This email came through to me last week:
“Hi Dr Justin
“Would love some tips on helping my 6 yr old unpack his anger.
“We try and encourage him to use his words as much as possible, with a pretty good hit rate. We try to model the same (as much as we can remember to! At the moment we get a lot of stamping off, shouting & screaming (just leave me alone), hitting back (esp if his 4 yr old sister is winding him up!) etc.
“Our current approach is "It's ok to be angry, it's not ok to (hit, scream at mummy etc). If you are feeling angry, take yourself to your room or the bathroom to calm down. Come back when you feel ready.' When he's ready we try and have a chat about what made him so cross & give him some options to try next time if he feels himself getting wound up.
“Any suggestions welcome because it seems to be happening regularly at the moment & I'm finding it a bit exasperating!My response:
There are few things more exasperating than dealing with an out-of-control, angry child. Staying cool amid temper tantrums, screaming and shouting, foot-stomping, door-slamming uninhibited aggression directed at you is no easy task!
Remain calm – emotions are contagious
I generally agree with what you’re doing to work with your son as he deals with his anger. It’s great that you refrain from being angry. When we get angry at our children’s anger, we simply model anger as an acceptable response to things we don’t like. Remaining calm and in control of our own emotions is an important first step to getting this right.
You may have noticed that when your children are angry, the natural response is to be angry as well. Emotions are contagious. We mirror what we experience from others. Unfortunately our natural responses are often unhelpful. And anger falls into that category… plus, it is addictive. The power that comes from our anger appears to solve our problems (at least in the short term), so we rely on it more. Being calm is the first critical step to helping our children control their anger.
Ask questions to teach
When your son is verbally and physically aggressive, I’d recommend some intervention. It may not always be possible in the heat of the moment. As you would have experienced, children don’t typically respond well to guidance when they are angry. It is often best to wait until things are calm and then have a reasoned discussion about the issue. I always recommend that we ask questions more than we give answers/lectures. By so doing, we can work out what our child understands and then just fill in the gaps. We also encourage them to do the thinking, which encourages internalisation of rules much more effectively than when they do the listening.
Parents are not for hitting
Some limits need to be set immediately. If your son is hitting, he needs to understand what hands are for, and what they are not for. Clearly let him know
“Mummy is not for hitting.”Other phrases, such as “Hands are for helping and being kind” can be useful to point out what is expected rather than simply emphasising what is disallowed.
Emotions are ok, behaviour is not
You seem to have a fairly good handle on this principle. I might suggest taking it a little further. Once your son is calm, talk about anger. Talk about how it’s normal to feel anger, but it’s not ok to act out in anger. Then, ask him to develop strategies and solutions for working through that anger. See if you can both identify ways that anger can be reduced, and problems can be worked on in appropriate ways.
Remember that anger costs
There are few if any times that anger might be beneficial in any way in our relationships with our children, our spouse, our parents, our colleagues... in fact, when we consider how anger plays out, it seems to be the perfect description of 'wholly unhelpful' in any context.
Responding to our children’s anger can be one of our greatest parenting challenges. It is tempting to show them who’s boss, to put them in their place, to chastise them for their ingratitude and lack of emotional regulation, and to generally dress them down and tell them to shape up.
However our patient responses, examples of kindness, and continued gentle guidance will do far more to help our children learn to regulate their anger than our angry responses. Being calm, working through emotions via careful, sensitive questions and discussion, and clear, firm limit-setting are the best antidotes to anger.