I spend my days hearing concerned parents say, “This child has an anger problem.” That statement is almost always followed by a child saying, “I just get a little mad.”
I then proceed to ask the parents several questions.
How do they display their anger (crying, tantrums, aggression)?
How long does the episode last?
Can you tell me the entire story of the last time they were angry (before, during, after)?
The answers to these questions determine what we do next. Sometimes intense displays of anger require the help of a professional because the child needs to be clinically evaluated. Most of the time, the child simply does not have the skill of emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation is when we deal with negative emotions in a healthy manner. The process of learning emotional regulation is lifelong. No human has perfectly mastered this difficult skill. Let’s be honest, we adults are not always the best models of it. I am far from having this skill mastered. A few years ago, my most important goal for a family trip to NYC was to take the subway out to Coney Island, ride the Cyclone, and eat a Coney Dog. Unfortunately, the Pope was visiting and the UN was in session, so normal transit routes were altered. After trying several routes with no success, I sat down on the floor of a Brooklyn subway stop and cried. I should have been able to control my own disappointment over such a silly thing, but in that moment, I failed and failed miserably. Despite my emotional regulation disaster, my family was able to look past my meltdown, go to Coney Island, and make a beautiful memory.
We have all experienced an eruption of our child’s negative feelings. This can look like “a spoiled child”, “bad behavior”, or an “emotional problem”. The simple truth is, they do not have the ability to stay emotionally regulated in hard moments.
Here are some tips on how to teach your children this important skill
Help them memorize the names and definitions of basic emotions. Do this through books, facial expressions, songs, videos, etc.
Instead of punishing an emotional outburst, have them repeatedly practice an appropriate response. Practice is the best teacher.
Make sure you are modeling appropriate behaviors when you react to life’s ups and downs.
Ensure you are encouraging everything that is positive. Kids who have anger issues sometimes feel over-corrected or over criticized. They may not be, it may only be their perception.
After an outburst, laugh with them about their anger. There is a definite art form to this, but it is important to teach children to laugh at and learn from their mistakes.
Use a video from the internet to show an example of a tantrum, talk about how silly it is, and practice an appropriate response.
Be careful and say “no” only when necessary. Do not make a habit of changing your “no” to “yes”.
Let your children have their emotions (you have no control over it anyway). Just make sure you are not reinforcing their outbursts by giving into them for your own comfort or to avoid your own embarrassment
In life’s difficult moments be loving and wise. Sometimes the best response is to ignore the outburst, hail a cab, and go to Coney Island.