Temper Taming Tactics
Neither of my kids, who are 8 and 10, have so-called “bad tempers.” But I’ve noticed that if they’re around each other too long, such as when they’re home together during the summer, they start to get on each other’s nerves. By the end of a typical day, if I’m not careful, someone will “lose it.” Sound familiar?
Whatever it is that sets your kids off, keep in mind that “anger is as legitimate an emotion as joy or sadness, and it’s the most common way children express feelings of frustration,” says Sal Severe, Ph.D., a school psychologist and author of “How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!” But anger can get backed up in the pipes. According to Mitchell H. Messer, the president of the Anger Institute in Chicago, children who don’t learn to express their anger properly can develop an attitude of perceived unfairness. This mindset can linger into adulthood and contribute to social maladies such as road rage, violence, and the syndrome in which grown men and women act like 4-year-olds when the going gets tough. To manage their anger constructively, children need their parents’ help. Here are some temper-taming tactics that can help your kids learn to handle this powerful emotion — and help you keep your sanity.
Be a role model.
“Children learn by imitating your behavior and emotions,” Messer says. So, if you don’t want them to carry on when they’re angry, be sure to avoid that behavior yourself. “If you’re setting an example of craziness, you kids will model that behavior,” he says.
Don’t take it personally.
When your child lashes out at you — “Mommy, I hate you!” don’t strike back in anger. “Reacting angrily teaches children what to say and do to push your emotional buttons in the future when you do something else that hurts their feelings,” says Severe.
Instead, neutralize your child’s anger by acknowledging it with phrases such as, “I’m sorry you’re so angry,” or “I’m sorry you hate me today, but I still love you.”
Give your child choices.
After you’ve acknowledged your child’s anger, give her choices. “What do you want to do about this?” “How long do you want to stay angry?” The goal: You want your child to calm down enough to talk about solutions to the problem. The talking-it-through tactic is one that Lisa Russell, a 26-year-old mom of three, finds particularly useful with her 4-year-old daughter, Meagan, who is prone to anger “episodes.”
“When we see Meagan ‘heating up,’ we say, ‘What’s going on? You look a bit frustrated,’ ” Russell says. “Then we discuss different ways to constructively handle the situation. I make sure to listen to Meagan’s ideas, even the ones that sound terrible,” Russell says.
According to a recent survey of 1,532 parents across the U.S. by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., one in five parents spank their kids for discipline.
If you’re among them, keep in mind that spanking may get your child to improve his behavior on the spot, but it won’t teach him to alter his behavior in the future. “Kids don’t internalize the message behind spanking,” says Severe. “It’s a meltdown for the parent, and most parents feel guilty afterwards.” A better idea: Talk with your child about the misbehavior after you’ve both had a chance to cool down.
Anticipate tough situations that are likely to cause your child to have an outburst. If you’re food shopping, for example, engage your kids in the activity and make them part of the process, such as helping you pick out a healthy breakfast cereal. “The more involved they are in any situation, the better they’re going to behave,” says Severe. If that doesn’t work and a tantrum ensues anyway, leave the store and try again later.
Reinforce good behavior.
Praise kids for what they do well. “It’s a very simple idea, but it’s something we all forget to do,” says Severe. For example, you might say, “Thanks for listening to me the first time and bargaining with your brother instead of fighting” or “I appreciate your doing that without an argument,” or “thanks for getting off the computer when I ask you to do it.” “Kids live for acknowledgment and approval,” says Severe.
To manage your child’s anger with any of these tactics, keep up the good work. “Consistency is the most important factor in your relationship with your child,” says Severe. “It’s more important than love, which is almost biological,” he says. It’s also a lot of work. “Consistency takes tremendous commitment and dedication,” says Severe.
The payoff is worth it. You’ll have kids who learn to stay calm and problem-solve through situations rather than get angry. “It’s something a child as young as 4 or 5 can learn to do,” says Severe. And what if your child is a teenager? “It’s never too late to start anger management,” he says, “but the sooner, the better.”
Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer specializing in health. She is a frequent contributor to Parents, American Baby, Child, Fitness and Prevention. She’s also the author of “Consumer Reports Best Baby Products.”