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How to help a child deal with anger

Anger is a normal emotion, but the key is learning how to manage the feeling.  For our youngsters, it can be a hard lesson to learn.  Lesley is seeking your suggestions and perspective:

What do you do with your young child's frustration and anger?  I need creative ideas for appropriate expression of anger for my 3 1/2 year old son.  I let him know it's ok to be mad but not ok to throw things, hit, call names.  I always give him suggestions for things to do instead but he never takes to it.  So where can a little boy put that anger and frustration?  He talks really well so verbal expression is no problem, but I feel like a physical outlet might be good for him, if possible?

What worked?  What didn't?  What are some phrases we can use to redirect or suggest alternatives?


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My initial thought is to wonder where is that much anger coming from in a 3 1/2 year old? Yes, anger is a normal feeling, but it sounds like his response is a bit more extreme than typical. Just some food for thought.
I don't know if there's a place he can 'put' it, if you were referring to giving him some physical outlet, such as a punching bag, or something to be physical with....that would only increase those behaviors, and not be a good and long-term appropriate release for his feelings. Set really clear limits with him about behaviors that are unacceptable, such as throwing things, or being aggressive to others (if that is the case)--and let him know the consequence for his actions. ("if you throw the crayons across the room when you get mad, you will have a time-out and they will be put away until tomorrow when we will try them again.")Then it's up to YOU to follow through.
Since he has strong verbal skills,how about working with him more on his verbal expression, and when you see something that is potentially going to set him off, be proactive and talk with him about the feelings that he is starting to have, and how he can resolve them in a safe way. If the incident has already occured, do the same type of talking it through with him, and/or let him draw a picture of his feelings. Yes, it's a LOT of work on your part, but it sounds like he really needs that kind of help right now. good luck!

When my 3 1/2 year old was 2, he was a terror. He was frustrated and often acted-out, or was just plain stubborn.

Thankfully, he's since outgrown that stage. At the time, though, I relied a lot on physical activities...at least if he was tired he couldn't act out as much.

We would--and still do--take walks almost every day (he can now go about 30 blocks round-trip, sometimes more if we stop somewhere for a chocolate milk).

He hates wearing his rain gear, though, so we had some indoor standbys for burning off the excess energy...Hullaballo is a great game, especially if you can spread it out over a large space (basically the game calls out a shape and the players have to jump over to it). The Boobah Get-up and Go game also was a big hit (although, personally, I think the boobahs are frightening).

I have a yoga video I use...he doesn't at all do the yoga with me, but would instead climb over, or under me, while I was trying to do the poses.

We also made sure he was getting at least 12 hours of sleep every day--although he was never really a napper, and has always been an early riser, so this means he goes to bed around 6:30.

Good luck!

prevention tips: enough protein, sleep, and info (if he thinks x is going to happen, but y happens instead - if you can see y coming, give him lots of prep about it). also, lots of thoughtful conversations or statements when he does deal well with frustrations.

other ideas: 1.see if there's a pattern or specific thing/time/event where he has a harder time dealing, and make adjustments 2. conversations about not throwing, etc when he's calm.... you could give him suggestions for safe alternatives then and ask for his ideas (i don't agree w/ the above poster that hitting a pillow will make it worse - that's true for some people, but not everyone) 3. lots and lots of patience, while he learns 4. sometimes hugs and a sympathetic tone help diffuse the heat of the moment, esp at that age. if you can convey that you're on his side and together you'll solve the problem, you can actively teach him what to do w/ frustration (first calm down w/ a deep breath, counting, or distraction; second, what's the problem; third, what can we do to fix the prob?)

good luck! nearly all toddlers and preschoolers deal w/ anger and frustration, even very verbal ones. they have all of these amazing new abilities, but they still get tripped up when they least expect it. also, because they're still learning so much language there's lots of room for misunderstandings.

My six year old can have some very intense outbursts if she does not get a good physical release. For her it is monkey bars - we have them in the backyard and the basement. There are days when she is having a rough time and will go on the bars for 15 minutes. Afterwards she is a totally different kid. Talking with other parents and staff at her school this is fairly "normal" which is why they love it when the kids can have outdoor recess. At her school the weather has to be really bad for them to stay inside.

My two year old has sensory issues and what appears to be anger is really her having a hard time processing what is happening around her. We work with a person on these issues and she says that many of the kids need intense movement - being held and rocked while firmly patted on the back, jumping, etc. She has a mini trampoline that we direct her to when she needs it. We also try to head it off when we can. It is not uncommon for people to hear us trying to get her to jump when we see she is getting overwhelmed. It really helps to calm her down.

