Children go through predictable stages as they develop, and anger is inevitable as they struggle to master their changing bodies and feelings. You, as a parent, have to keep readjusting the line between what you need to do and what your child is now ready to do for herself.
Anger becomes a problem when children do not develop the skills to be masters of their own anger. Angry kids can become stuck in the toddlers' mentality: Might makes right. Me first! Aggression and power take top priority. Explosive children have not learned to recognize signs of anger in their own bodies so that they can calm themselves in a fit of rage. Aggressive children have not yet learned that words can solve problems and that everyone can win.
Preschoolers: Heading Off a Tantrum
Instinctively, you can help your preschool child relax at the first signs of anger:
1. Begin to hum or sing as soon as your child begins to fuss over a frustrating task (a button that won't fasten, for example). Your singing may [lighten the atmosphere] and encourage your child to try again more calmly.
2. Help your child find ways to cope independently. Suggest what he or she might do to correct the problem and offer a sense of "I can do it myself!"
3. Speak calmly. Give your child a useful example to imitate. You can say, "Sometimes I feel angry, too, and I do _____ to help me feel better."
4. Try to distract your child. Many preschoolers respond to redirection. Suggest that the two of you read her favorite story. Remind her that her stuffed animals might want to play. Place crayons and paper in easy reach.
5. Beware of offering treats as distractions. These will only encourage your child to continue expressing anger inappropriately, in the hope that you'll offer a bribe again.
As children grow older, they need more time alone to relax and regroup--with books, tapes, art, supplies, and crafts. More active children may do better if they spend their solo time performing a chore or being allowed time for active play. These outlets are especially effective if you suggest them before your child has exploded.
1. Start by being an example. Talk about the automatic ways you use these steps every day. Each evening, as you routinely discuss the day's incidents, include examples of how you used "Stop, Think, and Do" to your advantage.
2. Ask your child what else you could have tried to be more in control. Your child may particularly benefit from hearing you discuss situations in which you felt frustrated and angry but used actions and thought to calm yourself before talking with others about the problem.
Now you and your child are ready for skill-building sessions, which will prepare your child for the Do part of the exercise. Do not start these when your child is already upset or tired. Begin during a quiet, reflective time. First, let your child know that you are proud of how mature he is becoming and how much confidence you have in his ability to use the "Stop, Think, and Do" plan himself.
3. Have him discuss or act out a time when he has already used these steps to stay in control.
4. Play "What If?" with each of you imagining frustrating situations and practicing how you could use this new skill.
5. Praise your child whenever you catch her using the strategy. Keep track of the number of times she stays in control each day and reward her with an extra story or other special time with you. When she reaches an agreed-upon total during a week, she can earn a bigger reward, such as a movie-and-popcorn night.
Children operate marvelously in the present. They have a wonderful capacity for moving on with hope and energy. You can take advantage of your child's ability to look forward. You can be instrumental in giving peace a chance.
Meg Eastman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with The Children's Program in Portland, Ore.
From "Taming the Dragon in Your Child: Solutions for Breaking the Cycle of Family Anger" (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), c. 1994 Anne Margaret Eastman and Sydney Craft Rozen. Used by permission of the authors. All rights reserved.