I never really witnessed pure rage up close until I became a parent of toddlers. My children, who are a bit older now, weren’t big tantrum throwers. But when they went for it, they really went for it: screaming, sobbing, full-body shaking — the works.
Fortunately, their respective meltdown phases were brief. I say “fortunately,” because I didn’t do much to help tame their outbursts. I was flummoxed by their fits of anger, and sometimes worried about who I was raising.
“Many of us were taught that anger is bad, and that to show we’re angry and express our feelings is bad,” said Jazmine McCoy, a child and family psychologist and author of “The Ultimate Tantrum Guide.”
But anger isn’t bad, Dr. McCoy said, nor is expressing it inherently dangerous or disrespectful. Learning to manage anger is a lifelong skill that allows children to function at home, in school and out in the world without losing control. And it’s a skill that parents can help their kids cultivate, even starting when they are babies and toddlers, by encouraging them to develop outlets and modeling strong coping skills yourself.
Don’t be afraid of tantrums
When it comes to kids and anger, it can help to remember a few simple facts: First, anger is a basic human emotion. And second, emotions exist to tell us about ourselves and our relationships, explained Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist and vice president of school and community programs at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that provides therapy to children and families. Emotions can help us to answer basic questions: What would we like more of? What would we like to stop?
Reminding yourself that anger is an intrinsic part of being human can help you respond to a rampaging child with compassion, not judgment. Yelling at a child — who is yelling at you and the world — is only likely to escalate the situation.
“Some emotions are really stressful, like fear or anger,” Dr. Anderson said. Parents should look to help their children process those emotions in a healthy way, he added. “The key is we want to be able to still make sure they can do what they need to do in school, with family, and in social situations, without their reactions to their emotions really getting in the way, or making it so that it’s difficult for them to form positive relationships.”
It can also be useful to remember that meltdowns or tantrums (nonclinical terms that describe those dreaded moments when your child goes totally berserk) can be a developmental rite of passage, especially for kids under 3 who are still learning how to self-regulate.
It’s not uncommon for toddlers or preschoolers to have tantrums several times a week, said Denis Sukhodolsky, director of the evidence-based practice unit with the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. The average length of toddler tantrums is around three minutes, he added, but there is a wide range in how long they can go on — anywhere between 1 and 20 minutes.
“Tantrums do serve a developmental purpose,” Dr. Sukhodolsky said. “Children are learning how to deal with independence, transitions, learning social rules, and they’re learning about situations in which compliance is required.”
Help children develop an emotional vocabulary
“Name it to tame it” — a phrase coined by psychologist Dan Siegel — is an oft-repeated mantra among child development specialists who believe in the importance of teaching children to identify and label their feelings so they can talk about what they are going through.
Dr. McCoy recommends reading babies simple board books with pictures of other children smiling or laughing or frowning, which they tend to find “captivating.” Evidence shows babies can begin to identify emotions in others by the time they’re just 6 months old.
Books can also be an effective tool for elementary-school-age children. Look at pictures and ask what the characters are feeling, or chat about the emotional implications of a particular plotline, prompting them by explaining what you see. The same goes for watching TV or movies together with adolescents or teenagers.
For younger children, visual aids like “mood meters” or “feelings thermometers” — which prompt children to describe their feelings and rate how intense they are — might be useful as well, whether they are feeling calm and relaxed or furious.
Whatever strategy you ultimately settle on, the goal is to help children develop the language they need to express their feelings. It is a skill that builds with time and practice, and can help them feel heard and understood.
“It is important to validate children’s emotions,” Dr. Sukhodolsky said — whether you’ve got a 2-year-old at home, or a 22-year-old.
Tell them when you are angry
Parents sometimes feel like they need to shield their children from their own emotions, but opening up during moments of fury or frustration can be educational. Describe to your child what it feels like physically. Is your mind racing? Is your heart beating fast?
“Really taking some time to slow down and label what’s happening in your body — and how you know you’re feeling what you’re feeling — is such a powerful experience,” Dr. McCoy said. “And it’s a two in one, because as you’re doing this for your child, you’re slowing yourself down.”
Be sure to take the crucial final step, she said: Show how you cope.
You might say something like: “‘I’m going to take a few deep breaths.’ Or ‘I’m going to take a seat for a moment.’ Or ‘I’m going to get some water,’” Dr. McCoy said. “Whatever it is you need in that moment, speak it out loud and help them understand what is happening.”
Identify effective ways to cope
Kids also need to find their own ways to self-regulate, and they may be different from yours. Helping your child find an outlet (or outlets) for their anger may take experimentation. Some children will respond to simple deep breathing exercises, Dr. Anderson said.
Others may require a more intense physical release. On her website, Dr. McCoy suggests letting children pound Play-Doh, rip up paper or build a block tower and knock it down. They might find it helpful to scream into or punch a pillow, or run around outside.
Ideally, you will learn to identify the signs that your child is growing frustrated and steer them toward those outlets before they have reached their boiling point. “You don’t wait until the situation explodes to prompt a kid to use a coping skill,” Dr. Anderson said. Experts say behavior correction is pretty much impossible when children are mid-meltdown.
“What you want to do instead is look for those moments when their frustration is just starting to escalate,” he said. Prompt them to try out coping strategies so they get practice managing big emotions before they become too intense.
Set clear boundaries around unsafe behaviors
Children must learn the distinction that while all emotions — including anger — are OK, not all behavior is OK, Dr. McCoy said. So clear, consistent boundaries around aggressive or unsafe behaviors are important.
And if your child seems to be angry often, or like they are struggling to regulate their reactions, check in with their pediatrician or a mental health provider.
Parents of toddlers and preschoolers should keep track of the duration and frequency of their children’s tantrums, Dr. Sukhodolsky said, as well as whether they occur across different contexts — so not just at home, but also in school, at the playground or on play dates.
“When adults are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is stopping them from being able to engage in school,’ or ‘It’s stopping them from being able to make friendships,’ or ‘It’s difficult for our family to get along,’ we are looking for things that might signal a need for treatment,” Dr. Anderson said.
Behavioral disorders, a category that includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders, like depression, can often present as irritability, he added. If your child is non-neurotypical, consult with your pediatrician or a therapist about alternate ways to deal with their emotions.
Listen and be open to your children’s feelings
In terms of the bigger picture, it is important to make sure your child has ample opportunities to discuss their feelings — anger, sadness, excitement, all of it — with trusted friends, family or a mental health provider.
It is not always easy to hear your child is having a difficult time, but those conversations and connections are essential for validating what they are experiencing and providing emotional release.
“I like to say the best form of anger management is feeling understood,” Dr. McCoy said. “Often when we’re angry, underneath we feel scared, we feel misunderstood and we feel disconnected.”