So, I am going to totally disagree with kathy and suggest that you do find a good physical outlet. Also, the anger might not be really anger. My two year old throws things because of the physical charge she gets - it helps to center her if you will. I am not saying that your son has sensory issues but he may just need the physical release. Before the monkey bars were installed, I used to challenge my oldest to do as many jumping jacks as she could. It often worked.

My oldest is also very verbal. One thing about that is you need to be careful - since they can say a lot they do not always comprehend like you think they are. A friend has a son who has similar verbal skills and we have talked about how you have these really calm rational and mature conversations to only find out later that to them it was only words.

I've been meaning to write a huge thing on anger in young children, and I've been there for years so I really relate. I can get into details later about whether you might want to start getting your son (and your family) some professional help (we have and it's really helping), but in the meantime here's what works with Everett:

-- create a calm environment, from stem to stern. this is super hard and it runs the gamut from organizing his toys (meg asked us to put everything in bins and take one down at a time, putting the last one back before we get a new one down) to seriously limiting tv (only pbs kids and less than 1.5 hours a day, though my husband often messes with my limits, grrr) to taking as many deep breaths while parenting as you can. keep him out of chaotic stores like wal-mart and costco and petsmart. whatever might be causing noise and stress, work on cutting out.

-- when your child is angry, react calmly (super hard). offer him options, my best results have been inspired by everett's school lately, calmly asking him to pick another option. he knows what his options are now but you should come up with some: find a quiet space (even if it's socially unacceptable, like under a bench or table, it's better than yelling and hitting), read a book, ask an adult for help, think of a different way to solve your problem (with brotherly/peer disputes, the 'other way' is often trading a toy, or something like that). how many times have i said, just today, "everett, find a quieter way to deal with truman?" I can't count :)

-- gross motor breaks. totally agree with sarah c and kmat here, sometimes when i was at my wit's end with everett this winter i'd just push him out on the front porch with his coat and hat (often, separately) and tell him as calmly as i could that he just needed to get outside and play. you may have a better way of dealing with this (i.e. take him out yourself; in my worst moments he was engaging with his brothers and i was nursing, etc., and couldn't go out with him, or couldn't emotionally deal with his anger right then) but i think when your son is showing by his inappropriate reactions that he needs some sort of outlet, give him a safe-ish one. if you don't have a big backyard, hopefully you can get to the park quickly. ignore the neighbors if you can.

good luck!

i just realized that i was sort of implying a jump to conclusions in my first bit there, i wasn't trying to say just because someone's angry you need professional help :) I only meant to say that I wanted to write about guidelines about why WE got professional help and when someone MIGHT do the same!

me again...I didn't mean to imply that the child shouldn't have any physical activity---of course that's very important to kids. I think that getting outside and doing whatever activity is so beneficial to let off steam and energy and clear the brain a little. I was referring to specific physical things to 'get the mad out' such as using a punching bag, pounding the ground with a bat, tearing up papers, etc..I think those types of behaviors do not help young children process their anger appropriately.

I agree about the getting enough sleep, eating well (very little sugar or processed foods), and "exercising" (physical play)

That being said, a three-year-old will have many moments where he will NOT be able to handle his angry like A Responsible Adult. So at this stage? Containment is always a good option. Send the child to a safe place until he calms down.

My son just turned 4 so I know what you're going through. And your son's behavior sounds very typical to me. There are some great suggestions here, and every child is different, but what worked for us was talking to our son about ways to deal with his anger when he was in a calm, happy state rather than trying to deal with it during an outburst. We set clear boundries and gave him examples of ways to express his feelings. Now, after A LOT of practice, when he starts getting upset I can see him struggle but then he pops out with "I'm frustrated that I can't [insert action here]" and we talk about it. It doesn't fix the situation, but it shows him that he has the power to communicate his feelings and leads us down a very different path than hitting, name calling, etc.

Good luck to you!

thank you all!
i don't think it's a problem. he's not having rages or anything, just the normal frustration that comes with having a younger brother. he's not hitting much anymore. i think he's moved out of that phase but sometimes his instincts get the best of his intentions. it's more like yelling now! i constantly remind him how to talk to brother so that brother can understand him etc.

i think we're on the right track, i just wanted to hear some suggestions and firsthand experiences! i try for the most nurturing and sort of holistic way to teach him; i realize how i respond to conflicts teaches him how to. i try to be calm and as he gets older that's getting easier.
normally there's a very good reason for why kids are frustrated and it helps me when i look at his perspective (both kids') so i can understand the conflict.
we eat good and get lots of outdoor time (oh, spring!) as well as tickle, wrestle, dance and play.
thanks again for your input; now i'm going to re-read it.

