Sometimes I don’t know who gets angrier — me or my 3-year-old! It’s usually about something small — like not being able to get his shoes on when I’m going to be late for work. At first I might be nice, then I get irritated, then I explode! I feel as though we’re both having meltdowns and I’m being as much like a toddler as he is. Help!
Good for you for asking for help. As we all know, everyone — young or old — gets angry. So it’s important for children to learn how to express anger in a way that doesn’t hurt themselves or other people. Over time, they will learn that they can get angry, feel bad and then be free to experience other, more pleasant feelings. With practice, they can even learn to notice when feelings other than anger might be more appropriate for a situation — feeling frustrated or impatient or annoyed rather than only feeling angry.
If that sounds hard to you, think of how hard it must be for a young child. He isn’t old enough to understand feelings very well. Sometimes he just expresses them — happy, sad, angry — by laughing, crying or yelling.
A 3-year-old first needs to learn words to name his emotions. A parent can help him learn by labeling his expressions of emotion with words: “I can see by your big smile that you’re happy now!” “You look so angry when your face is all turned down like that.” You can talk about characters in the stories you read, describing their feelings in words. “The boy in the picture sure looks sad.”
You can also use stuffed animals or puppets to tell your child stories that show how characters express their feelings in the way they act. You can recreate situations in storytelling that are similar to what has happened in your child’s real life. Let your child watch a little bear saying “No” when it’s time to put on his shoes, and getting upset when Mama Bear insists. Mama Bear can then say, “I know you get angry when I make you do something you don’t want to do, but sometimes it’s important to get your shoes on before we go outside.” You might even tell a story in which the little bear doesn’t cooperate, and then the Mama Bear yells at him. Then Mama Bear can say, “I’m sorry I yelled so loud. It hurts my ears when I yell — and maybe it hurts yours, too. So I’m going to try not to yell.”
As you use these ways to teach your child the words for feelings, you can also talk about the ways that the feelings can best be expressed. You could tell your child that when you (or, in a story, Mama Bear) get mad, you feel better if you stamp your feet. “But what would happen if when I stamped my feet I stamped so hard that I broke my toe? Or broke the floor? Or stamped on the cat?” (It’s OK to get silly — it usually helps children to listen better!) In this way, you show your child that expressing anger is OK, but that you are careful not to hurt people or things when you express yourself. These techniques only take an extra minute or two as you play or talk with your child. Most parents find that their children enjoy the storytelling and learn the concepts the parents are teaching them. Imaginary play usually works faster and better than lectures.
Offer a Solution
Sometimes a young child needs help in using words to express what he needs and wants — before he gets angry. Using the storytelling or puppet play methods, you can suggest ways that characters can cope with anger by figuring out solutions. For example, a puppet could be angry because he has to go home while his friends are still playing. A puppet mother could be understanding of the anger and ask, “What can we do to solve this problem?” The angry child puppet could make suggestions, and the mother and child might agree to arrange another play date. Children can also use art materials to express themselves: pounding clay or painting or coloring on big pieces of paper can be an outlet for strong emotions. A parent can ask a child to tell a story with a drawing, or ask the parent to draw the story, which can include ideas for making things better. Another way for young children to express themselves is by using physical activity to release energy: throwing pillows or balls (outside!), playing with water or just running. A parent can tell a child, “When you’re angry, you can tell me in words, but if words aren’t enough, here are things you can do.” After the child gets the feelings out, the parent can say, “Now, let’s talk about helping solve this problem.”
It is also helpful to have family rules for expressing anger, and these should be rules that all members of the family can accept and follow. An easy rule for young children to understand is, “In our family, we don’t hurt people or things.“ When your child hits or hurts someone physically, you can remind him of the rule. If his behavior is unusual, you may want to immediately try to find out what has caused him to act that way. But if your child often has » trouble controlling his impulse to hit, kick or bite, it’s usually better to remove him or yourself from the setting for a “time-out” and deal with his feelings after you are both calm again. You can ask him to use words to tell you, or the person with whom he is angry, how he feels. You may be able to help him solve the problem that caused his anger. You may have to let him know that you accept and understand his feelings but that you can’t fix the problem. Either way, your child is learning that you want to help him with his frustrations, not just shush him.
Sometimes it is helpful to keep a diary to record “flash points” to notice when, where, and why you or your child gets upset. You might find that he gets upset mostly when he’s tired, hungry or in the middle of a transition. Or you might find that it’s not just his behavior, but your own mood that sends you into your own outburst. If that’s the case, this may be the time to learn some new ways of reacting.
Children learn to express feelings by watching you and the way you react to them and to other people. If you’ve noticed that it’s hard to hold back your feelings, it may mean that you haven’t yet learned to express frustration, impatience or anger in a healthy way. Fortunately, there are good resources in the Bay Area for learning these skills. Parent classes and support groups can be found through Bananas (bananasinc.org) or through the Berkeley Parents Network (parents.berkeley.edu). Some parents find that a stress-management program approach works well for them. Sometimes called Mindful Parenting, these groups are offered by local leaders. Yvonne Mansell, (yvonnemansell.com) a Berkeley therapist who leads these types of groups, says, “Many moms find it easier to learn new methods for managing anger and stress when they are in a supportive group setting with other parents dealing with similar issues.” Another resource for parents is Kaiser Permanente (kp.org). Most Kaiser locations offer an excellent class on managing anger that is open to the general public. Parents come to the class for the reasons you’ve described, to learn to respond to a toddler tantrum without having a tantrum of their own.
Meg Zweiback is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She is an associate clinical professor of nursing at University of California, San Francisco and posts articles and other resources on her Web site, bringingupkids.com. To possibly have your question included, please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org