A “Positive” Perspective for Managing Anger in Toddlers
Holy Batman, do toddlers have anger management issues or what? In my entire life, I have never seen someone so enraged over the smallest little things. Especially on the days when my toddler skips his afternoon naps, I feel like I am walking on eggshells, afraid to accidentally make him fly off the handle. K.C. Dreisbach, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, is here to talk about how to manage anger positively in our toddlers. So let’s continue with K.C.’s Blog Book Tour for her new book, Trials of the Working Parent before the next tantrum occurs!
Welcome to our 2nd blog visit on the “Trials of the Working Parent” Blog Book Tour, and Part 5 of our multi-day, Q&A Series! If you missed yesterday’s post, check it out here to read about self-care for moms (or dads)! I hope you have been enjoying our Q&A thus far. We are almost done! If you have missed our previous posts, I highly recommend you go back and check them out before proceeding, particularly Part 1. I establish to some ideas to keep in mind as you read through the series.
Now, let’s jump into today’s topic!
Question: How do you handle anger issues? My 4 years old gets mad easily and flies off the handle. He often yells, shouts, kicks, throws things, and punches his younger brother.
Answer: Oh, those good old anger issues…. May I start off by saying that you are in no way, shape, or form alone on this one. So many parents come to see me because their kids struggle with anger. I think I could write an entire book on this topic, but I’ll try to keep it short. To tackle this question, let’s review some helpful info on what anger is. We all know that anger is an emotion, but what most parents don’t know is that anger is typically a secondary emotion. This means that there is another emotion that comes first, and then rapidly develops and morphs into anger. I’ve given hour-long lectures to graduate students on why an emotion morphs into anger in children, but that won’t really help you. What’s more helpful to understand is what these underlying emotions that trigger anger are. While there is much debate over this topic, in my own clinical practice as a therapist, I define these emotions as follows:
- Frustration (Defined for me as “unmet expectations”)
When dealing with anger in young children, it’s important for us, as parents, to help them develop an understanding of what they are experiencing. We do this by helping them voice their emotions and develop a vocabulary for appropriate self-expression. Let’s look at an example:
Sally is playing with her doll when her younger sister comes and takes it away from her. Sally starts to cry, showing signs that she is upset. Dad comes in, and when he discovers what the issue is, he asks Sally to please let her younger sister have a turn with the doll. Sally becomes more upset, begins to yell and scream, and ultimately snatches the doll back while shoving her younger sister to the ground.
In this example, I think we can all see that Sally is angry. We can also guess that she is probably frustrated, right? She might have been expecting that Dad would give the toy back to her, but instead, he allows the younger sibling to keep the toy. Sally’s expectation isn’t met, and thus, produces frustration. We might also be able to infer that Sally could be hurt, too. If she is expecting her Dad to come in and get her toy back, only for Dad to come and allow the sibling to keep the toy, we can see where she may feel hurt by Dad. After all, does this mean that Daddy loves younger sister more? Is younger sister more important than her?
A good way for Dad to manage this example would be to help Sally identify her emotion with language that is developmentally appropriate. When my daughter was 2, and she would cry, I would always ask, “Rachel, are you happy, sad, mad, or scared right now?” In the beginning, she would say sad or mad, but as I helped her identify the different emotions, she began to acknowledge different emotions. In our example, Dad could offer the same question to Sally. If she is very young, she would most likely say “sad” or “mad” for her response. Dad could then take the opportunity to ask her why she is “sad” or “mad.” This step gives your child the space, time, and opportunity to express themselves to you. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can always do this step. When they express their feelings and thoughts about why they feel the way they do, it’s also important that we listen! Try to remember what it was like to be a kid again yourself. Do you remember what it was like?
So, now that we have a little bit more of an understanding of anger as an emotion, let’s talk about how we deal with anger issues in children. Here are some basic tips on how to tackle this problem:
- Help Your Child Regulate Their Emotions- If you remember in Post #2, I talked about Emotion Regulation in children. Children who have intense anger reactions typically need help regulating their emotions. You can help by teaching your child techniques to help them calm down, like Counting to 10 or Deep Breathing.
- Help Your Child Label Their Emotions- As I mentioned earlier, it is important to help your child identify the emotion they are feeling and encourage them to use their “words” to express themselves. We need to prompt our kids to use their coping skills and their “words” to explain what they are experiencing. Also, letting your child know that you can’t understand what they are trying to tell you when they scream will help motivate young kids to try and calm down.
- Help Your Child Think of an Alternative Behavior– I always encourage parents to have a discussion about appropriate ways to express anger. Some families are completely ok with children stomping their feet or screaming into a pillow, but other families are very opposed to this. Think about ways your child is allowed to express anger in your home. Spend some time talking and practicing with your tot about these “acceptable” ways of expressing anger and model it too!
- Prompt Your Child to Use Their Alternate Behavior- Finally, when your tot gets angry and starts acting out, remind them of the “appropriate” ways to express themselves. Prompt them to do what it is you already practiced with them. And remind them to use their relaxation tools to help them calm down too!
I hope this was helpful to you! I also recommend you read through the responses of some of the other questions since some of the tips on basic discipline can also be helpful to you. You might also want to check out my new book, “Trials of the Working Parent,” where I discuss topics like emotion regulation, discipline, and managing troublesome behaviors in more depth.
That’s all for today! Please join us again tomorrow for the next part of our series where we are going to talk about sibling rivalries. And don’t forget to follow me on Facebook to get updates on the Book Tour. See you all tomorrow!
Guest Author Bio
K.C. Dreisbach is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Southern California. She has spent years in the field of mental health helping thousands of families achieve happy, healthy lives. Currently, she is a Clinical Supervisor for a non-profit agency working with troubled youth and their families. She is also the author of the new book, “Trials of the Working Parent.” In her spare time, she enjoys outdoor activities and spending time with her two young children and husband.