Just thought I'd throw one more tip out there...our son is almost 3.5 and also has a new little brother. There is definitely an intensity about his outbursts that is louder and more dramatic than his temper tantrums a year ago. We also find that super calm, almost no reaction at all to his yelling/screaming is best although VERY hard to do when I'm so darn mad at him sometimes! When he's upset we try to do whatever we can to calm him down, including lots of hugging and encouraging him to 1)take deep breaths, and 2) use words to express himself. We also have a policy that anything violent or physically hurtful--hitting, pushing, etc. is an automatic time out--again, as calmly as possible carrying him over to the mat and setting the timer and then we talk a little (but dont obsess) when the time out is over.

We've had a very intense several months with him, probably a combination of various factors--new brother, giving up naps, lots of travel and some stressful decisions to make as a family--and we are now finally seeing some huge strides in his behavior. In the last 2-3 weeks there have been several occasions where he's gotten into "run-ins" with friends, and I've seen him catch himself--instead of just hitting right back, he'll take a deep breath, put his hand down and get some words out. We try to catch him doing the right thing and give lots of praise when that opportunity arises.

I also strongly agree with the other posts about food and fresh air. We focus on lots of protein, little to no TV, and time outside every day regardless of the weather. Good luck, I think I'm already looking forward to 4!

my 3.5 yr old daughter has similar boiling point issues. we talked about finding ways that she can get that energy out. we created some things she can do when she's frustrated like jump up and down, stomp her feet like an elephant, clap her hands like a seal, thump her chest like a gorilla. it helps me redirect my frustration and by the end of this routine she and i are both laughing, which we both needed.

here's to laughing! i'm glad you mentioned that.
can't we all be too serious sometimes!? laughing is real medicine and if we can help the kids get energy out and then laugh together, then they may be in a better place to deal with things lightly or talk about it.
i like the animal impersonations you mentioned.
i have a great book called playful parenting that talks about instigating fun in the middle of a struggle (among other things) just to break it up and make the kids forget what they're fighting about. it's like active, playful redirection.

What if you took some time together, during a calm moment, to decorate a blank pillow (like one you get from a craft store) with markers or glue on googly-eyes, angry face, etc. Something to him that resembled frustration or anger. Designate this pillow specifically as an outlet for his anger. Sometimes this could mean punching his pillow, yelling at his pillow, hopefully later talking to his pillow...
It still goes with the physical "outlet" thing, which is up for debate, but adds a creative element to it, that might personalize it for him.
When he gets angry, if he can breath long enough to go get his pillow (if you're at home at least).
Im no expert. Good luck to you and know that we all go through it at some point as kids and parents.

Our older son had a big issue with outbursts when he was around 4, and we did a couple of things.

First, we gave him a LOT of control over the things we knew he could do...i.e., do you want to get your cup out, do you want to get your shoes on, etc. Some of these things, he was already doing, but by giving him a sense of control over things, it really helped him to let go when it came to the things he couldn't have control over.

Second, we did a lot of "emotion talk." We tried to draw him out as much as possible, and when he wouldn't talk about it, we tried to model it "i.e., well, if that happened to me, I might feel this or this or this."

The outbursts started after my younger son started to walk, which was a total surprise to us. We expected the adjustment to a sibling to happen when our baby was born, not later...it was one of those things we didn't figure out until another mother mentioned it to us in the preschool parking lot...thank God for other mothers...

My daughter went through a very angry stage right 3.5. In our case it was almost entirely directed at me, the mama, and often included yelling, screaming, hitting and saying very hurtful things (she's also not frustrated by a lack of language skills!). It was hard not to react in frustration and anger myself, and I did, plenty. But what ended up working for us was to "spare the rod". After a bit of careful attention to her behavior, it seemed like she was having some serious emotional growing pains and was overwhelmed with the expectations and responsibilities of being a "big girl". So, I decided to switch gears and let her be a toddler again, temporarily. Instead of treating her like a 3.5 year old, I treated her like a 2 year old, and what I mean by this is that instead of assuming she was choosing to do these hurtful things, I reverted to going on the assumption that she didn't know any better. I lavished her with affection, was quick to forgive her trespasses and generally spoiled her for a week or so. This ended up working almost immediately and by the end of the week, she had moved through her issues and was acting like her old "big girl" self. She wasn't actually angry, she was feeling really insecure about getting older and was seriously provoking me because she needed reassurances that I would love and care for her no matter how big she gets, and forgive her if hits bumps in the road and maybe falls shy of our and her own standards for her behavior every now and again. We don't have a new baby in the house and we still had these growing pains, I can only imagine that a new baby can amplify the feelings that our daughter was experiencing.

