own father when I parent and need articles like this to remind me to stay in the moment and do it differently. Thank you

  3. I came across this from a link from Janet Lansbury, and I am so pleased I did. My two children are 16 months apart and while this is lovely as they usually get on incredibly well, in the early days I had two very young children at different stages who still needed me 100% all the time. It has gotten a bit “easier” as their independence has grown. I need to apopt a mantra as just breaths dont help. I find the walking away from you bit quite hard and it opens up all sorts of questions to me – should I follow my child? Especially when I can then hear my five year old talking to her self about the feelings and what is going on. However if I do go to her the anger intensifies. Usually she eventually comes back to me and we talk through things, sometimes she just stays and plays where she is. I cant imagine what waves will be ridden during the teenage years!

  4. Allyson Dowling says:

    This came at the right time for me too. I know that primal scream! I like that mantra ‘she needs me to be calm’ and will be using it with my three year old too. A great read. Thanks.

    1. I am so happy that I came across this website today, particularly this post. My 2.5 year old was so lovely and sweet, until about 2 months ago. It’s like she has turned into a different person. I too know this primal scream (which is followed by “Stop” or “No” and a hand in my face). I would say that 75% of the time, I’m able to act calm, empathize with her behavior, and get the ship moving in the right direction. But that 25% of the time when I can’t keep MY emotions in check, well it never ends well. It’s usually a battle of wills and there are threats, timeouts, yelling, and then me feeling awful for knowing that I’m not reacting the way I need to. The problem is that she is far too smart, and she knows how to push my buttons. I absolutely LOVE your mantra “she needs me to be calm.” I think if I can master that, I will be more successful with having the right approach. I have a few questions that I’m hoping someone can answer (1) please reassure me that my loving, happy, sweet little girl will reappear! and (2) what do you do when she refuses to take a nap, refuses to put on her shoes to go to daycare, etc? There have been a few days where she goes in the car with no shoes/socks because I refuse to negotiate with her for hours on end (it’s only 15 degrees out!). Is that the right approach? Is sitting in a chair in her room when she refuses to nap just giving into her demands? I would greatly appreciate any advice. I want to do the right thing, but it’s so hard to make the right decisions when things REALLY get out of control.

  5. Getting the same serendipity angel as Jennifer! Thankyou Kate. Yes, yes and yes. Another motto to tattoo on to my arm (I’m running out of space …)I’m sure Janet will keep us in the loop if / when this school you dream of comes into physical being. Any plans to set up one in Australia?!

    1. Thanks Natasha! Actually, I live in Australia so if my dream becomes reality I will be set up in QLD, just west of Brisbane. I will be sure to let you know the details if/ when I am able to work through the logistics of setting up such an environment. 🙂

  6. You would love the Alliance for Psychoanalytic Schools. Hanna Perkins School is among them and is based on the very principles you write about. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thank you for this post. Your mantra will help me. I am having a difficult time staying calm-especially in the evenings.

  8. I love this article, I will try ‘she needs me to be calm’. I would love to hear more mantras! Today I used ‘allow, allow, allow’ over and over during her upset. As in ‘allow all feelings’. It’s incredible how easy it is to for our own anger to be triggered and I appreciate all the mantras I can get! Thanks for the lovely article!

    1. Agree re: mantras! I’m going to try the “calm” one with my son! Great advice.

  9. Thank you so much! So true how a child’s anger can bring yours to the surface but… “she needs me to be calm,” the perfect mantra during those moments.

  10. Brilliantly done. A great story. Great self-possession on your part. I love her coming back eating a pear.

  11. so great. love the mantra, too. it’s helpful to have something simple and succinct to remember in those moments, isn’t it?!

    quick question, though. we do the above like kate, as you know: encouraging and supporting the emotions. but sometimes d’s screams will be such that it’s actually uncomfortable to the ears closest to him. and not uncomfortable like we’re uncomfortable with the fact he’s upset but like it’s hurting our ears if we’re in close quarters or it’s scaring mushy. it’s a combo of pitch and volume but sometimes it can be extreme. i’ve told him that it’s okay if he’s upset and needs to scream but that it’s feeling too loud for our ears and i’ll ask him to scream into a pillow or tell him i hear him but that i need to step further away. i just feel like it’s counter productive to micro manage his screaming! in that moment, he’s not in the place where he can receive that information – let alone act upon it – but i also feel like i need to take others (mainly mushy) into consideration, too.

