by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Mad
Anger is generally a natural response to certain issues or situations, yet it is often felt or expressed in ways that are scary, confusing, or even unhealthy. Many people consider anger a “bad” emotion and view its expression as destructive. As a result, experiencing anger can be difficult for both children and adults.
Indeed, 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 adults that more love, safety, or protection is needed. Anger in a children can help them learn more about their own needs and self-care—and how to vent frustrating feelings. Anger need not be a negative experience.
Most children require guidance, support, and instruction as they learn to identify and regulate angry emotions. It’s not always easy for little ones to understand feeling mad. What we don’t want to do as adults is stigmatize or present anger as a bad emotion to feel or express. We need to encourage children to be mindful about their frustrations: why they occur, how to express them, and ways to resolve them.
Here are five tips for helping children understand anger.
1. Teach Children That Anger Is Natural
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 feel angry sometimes. Help them understand that while anger is a natural reaction, there are ways for it to be expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways.
2. Talk About 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 understand and learn healthy ways to express anger can give them self-confidence, teach them positive social interactions, and help them self-regulate confusing emotions. Encourage children to Use your words when anger presents. This will help little ones move away from using physicality (breaking toys, hitting, or other aggressive behaviors) to express anger. When children show maladaptive behaviors, redirect them by prompting: “Instead of throwing your toys, tell me what’s bothering you.” “Instead of hitting your brother, tell him why you are mad.” Make sure you praise children’s adaptive expressions of anger so they can feel good about their emotional choices.
3. Teach the Whys of Anger
Help children understand why they are angry. And help them identify the situation that they are reacting to. 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. Problem-Solve Ways to Reduce Anger
Teach children ways to resolve their anger. Does the situation need a compromise? (“Maybe you and your brother can take turns playing with the swing.”) Are boundaries or limits needed? (“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 children’s anger stemming 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 children how you express your own angry feelings in healthy ways and problem-solve the situation to resolve it, you reinforce their evolving skills.
Deborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.
Deborah is the author of the Sometimes When collection.
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