My advice is to try taking a step back temporarily and give your son a pass on his outbursts. React calmly and the second he has calmed down, drop it and move on. I don't mean give him what he's yelling about, but don't punish him for the yelling either. His own tantrums will serve as punishment enough, since I can't imagine feeling that out of control feels good. Talk to him about it when he is calm in a casual way for no more than a minute (longer than that will feel like a lecture to a three year old) and really go out of your way to make him feel special. If at all possible, set aside as much time as you can to do fun things with just him, which for me meant picking her up early from preschool, slacking on the errands and doing household chores after bedtime.

For us the hardest part of all of it was that my daughter was behaving in a way that made me not want to spend time with her, so it created a horrible cycle of her lashing out, me backing off and her feeling that distance and becoming more upset and lashing out again. I have to admit it was really hard to resist the impulse to retreat when my daughter was being so hurtful, but it really only took once and the whole cycle was broken.

When I get angry, I have a huge physical response - a massive urge to punch, throw, and break things. Obviously I'm an adult and I know how to manage this. But assuming my daughter may have a similar physiological response to anger, I have no problem with letting her 'get the mad out' in a safe way. She knows that when she's mad she can use her words, come to her parents for hugs & kisses, and/or throw things that are soft and lightweight (usually a washcloth or a napkin). It works for her and for us.

Our almost 4 yo is a very verbal and emotional little guy and he expresses his feelings very openly...anger being one of them that frequently is displayed. We have found that helping him use feeling words (vs violent behavior) is good...you can find good charts with various faces and corresponding feeling words to put on your fridge.

Also sometimes modeling how to work it out helps too...if he is starting to throw a fit- I start stomping around, making ugly faces, saying "GOSH DARN IT" really loud, etc. This usually cuts the tension, either allowing him to express his real feeling or making him laugh. He sometimes joins in and we "get our mad out" together.

Deep breathing is very helpful too. I hold up my fingers, pretending they are candles. He then takes deep breaths and blows them out. We do this as many times as he needs to.

Hope these ideas might be helpful!

it's great hearing from all you mamas and all your ideas and experiences just add to my bag of tricks. it's so helpful.
"anon" posted treating her daughter like she's younger, loading on the hugs and kisses and all.
i think it's a very big deal for kids this age to be growing more mature and independent but not being able to have total control and understanding. it's a lot for them; my son mostly does an amazing job dealing with life.

kids want and need to be babied sometimes. it helps them feel safe again, taken care of, and special ( i realize there are other ways of making them feel this way). i notice when i hold my son in cradel hold and sing to him and say, 'when you were a baby...' he relishes in it. of coure i love it too! it warms our hearts. i remember that from when i was a child.

These are great suggestions. My son has never been much of a whiner or had many tantrums. He does frequently, however, get very angry and it's obvious he has no idea how to process those strong feelings. We read an old book by Mr. Rogers with outdated photos and such. Nevertheless, it has been our biggest tool as the real pictures of the kids really resonates with my son. I think the name of the book is Making Friends. There is a lot about anger in there and one of the things mentioned was using playdough to help when you are angry. We have playdough in his art cupboard and after reading that book, I heard him later that day hitting and kneading his dough on the counter. He said, "I'm getting my mad out Mom." Things have gotten progressively, albiet slowly, better ever since with lots of suggestions of healthier ways to be angry. :)

When our son was about four we all went through a very very difficult time while he was angry and physically violent.

One of the simplest things things that worked back then (and still does) was to ask him what he needed from us. He knew he was out of control, and had great ideas for how we could help him manage himself.

Good to see all these ideas on how to teach children how to identify their angry feelings and learn ways to express anger and manage the impulses. I've learned some new tricks, should we go through that again.

I highly recommend Becky Bailey's book 'Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline'. She has fabulous methods for teaching children to learn to become 'assertive' rather than the 2 typical alternatives of 'aggression' or 'passivity'. I've also found the by working with her method its helping me too.

This is a surprisingly timely post as I was just called in to a meeting at my son's preschool about his anger and aggressive behavior. Sigh. He's almost 4 and I only see a fraction of the behavior that they are describing so I am concered that he has been pidgeonholed as a "bad kid" but that's another discussion.

Thank you for the suggestions.

Thank you again uMamas for just the right blend of solace and ideas.

I had similar experiences with my 4.5-year-old son, who finally seems to be maturing a bit, and concur with many of the comments above. An additional trick that has often worked for me in the early stages of a tantrum is to start an "out-grumpus" game. This involves making the grumpiest grumpy faces at each other that we possibly can, and usually dissolves in uncontrollable giggling. (Sadly, this has not been as successful with my "terrible twos" daughter.)