    what would you suggest i do/say when his screams in situations like kate’s bathtime story get to that level?

    thanks so much… hope all’s well with you and yours… xx

    1. Hi Sara! I totally agree about not micro-managing the screaming. Take care of yourself and your baby and move away. You might calmly say, “that’s too loud for me” and leave with your hands over your ears. Acceptance of our children’s feelings is an attitude, not necessarily sitting there when there’s an onslaught. The pitch and volume at D’s age is an expression of emotion, but also a test of his power. So, allow him the emotion, but not the power to hurt eardrums, etc. Does that make sense? xoxo J

      1. totally makes sense… agreed on all fronts!! thank you so much… xx

      2. So glad Sara asked this! We have struggled so much with “the scream” from my 2.5 year old. I know he needs to use it to express himself when upset, but he also uses it when excited or silly. It’s SO LOUD and I do feel he uses it as power because we made the mistake of trying to get him to stop. Now that we have a baby around I have tried very hard not to blame his needing to be quieter on his brother so as not to stir up any more angry feelings. I’ll be using the “he needs me to be calm” mantra for sure. Thanks for this post!

    2. (I hope you don’t think I’m intruding, I just had an idea I thought I could share.)

      I agree that trying to get him to change how he is expressing himself in the moment is probably counter productive. 🙂

      But maybe, I think that is is okay to, while not micro managing the screaming as it happens, teach him self regulatory strategies outside the situation so that the piercing screaming might lessen. “I am always going to be close by. If my ears hurt or mushy needs me, I will be just outside the door, but I am always here.” etc, and then, “If you’d like me to be closer, but still need to screaming, perhaps you can yell like this” and practice some non-pitched yelling or roaring (which gives the same release as screaming but is more gutteral and lower pitched) “or screaming into a pillow.”

      He might not be able to do it all the time, but if he finds himself able to regulate his anger (maybe in circumstances when he feels the need to scream but retains some level of ‘control’, and might be piercing-screaming out of familiarity or going down the worn track) then you will be able to be closer to him and do some physical comforting and helpful verbal strategies.

      Just an idea I had. What do you think?

  12. Wow, beautifully said and a great reminder. I love the simple mantra of “she needs me to be calm” what a great focal point for in the moment. I struggle with keeping my cool in those similar angry tantrums that come from my tiny two year old. I love your blog and all the advice, thanks for sharing this!

  13. Love this post! I needed the reminder that “he needs me to stay calm” and “whatever emotion she is evoking in me, she is feeling it ten times over.” Thank you!! I also had the same question about screaming. We live in an apartment so the neighbors do not appreciate the noise, though they are understanding. So, I wonder about telling him, “it’s ok to scream” but I can try a pillow. I had not thought of that idea!

  14. thanks for the wonderful post. it really made me think.You see, there is no RIE class in my area and I have no access to Magda’s books either, so this site is almost my only gate to respectful parenting. I’m reading and reading , but now I’m kind of feeling that I’m getting it all wrong.
    the other day, one of neighbor’s kids came to our apartment to play with my son. a really adorable 4 year girl. in between play, there was a disagreement between them and the girl started to scream loudly and continuously. I went close to her and said in a calm and firm tune :” I don’t let you scream” and she simply stopped . but now I’m thinking maybe my approach was wrong. was it؟ should I let her scream as long as she wanted
    I appreciate any response from everybody.
    thanks again

    1. I think that there is a difference between a child expressing frustration and a child who needs (for whatever reason) a lot of emotional input from a parent, like Kate’s child does.

