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Plain Talk About...Dealing With the Angry Child
Handling children's anger can be puzzling, draining, and
distressing for adults. In
fact, one of the major problems in dealing with anger in children is the angry feelings that are often stirred up in us. It has been said that we as parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators need to remind ourselves that we were not always taught how to deal with anger as a fact of life during our own childhood. We were led to believe that to be angry was to be bad, and we were often made to feel guilty for expressing anger.
It will be easier to deal with children's anger if we get rid of this notion. Our goal is not to repress or destroy angry feelings in children-or in ourselves-but rather to accept the feelings and to help channel and direct them to constructive ends.
Parents and teachers must allow children to feel all their feelings. Adult skills can then be directed toward showing children acceptable ways of expressing their feelings. Strong feelings cannot be denied, and angry outbursts should not always be viewed as a sign of serious problems; they should be recognized and treated with respect.
To respond effectively to overly aggressive behavior in children we need to have some ideas about what may have triggered an outburst. Anger may be a defense to avoid painful feelings; it may be associated with failure, low ' self-esteem, and feelings of isolation; or it may be related to anxiety about situations over which the child has no control.
Angry defiance may also be associated with feelings of dependency, and anger may be associated with sadness and depression. In childhood, anger and sadness are very .close to one another and it is important to remember that
much of what an adult experiences as sadness is expressed by a child as anger.
Before we look at specific ways to manage aggressive and angry outbursts, several points should be highlighted:
- We should distinguish between anger and aggression. Anger is a temporary emotional state caused by frustration; aggression is often an attempt to hurt a person or to destroy property.
- Anger and aggression do not have to be dirty words. In other words, in looking at aggressive behavior in children, we must be careful to distinguish between behavior that indicates emotional problems and behavior that is normal.
In dealing with angry children, our actions should be motivated by the need to protect and to teach, not by a desire to punish. Parents and teachers should show a child that they accept his or her feelings, while suggesting other ways to express the feelings. An adult might say, for example, "Let me tell you what some children would do in a situation like this... It is not enough to tell children what behaviors. we find unacceptable. We must teach them acceptable ways of coping. Also, ways must be found to communicate what we expect of them. Contrary to popular opinion, punishment is not the most effective way to communicate to children what we expect of them.
Responding to the Angry Child
Some of the following suggestions
for dealing with the angry child were taken from The Aggressive Child by Fritz Redl and David Wineman. They should be considered helpful ideas and not be seen as a "bag of tricks."
Catch the child being good. Tell the child what behaviors please you. Respond to positive efforts and reinforce good behavior. An observing and sensitive parent will find countless opportunities during the day to make such comments as "I like the way you come in for dinner without being reminded"; "I appreciate your hanging up your clothes even though you were in a hurry to get out to play"; "You were really patient while I was on the phone"; "I'm glad you shared your snack with your sister"; "I like the way
you're able to think of others"; and
"Thank you for telling the truth about
what really happened:
Similarly, teachers can positively
reinforce good behavior with statement
like '1 know it was difficult for you to
wait your turn, and I'm pleased that you
could do it"; 'Thanks for sitting in your
seat quietly"; 'You were thoughtful in
offering to help Johnny with his spell
ing"; 'You worked hard on that project,
and I admire your effort?
Deliberately ignore inappropriate
behavior that can be tolerated. This
doesn't mean that you should ignore the
child, just the behavior. The 'ignoring"
has to be planned and consistent. Even
though this behavior may be tolerated,
the child must recognize that it is
Provide physical outlets and other
alternatives. It is important for children
to have opportunities for physical exer
cise and movement, both at home and
Manipulate the surroundings.
Aggressive behavior can be encouraged
by placing children in tough, tempting
situations. We should try to plan the
surroundings so that certain things are
less apt to happen. Stop a "problem"
activity and substitute, temporarily, a
more desirable one. Sometimes rules
and regulations, as well as physical
space, may be too confining.
Use closeness and touching. Move
physically closer to the child to curb his
or her angry impulse. Young children
are often calmed by having an adult
Express interest in the child's
activities. Children naturally try to
involve adults in what they are doing,
and the adult is often annoyed at being
bothered. Very young children (and
children who are emotionally deprived)
seem to need much more adult involve
ment in their interests. A child about to
use a toy or tool in a destructive way is
sometimes easily stopped by an adult
who expresses interest in having it
shown to him. An outburst from an
older child struggling with a difficult
reading selection can be prevented by a
caring adult who moves near the child
to say, "Show me which words are giving you trouble?
Be ready to show affection. Some
times all that is needed for any angry
child to regain control is a sudden hug
or other impulsive show of affection.
Children with serious emotional problems, however, may have trouble accepting affection.
Ease tension through humor. Kid
ding the child out of a temper tantrum
or outburst offers the child an opportunity to "save face." However, it is
important to distinguish between face
saving humor and sarcasm or teasing
Appeal directly to the child. Tell
him or her how you feel and ask for
consideration. For example, a parent or
a teacher may gain a child's cooperation
by saying, "I know that noise you're
making doesn't usually bother me, but
today I've got a headache, so could you
find something else you'd enjoy doing?"
Explain situations. Help the child
understand the cause of a stressful situation. We often fail to realize how easily young children can begin to react
properly once they understand the cause
of their frustration.
Use physical restraint. Occasionally
a child may lose control so completely
that he has to be physically restrained
or removed from the scene to prevent
him from hurting himself or others.
This may also "save face" for the child.
Physical restraint or removal from the
scene should not be viewed by the child
as punishment but as a means of saying, "You can't do that." In such situations, an adult cannot afford to lose his
or her temper, and unfriendly remarks
by other children should not be
Encourage children to see their
strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Help them to see that they can reach
Use promises and rewards. Promises
of future pleasure can be used both to
start and to stop behavior. This
approach should not be compared with
bribery. We must know what the child
likes-what brings him pleasure-and
we must deliver on our promises.
Say "NO!" Limits should be clearly
explained and enforced. Children
should be free to function within those
Tell the child that you accept his or
her angry feelings, but offer other suggestions for expressing them. Teach
children to put their angry feelings into
words, rather than fists.
Build a positive self-image.
Encourage children to see themselves as
valued and valuable people.
Use punishment cautiously. There is a fine line between punishment that is hostile toward a child and punishment that is educational.
Model appropriate behavior. Parents and teachers should be aware of the powerful influence of their actions on a child's or group's behavior.
Teach children to express themselves verbally. Talking helps a child have control and thus reduces acting out behavior. Encourage the child to say, for example, 'I don't like your taking my pencil. I don't feel like sharing just now."
The Role of Discipline
Good discipline includes creating an atmosphere of quiet firmness, clarity, and conscientiousness, while using reasoning. Bad discipline involves punishment which is unduly harsh and inappropriate, and it is often associated with verbal ridicule and attacks on the child's integrity.
As one fourth-grade teacher put it: "One of the most important goals we strive for as parents, educators, and mental health professionals is to help children develop respect for themselves and others? While arriving at this goal takes years of patiem practice, it is a vital process in which parents, teachers, and all caring adults can play a crucial and exciting role. In order to accomplish this, we must see children as worthy human beings and be sincere in dealing with them.
Adapted from "The Aggressive Child" by Luleen S. Anderson, Ph.D,, which appeared in Children Today (Jan-Feb 1978) published by the Children's Bureau, ACYF, DHEW.
National Institute of Mental Health