Stomping feet, angry outbursts, screaming, name calling, digging in their feet. All children have temper tantrums and irrational bouts of anger at some point. Some children calm down relatively easily and respond to redirection, while others need more help along the way. I’ve struggled with helping some of my children manage anger and negativity and I’ve been gradually collecting calming techniques to incorporate into our home. The result is 15 Ways to Calm an Angry Child and Build Emotional Skills.
- Think of Anger Management as a Skill Your Child is Learning, Rather than “Angry” as a Personality Trait. If your child struggled with learning to balance on a bike, tie their shoe, or learn multiplication tables, you wouldn’t think these were permanent conditions. While building these skills might be frustrating at times, you wouldn’t categorize your child as a “velcro kid” or”doomed to only add and subtract.” It’s tempting to categorize our kids as angry, temperamental, grumpy, or even terrors sometimes. If we can flip the idea that our kids are “angry” into thy are building skills to control anger, the situation feels like something that can and will change with practice.
- Model Calmness. My kids are experts at pushing my buttons. Sometimes I think their main goal is to get a rise out of me. If they are mad and frustrated, I should be too, right? I listen to myself exclaim, “Calm down!” in a frustrated voice and I know it’s counter-productive. Feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness are normal, but I want my kids to see me modeling what to do when I feel them. This can mean walking away until I’m calm or taking deep breaths. I practice answering once in a calm voice, ensuring that they’ve heard me, then not responding when anger escalates. And it’s hard. If I can’t model calmness and anger management, though, how can I expect my children to build these skills?
- Incorporate Time-Ins Daily. I can’t say enough about the value of time-ins. The linked blog post goes into specific details, but the idea is to positive attention throughout the day using 50 pats or praises a day. This sounds like a big job, but it’s actually not. Time-Ins are the preventative medicine of anger management strategies. It doesn’t mean your child will never be angry, but it tips the scales of your interactions to the positive.
- Validate Feelings. The first response to anger is often to tell someone to calm down or stop being so mad. This call to suppress emotions often has the opposite effect on my kids. They become raging mad when they were just moderately mad before. Kids are allowed to feel whatever emotions they feel and I tell my kids “I know you are [angry, sad, frustrated, hurt] and it’s okay to feel that way.” Feelings are in-bounds. Hitting, throwing things, breaking things, or lashing out with mean words are not okay. Validate those emotions, then build the skills to work through them in a healthy way.
- Turn on Your Thinking Brain. I learned about the concept of the thinking brain and the feeling brain recently. This can be introduced to your child in a very simple way. When our feeling brain takes over, we often get trapped by negativity and controlled by our anger. If we can tap into our thinking brain, we can find solutions to calm down, create solutions, and move on. You can teach this to your child by drawing a simple sketch of the brain with the “feeling” side much larger than the “thinking” side and tell them to visualize switching them when they are angry.
- Cool Off. Time-outs became a battle ground for our family that didn’t do anything to defuse anger. Cooling off encouraged our children to walk away from a frustrating situation in a structured way. Cooling off means having your child go to a separate space to calm down until she or he decides they are ready to talk calmly. This isn’t standing in a corner for a punishment, but taking time to cool off and can include activities such as quiet play, reading a book, or lying down.
- Bubble Breaths. I watched my son practice bubble breaths and a light went on for me. If you want to make the best, biggest bubbles, you have to blow your breath out slow and steady. Slow breathing can feel too abstract for kids, but bubble breaths are a concrete way to teach this idea. Be sure to practice with good quality bubbles when everyone is relaxed and calm.
- Play the What If Game. Some people are more wired toward negativity than others. They get on a negative train of thought and take it to the worst possible station immediately. Minor things cause major reactions. The “what if” game can be serious, silly, or a combination of both. If your child is upset because they spilled a cup of milk, what if they spilled the whole gallon? What if they poured it on their brother’s head? What if you drank milk and it came out your nose? The what-if game can diffuse the situation, provide a fun redirection, and help your child gain some perspective.
- Consequences for Poor Choices, Not Anger. Resist the Punishment Pile-On. I readily admit struggling with this one. Consistency is key when it comes to building emotional skills. Decide on your rules, select clear consequences, then stick to them. If your child loses screen time for hitting and needs to go cool off before coming back to the play room, make that consequence clear. When they lose their temper and respond negatively to the consequence, resist the urge to punish the child for their anger. Remain calm, follow through, and don’t get on that negative train with your child.
- Spend Work-Free Time Together. Set aside time to just “be” with your child. Choose an activity for pure fun and social time. Don’t stress about teaching moments, correcting, or working on skills. Both kids and adults crave free time together without pressure to perform or to get it “right.”
- Wait to Talk It Out. I have a habit of using 20 words when 5 words will suffice. The height of your child’s tantrum is not a great moment to talk through what they could be doing different, explain empathy, or remind them of the “why” of consequences. Be direct, clear, and succinct with your words. A good rule of thumb is to use the same number of words as your child’s age to get your point across in the moment. Talk it out when things have calmed down.
- Replace “You Always” and “You Never” with “You Are” and “You Can.” Always and never feel pretty darn permanent. If someone likes to tell you what you’re always doing wrong and what you never do right, why try doing things differently? I get caught up in this trap often. It’s my default when I’ve remained calm, but my child is still at it. But I want my child to know that they are capable, kind, and responsible. I want my child to know that he can use his thinking brain, he can keep his hands to himself, and he can cool off on his own. He may not be or do all of those things always, but I’m going to acknowledge when he does.
- Hug it Out. I love this suggestion because I have seen a child’s anger melt away with a hug. That being said, hugging it out is not forcing physical contact on a child. If a child says “no” or pushes you away, then hugging it out is not the solution this time.
- Redirection. Pinterest is burgeoning with redirection suggestions. Talk to your children during calm times about things they can do instead of hitting or yelling when they’re angry. Involve them in creating some of these choices.
15. Try, Try Again. Oh, how I wish I was giving you a 15 step program to success in 30 days! What works today, might not work as well tomorrow. A few days of improvement might be followed by a meltdown. Helping your child build emotional skills can be discouraging at times. The best advice I can give to myself and anyone else is to celebrate successes, however small, and not to become focused on set backs.
What are some of your favorite ways to help an angry child calm down?