      I think that when your neighbour’s kid was screaming, she was looking for someone to help her regulate her frustration. She wasn’t dealing with any kind of utterly devestating emotional upheaval. When you said that, you provided her with a limit, and adult attention. Maybe the limit could have been more open to her experience, like perhaps saying “I can see you’re frustrated.” waiting a pause and then “Your screaming hurts my ears.” What was her reaction after she stopped? She might have just needed acknowledgment, like when a child looks like they’re about to cry until you say “you fell!” in a neutral and explorative tone, and then suddenly they seem okay with everything. 🙂

      1. to answer your question, after she stopped screaming, I got a chance to acknowledged her feeling . before that she was screaming so loudly that she was not able to listen to me.
        thank you so much. your answer really helped me .
        may I ask one more question, isn’t it non-RIE to refer to a tantrum and discuss it (like what Kate did) when it is over . Don’t we increase the risk of creating ” a child with a problem” by talking about the problem after it has finished
        I’m definitely not criticizing Kate, she is obviously an insightful and wonderful mother , I just want to correct my understanding about what is RIE and what is not.
        thank you so much again.

  15. Kate Kimber says:

    This helped me a lot after a rough day.

  16. I wish I had such patience and understanding. I yell all the time and am constantly exasperated by 13 month old’s behavior. It doesn’t help that I can’t change the environment we’re in. Practically the whole house is off limits, and pulling him away from it all every two seconds get aggravating and exhausting, causing me to become volatile. I loathe myself for it, which makes everything so much worse.

    I have much the same reaction when my son does hits me (or anything else physical). I get confused, not knowing how to approach the situation. So I lash out in anger over the wrong doing done against me. I wish I could change. I try. It’s so stressful 🙁

  17. Your mantra reminds me of an analogy I once read about (sorry I can’t remember the source…) Anyway, the analogy got you to imagine turning up in the emergency dept of a hospital with half your arm hanging off. You’re feeling scared & in pain & desperate for help. Now the drs & nurses react by screaming and panicking and yelling at you that your arm is half hanging off!! That’s often how we react to someone who is expressing hurt & anger & fear. We often panic right back at them. But as parents, lovers, friends, teachers, etc it’d be great to be more like an actual emergency dept – calm, but efficient, strong & clear. We might be shocked & scared of what’s happening in front of us, but like Kate’s mantra our upset person “needs me to be calm…”
    Practice practice practice – lucky our children give us plenty of that!


    What happens when they take this anger and also show it at school, hitting, insulting, throwing…. when we are not there, how should we handle it afterwards and what kind of consecuenses should be applied?

  19. Jennifer H says:

    Dear Janet,

    This was the perfect blog post to scaffold a question I have been wondering about for a long time. (I am an avid reader of your work and listener of your too-wonderful-to-be-real podcast 🙂 ) In a nutshell, one of my struggles and worries about my now 6 year-old (with 4 and 2 year-old siblings) is a very similar type of anger response to limits. He is definitely a screamer and I have the same instinctual response as the author describes here. At times my body goes into an intense flight or fight response as well. I have worked hard to remain calm in times when he screams earsplittingly loud and, also as described here, when I handle it in an “unruffled” way he calms down much faster and usually approaches me soon after in a loving way. So I feel good about that, and my ability to face these outbursts calmly is growing and becoming much easier. (Particululary because, as you often say, the right perspective is everything. And when I envision him getting something uncomfortable and icky out of his system, it actually makes me feel good to allow him that! (I never had such luxury, not without punishment anyway). So in a longwinded way, I come to my question-even though I feel I have handled these types of reactions fairly well for most of his life (with some regrettable missteps of course) he is still a creamer at six. He will clench his fists, sometimes hit things, and scream with all his might, in fact I worry if he will hurt himself from the intensity of it. Do you think this is still developmentally normal at 6?? I had extremely intense emotions as a child, and I while I can’t help but worry when I see this in him, I know some of us are just very sensitive and have really really big emotions. I know I still do. Also, these reactions are usually over limits set like, its time for bed, you can’t eat that, etc. So probably just triggers for other stresses. Anyway, most of your podcasts and writing is geared toward younger children and I would just really appreciate your thoughts!

    With great admiration,

    1. This is my 5 year old. I’m new to respectful parenting. What is some helpful advice in dealing with this kind of anger? Are they’re more articles I could read? I will definitely be trying this new mantra.

  20. Jennifer H says:

    My apologies for all the typos! Hit post too soon!

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