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It is normal for all children in the per-school years to go through a phase of bad temper, even small babies feel rage and cry and make a fuss when their desires are not met. Most children will grow out of it by the time they are five years old while others will continue to have angry outbursts as they get older and even into adulthood.

Anger starts to increase in the second year because toddlers have no concept of patience and want everything immediately and because at this time they also become aware:

  • I am a person with my own needs and wants
  • I can control other people by my actions
  • I too can now say no

Many parents will be familiar with the full-blown tantrum, which can include screaming, breath holding, head banging and pounding fists. Parents will also be familiar with toddlers who resort to revenge that is directed at the person they are angry with by hitting or biting.

We all find it difficult to understand what lies behind all of this and do not realise the important part played by the child’s feelings, which is often a mixture of insecurity, fear, frustration and confusion. While we try our best to manage our angry children we frequently find it difficult to decide what might be helpful or unhelpful in this type of situation. Lets look at unhelpful ways of dealing with anger first.

  • Rewarding anger. A classic example of this is when a parent rewards a child for screaming and shouting by giving into his demands. The result is peace and quiet but the child learns that an angry outburst works because it was rewarded.
  • Smacking shows a child that hitting is OK. Studies have shown that smacking does not work. It just changes the behaviour at the time but it will return again later.
  • Adults, who show a lot of anger towards each other or at their children in the home e.g. shouting and swearing, show the children that it is acceptable to behave in this way.
  • Getting angry with a child who shows anger may teach him to be frightened of his anger and he may bottle it up inside and never learn how to express it properly.

What can a parent try instead that might be more effective? There are no easy answers, every child is different, what suits one child may not work at all with another. However the following suggestions may help.

  • Reflection allows the parent to look at the situations that lead to anger so that plans can be made to avoid them.

Common situations that can lead to anger and tantrums can be:

  • At the time of day when a child is collected from nursery he/she may be annoyed at leaving friends. Planning an activity and being prepared to give some extra attention on returning home may help.
  • When the parent returns having been apart from the child for a while. In this situation extra attention also helps. One way to do this is by stopping everything and giving your child your full attention. Get down to eye level with them because “eyes are more important than ears for listening”(Michael Quinn Director Family Caring Trust 2003)
  • Meeting up with friends for a chat and coffee or having guests to stay can cause the child to feel ignored. Remember to organise appropriate activities and use praise for playing quietly. Make sure that he/she gets noticed.
  • When a child is tired or hungry moving the mealtime earlier may help to prevent an angry outburst
  • Getting up in the morning earlier can prevent the morning tantrums, which frequently occur when the child is rushed and made to hurry up.
  • For younger children distraction at the early stages of an angry outburst usually works. Draw the child’s attention to something you can see outside e.g. a dog, bird etc.
  • Ignoring the outburst and removing attention can be useful
  • Holding the child until he/she calms down can also work.
  • Look at how you deal with your anger and try not to lose control. Say why you are angry and what you are going to do to calm down

When children are upset they are not able to discuss the problem so they act out the feeling instead. The following is a calming deep breathing exercise that can help everyone including parents to stay calm. It is suitable for children from the age of three but you can adapt it for younger children. Being aware of feelings is the first step and controlling them is the second step. The purpose of the calming activity is to help children and parents stop and think before reacting. It can be played as a game with the child during a play session by practicing it several times with them before the need has arisen. The child can then be reminded about it at the beginning of a stressful situation. It will take several attempts but once learned they are more likely to use this skill when they really need to.

Start by talking with the child about feelings when you and they are angry and how to get calm and keep control.

1. Tell yourself “Stop and take a look around”
2. Tell yourself to ‘keep calm’
3. Take a deep breath through your nose while you count to five, hold it while you count to two, then breath out through your mouth while you count to five.
4. Repeat these steps until you feel calm.
(M.Elias &J. Clabby, Social Decision Making skills. Centre for Applied Psychology, Rutgers University, 1989)

Share with your children how you know when you are stressed to help them to understand that our bodies tell us when we are about to lose control e.g. feeling upset. It will help them to recognise when they are about to lose control and to accept that it’s OK to feel angry but it is good to deal with it by first calming down so that feelings causing it can be talked out instead of acted out.
Frances Byatt-Smith RN RHV BA (Hons) Psychology.

Click here for our feature - 'Fighting between Siblings'
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for our feature - 'Encouraging good behaviour'
Click here for our feature - 'Link between emotions and behaviour'
Click here for our feature - 'The emotional needs of children'
Click here for our feature - 'The shy child'
Click here for our feature - 'Dealing with Toddlers fears'

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