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Boiling Over

We all get angry, but when your child frequently loses self-control, it’s time to act.

It’s a rare child (or parent) who doesn’t experience anger. But when anger seems out of control or habitual, it’s time for parents to act.
“There is a dangerous and pervasive myth that says people need to let their anger out or else, like boiling pots, they will spill over with all kinds of physical and psychological symptoms,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PsyD, author of What About Me? Twelve Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister (Parenting Press, $14.95).

“Venting anger, particularly in aggressive ways, makes people more angry, not less angry,” she says. So how can you help your child keep his anger from boiling over?

Before responding to a child’s anger, parents must cope with their own, says Steven Treat, CEO and therapist at the Council for Relations in Philadelphia. “We don’t want a situation where the child’s anger meets the parent’s anger,” he explains. If you find your own anger rise in reaction to your child’s, “take a time out — usually in your room — to give yourself a moment to collect and center yourself.”
 

Helping Your Child

Once you’re calm, it’s time to talk to your child and get to the root of the problem. Dr. Treat says “parents should explore the feeling of vulnerability, or emotion, beneath the anger and put it into dialog.” Here’s how.

1. Help your child calm down.
To constructively deal with his anger, the child must first calm down. To help younger children, Dr. Treat suggests a brief time out or a firm, thoughtful hug. For older children, Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests “soothing, pleasant or distracting activities” such as listening to music, visualizing a pleasant place, taking a walk or repeating a phrase such as “stay calm.”

Calming Strategy: Make a Box

Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests that young children make a “calming box” to help get their mind off an anger-arousing situation. Have your child decorate a cardboard box with pleasant sensory items, such as cloth of various textures, postcards, magazine pictures or perfume samples. Once calm, your child can deal with anger constructively with your help.

2. Identify the problem. Help your child ask herself, “Why am I so angry? What specifically has made me so mad?” rather than, “My mom is the meanest mom in the whole world!” A good, specific answer might be, “I am furious because my mom is making me clean my room before I can play video games.”
“Acknowledgement is key,” says Dr. Treat. “Not a parent giving in, but just acknowledging the child.” Listen to her and make her feel understood. “Remember,” says Dr. Treat, “at the end of the day, you and your child are in a relationship.”

3. Identify solutions. The child should ask himself, “What can I do about this situation?” Help your child come up with at least three choices such as: “I could sneak my video game, or scream at Mom that everyone else gets to play whenever they want, or clean my room and then play.” He might consider the consequence of each choice and then make a better decision.

If another person triggers the anger, help your child think about how that person feels. “Changing how we view the situation can change how we feel,” says Dr. Ken-nedy-Moore. Seeing things from another perspective can help to form a constructive response to the situation.

4. Talk about ways to handle future anger. “When we are angry,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore, “we are primed to attack.” She suggests parents teach their children (and themselves) to resist the impulse to act on anger by learning self-control techniques. These can include “moving away, crossing their arms, sitting on their hands, closing their mouths, and relaxing their muscles,” she says. Practice these techniques with your child by role-playing.

Teach Mastery

Helping a child to master an interest can also improve self-control, says Dr. Steve Treat of the Council for Relations. “

When a child has mastery over something, he will build self-concept,” he says. A stronger self-concept helps a child feel better about his life and less irritable. Interests can include sports, musical instruments, collections or other activities.

5. Teach effective communication. Give your child new, positive ways to handle situations and ask for what she wants, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

For older children this can mean using “I” statements such as “I feel like I am not being heard; please listen to my point.” Or, “I am frustrated because I really want to finish working on my painting before I have to clean my room.”

Remind younger kids to use words to express themselves. Say something like, “I see you are angry, please use your words to tell me what you need.” Good assertive dialog — stating a need or desire without aggression — is a cornerstone in anger management, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

Tools for Parents

1. Set Boundaries. “In my experience parents often try to be overly patient with their children,” says Philadelphia psychologist Karen Edelstein, PsyD. Offering too many choices and giving too many chances become part of the problem, she says. Instead, make it clear to the child what behaviors are unacceptable. For example, “I know you are angry, but you may not slam the door in this house.” Or, “I know your sister upset you, but you may not ever hit her.” Make sure you consistently respond to unacceptable behavior with consequences.

2. Parents unite! “A child’s anger can split parents over their ability to handle the child,” says Dr. Treat. Parents need to agree on ways to approach a child’s anger, then support each other and work together. Blaming each other only adds to the problem. “It is not a good idea for parents to play polar roles” such as the sympathetic parent and the disciplinarian, he says. Both parents need a healthy balance of dialogue and boundary-setting skills.

3. When anger persists, examine whether there are serious underlying causes. Among others, chronic anger can stem from:

  • Bullying or ongoing threats to the child’s safety
  • Tension in the family or school
  • Developmental delay or a learning disorder, causing frustration
  • Delay in learning social skills, leading to fights and depression

Your pediatrician or child’s school can help you look into these concerns.

Harriet P. Laveran is a local freelance writer.

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