Helping Kids when They are Very Angry

1. Empathise

See the anger as distress.  Be present with them for a minute and care about them, without immediately trying to "fix it" and without trying to insist they calm down.  You might say things like: 

  • I’m really sorry you are feeling ………..
  • Oh, I really wish we could change it so that you COULD have/do/be……
  • It really sucks that ………..
  • I think I would probably feel …………. too in that situation
  • Oh no, how disappointing and frustrating….
  • This is obviously easier to do if the child is angry at something/someone other than yourself.  It is harder when they are angry at you: but still possible.  Sentences which might work include:
  • I wish I could decide differently about that…
  • It would be great if I could just let you….
  • I’m so sorry you are feeling like this…
  • I can see how upset you are, I wish it was different…

In the heat of a full on tantrum….

D – distance – See if they are willing to move physically away from the source of distress if possible. 

D – distract – Try to help them add other things into their mind – Playstation, TV, outside play, imagining things, coming up with ideas about weekend, quizzes, other play etc.  They will often be very resistant to any distraction at all, so break it into manageable bits:

“I know you still feel really angry, but I would really like it if you would agree just to spend five minutes outside with me on the ripstick”

“I’m not going to just forget this issue altogether, but before we do anything I think it would be good to take a break – just do the first level on Mario Kart and then we can talk again”

“Come on, let’s go into the kitchen for a minute and get a drink, I’ll make you a milo”

D - Disappear – Sometimes it can help to remove yourself from the situation.  Without an audience it is sometimes easier for kids to calm down.  Don’t abandon – but calmly say you will be in the next room/outside/inside for a minute and will come back very shortly.  If they seem to calm down and then escalate again when you come back, do the same thing again. 

If kids are hurting you or someone else, calmly and gently make it clear you will not let them do this.  Protect yourself and others by taking them away, moving away and removing dangerous objects if possible.

2. When they are a little calmer...

D – decide – help them take ONE small step towards something constructive they can do if possible.  This is not about solving the problem entirely, but just taking one action towards resolution.  Control and planning helps kids (and adults) feel better. Eg:

  • “write a letter”
  • “decide to stay away from X for the next day”
  • “remake your own Lego tower”
  • “ignore comments from Y from now on”

If they can’t decide on their own, offer them a couple of options to choose from. 

This decision making process can only be done when a child is a little calmer, and when they feel they have been heard and cared for.  If we rush into it too quickly, then it usually fails.

Before it happens again...

Help them express themselves in ways other than screaming/yelling/abusing.  Practice, write down, model and get them to rehearse sentences such as:

  • I am so disappointed …
  • I really wish that I could…
  • It is so frustrating that….
  • I am feeling angry because….

Generally, the more words/language a child has to express themselves, the less they will need to scream and yell.

Discuss how they might handle typical frustrating situations which emerge.  You probably know by now at least some of what is likely to press their buttons.  Talk through these situations, their options and ways for them to cope.

Discuss consequences for aggressive and mean behaviour.  It is still important that kids know limits about what is okay to do when they are angry.  At some time when everyone is calm, let the child know that even when they are really angry, it is not okay to swear at someone, insult someone or use violence.  Tell them that it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to be mean or abusive.  Ask them to help them suggest some consequences for if they are abusive or destructive.  If possible these consequences should be a natural result of their behaviour and applied gently and compassionately.  For example, if you are swearing at me, I will have to leave the room for a while.  Which means I won’t have time to make dessert tonight.  If you throw the toys, I will take them away for a while so you aren’t tempted to break them.  If you hit your sister, I will have to ask you to go to your room so you can’t hurt her.  Try wherever possible for them to be involved in deciding on these consequences, and they must be discussed in advance and then followed through at the time.

This is a lifelong process of learning.  Be patient with yourself and your child.  

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