Anger is an emotion we can all relate to, but it can be incredibly hard for us to allow our children to express it. They need to. If kids can’t share their anger, it doesn’t cease to exist. It festers, usually causing more frequent and intense flare-ups, discharged in bursts of impulsive limit-pushing behavior. It is also likely that unexpressed emotions like anger may be stockpiled and distilled into chronic anxiety or depression.
We can know all those things intellectually, yet calmly accepting our children’s anger isn’t intuitive. In a flash, their angry outbursts might trigger our own (How dare you behave that way after all I do for you!); or make us afraid or guilty and compelled to say or do whatever it takes to douse their flames (“Please stop. Calm down, Sweetie. Here, let me hug you and make this all better!”).
The truth is that our young children don’t yet have the brain maturity to control their intense feelings, so attempting to enforce self-control or self-censorship (particularly when we’ve lost composure ourselves) only teaches kids that their feelings aren’t safe or acceptable and must be hidden away. Of course, this is the opposite of what we want them to learn. Our children are truly calmed when self-control is modeled by us and they receive the consistent message that their feelings are safe for them to experience and share with those who love them. We make that possible when we:
- Let go of our urge to calm.
Just let kids be angry. Comforting words and cajoling — even hugs that stem from our own discomfort or impatience — will have the unintended effect of telegraphing our lack of acceptance. And it is difficult at best for children to feel safe or comfortable when their parents are not. If we consider the flip-side, most of us would really rather not be wrapped in an unsolicited embrace when we are truly angry. It’s an interpersonal non-sequitur, and it can feel dismissive rather than empathetic, perhaps even patronizing. Instead…
2. Focus on staying calm.
Breathe. Re-center or reset using calming imagery (like a hero suit). Practice visualizing angry feelings and behaviors as the symptoms of an out-of-herself child needing our support as she lets off steam (rather than an unruly brat).
3. Keep children safe by containing anger-fueled behavior while accepting and acknowledging the feelings.
We acknowledge what we see in an open, encouraging manner: “You didn’t like it when I said you couldn’t ___. I hear that! You feel like hitting and throwing things. I’m here to stop you” (blocking hits or holding the flailing child’s wrists as needed, calmly moving unsafe objects the child might be heading toward, etc.). Whenever possible, refrain from over-restraining (which, like hugging, can make children even angrier). We do the least amount possible to keep the situation under control so as not to add any of our own energy to the situation.
4. Hold steady and let the storm pass.
This isn’t the time to analyze, re-state our case, or otherwise attempt to “reason” children out of their emotions. Emotions are beyond reason. When in doubt, it’s best if we say nothing and just accept with a nod of the head.
Besides hero suit imagery for helping us to hold steady, I’ve suggested picturing ourselves as an anchor in a stormy sea. Recently, another, more relatable analogy occurred to me… a windstorm.
The windstorm image came to life for me recently during a morning jog on a nearby beach. There’d been a violent storm the night before and it was still blustery. This was a breeze when I was jogging with the wind at my back, but going the other way was, naturally, far more challenging. Some gusts were so powerful that even with my best efforts to push on, I could only make incremental progress. I was practically jogging in place.
Wind-whipped sand stung my face, and there were several times a blast forced me to the side, and I had to pause, reset, and get myself back on track. I imagined these moments as similar to a raging child connecting a hit or kick that isn’t blocked or caught in time. We’re forced off-balance and have to collect ourselves and re-center. Lashing back angrily at this irrational, emotionally fueled force of nature would be as pointless as hollering at a windstorm.
Then, as if on cue, I was presented with a real life example of a healthy response to anger.
I had finally completed my run and was walking the rest of the way to my car when I saw something that made my heart sink. A sea lion pup lay motionless where the parking lot met the sand, apparently having made it the entire way across the beach before it died. (Sightings of dead and near dead seal and sea lion pups have been a depressingly common occurrence on West Coast beaches these past few years, particularly after a storm.)
A rescue worker from the California Wildlife Center had just parked her vehicle and was approaching the pup from the rear, towel in hand (to cover and remove it, I assumed). Suddenly, it raised its head, and with a ferocious roar turned to bite her. I screeched and jumped. The young rescuer didn’t even flinch. Lifting the pup calmly and adeptly, she shot me a gentle smile as I sheepishly explained, “Sorry… I thought it was dead!” And then, “Thank you for all you do. You’re amazing!” Moved by her capable, unflappable handling of the wounded sea lion and thrilled that it might be saved, I choked back tears. She knew something I want to always remember… Beneath most displays of anger and aggression are pain and fear.
We can do this.
For more encouragement to let anger be, and an example of how this approach “looks” with a toddler, here’s a success story that Hsiao-Ling shared in a respectful parenting Facebook group about the toddler she cares for (who has been adjusting to the recent birth of her baby sister):
I don’t think I could be as calm as I was with E this morning (particularly with all the other parents and kids in the room) without Magda (Gerber), Lisa (Sunbury), and Janet’s teachings. All I heard in my head was, “You are so mad, and I will let your feeling be.”
We were at an indoor park. E climbed up to the play kitchen counter. She has never done that before. I walked slowly to her and said, “E, I saw you climbing up here. This area is not available for climbing. You can come down by yourself, or I can help you to get down.” She said no and attempted to stand up. I acknowledged, “I see you really want to stay up here, but this area is not available to climb and stand. I will pick you up now.”
As I put her down, she screamed no, picked up a toy and threw it. I said, “You are mad, but I can’t let you throw.” She backed away from me and picked up a basket. I held down the basket and said, “I won’t let you throw.”
She let go of the basket and ran toward another basket. I blocked her way and contained her with my arms and legs without holding her (there were other children in the kitchen area). She pushed, cried, kicked, and said, “Go!”
I responded, “You want me to go,” so I slowly withdrew my arms and legs. But then she ran to a stop sign, picked it up, and threw it on the ground. I acknowledged, “It looks like you are still mad.” She ran back to the kitchen area. I didn’t want to take any chance of her throwing toys and hurt other children, so I decided to pick her up and said, “E, I can’t let you go to the kitchen area when you want to throw. I am going to pick you up, and we are going to go over there (walking). You are safe here, and you can be as mad as you want.”
We stayed in the corner. She screamed, pushed, kicked and cried while I contained her. I didn’t say much other than acknowledging she was mad. As she calmed down, I asked, “Are you ready to play?” All of a sudden, she burst into laughter, and said “Yea. Ready to play.”
She ran to a cart, pushed it up to the ramp, sat, and slid down as if nothing had happened!!
I know I am not perfect, but I was grateful for the opportunity to practice being a safe container for E’s feelings.
I share more about emotional health in my books