What great timing for me to find this conversation! I had a parent teacher conference regarding my 4 year old son. His teacher told me that he is so angry and asked if he was like that at home. I told her that he had his moments, but in general, he is an expressive kid. he is so smart and has an amazing vocabulary, so he can articulate his anger. she explained that he was so angry that he said he wanted to blow up the school! i was in complete shock! my son doesnt even know what blow up mean! he has never said that before. i know he does get angry sometimes, but i just dont believe he would say that. she even made a comment about him saying these "terroristic things". who says that word about a four year old child!! he never hurt or hit anyone in his life. i am so offended and upset with the way the meeting went, that i'm switching preschool. dont get me wrong - i know we need to work on his anger and am learning ways to do so, but blowing up the school and hearing the word terrorist used in the same sentence with my four year old son?? i am just so sick over it.

I have a step son that has anger and anxiety issues. Food can not touch, will not try new food with a fight, threatens to hurt his sister makes comment that he doesn't like her, that he hates her, calls her names. We do have him in therapy but it doesn't seem like it is working. When we think it is working it just seems like he hits a rock and then he takes two steps backwards and we are starting all over again. Cutting his nails is a chore, We just had and episode where he had a emergency surgery done, and then was released from the hospital the next day and my husband and I had to be at an appointment and so a family member had taken care of him and his sister while we were at our appointment and he had went off on her, grabbed a screw driver stabbed my hutch, she took is away, called his sister names, told her he hated her, told she didn't have friends and told her know one loved her. My step son and step daughter live with their mother.We have gotten a hold of a doctor but in the mean time, He is not the only child in the house hold we also have two more boys and a little girl so all together we have four children. How do we manage with all their needs and make sure the one that is acting out is getting his needs met as well.

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I am a stay at home mother of 4. I myself suffer from bipolar. I am terrified for my 7 year old son. As a baby he had a hearing problem that we have since had corrected. He used to get violently angry due to the extreme amount of pain he was suffering from retracted eardrums. He would bang his head on anything and just scream for hours. After two surgeries the problem was corrected and he is now pain free. my concern is that my 7 year old son with an iq of 145 is still very very angry. Simply telling him no to a request will send him down a spiral of tears and apparent rage to himself and his older sister and younger brother. Even our poor dog is unhappy with my son. I have tried everything from putting him on the footbell team to quietly talking to taking away tv......everything!!!

I am completely lost and dont know what to do any more. I find that his rage increases my anxiety and I have to walk away most of the time just to keep my heart from jumping out of my chest. What confuses me the most is that out of my 4 children my son is the most affectioate of all my kids. Not in a way that is screaaming for attention butin a way that he reassures everyone that he loves them. I am losing alot of sleep over this but I love my son and fear his path.

I have a 4 and 3 quarters year old son, and from the time he could walk until about the age of 3 and a half or so, he was very, very, difficult. Everyday I carried him into preschool as he screamed and hit me, and it was the same taking him out. HE would hit me sometimes 20-30 times a day! He was very angry and defiant to me and his teachers, papa and grandparents. I was at a loss. He refused affection, which then hurt me and caused me to pull back at times. I was very close to taking him to counseling. I then became very very disciplilned with myself about disciplining him, always time-outs-----sitting "like a rock" on the ground, curled up with his face down, removing him from any place, activity, school, etc, during a temper tantrum, and strapping him in his car seat to calm down while I read a book in the front seat and periodically asked him if he was ready to try again, and then returned to the scene when he was ready, time outs on the step at home. Also, I taught him to use his words, saying things like, "I'm angry about that!!" while clasping his hands together and shaking them. At the same time, I became much more loving through Divine guidance and made many more attempts to give love to him, even though he turned them down often, he gradually became more open to me and me to him. Now, a year later, he is so kind, gentle, affectionate, sweet, cute and funny, laughing instead of frowning. The change is remarkable! His teachers said that kids mature a lot fron 3-4, and I also know the change was due to me changing, and God answereing my prayers for help, and to show me how to be. I'm no expert, but this is only my experience. Good luck!

Does anyone have a any good recommendations for a great child therapist for this type of issue?
I'm talking about for a 6 or 7 yr old (likely with some sensory issues) and preferably someone comfortable with attachment parenting, gentle discipline, etc. We aren't looking for someone who will take a Nanny 911 approach.
Any ideas much appreciated!

We're looking for this sort of advice too. Does anyone know of a local child therapist that you think would be helpful?

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