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Here’s What You Need to Know About Teaching Kids to Manage Their Anger

By Fraser Mental Health Professional and Clinical Mentor Sarah Danielson and Mental Health Professional Jessica Leschak • kids and anger, helping kids manage anger, emotional regulation, teaching kids emotional regulation, anger management children, temper tantrums kids, children and meltdowns, children and anger, teaching children to manage anger, kids mental health, kids emotional regulation • May 09, 2024

Everyone gets angry sometimes. Any good therapist will tell you that anger is a totally valid and important emotion. It’s the way we act when we’re angry that can sometimes be the problem.

And yet, children aren’t born knowing how to manage their anger and other emotions. Teaching those skills typically falls to parents. But how do you handle a kid who is in full tantrum mode? Here are some ideas from two Fraser experts, Mental Health Professional and Clinical Mentor Sarah Danielson and Mental Health Professional Jessica Leschak.

An upset kid can’t respond rationally

The limbic region is in the middle of the brain, and it regulates arousal and emotion. When a person’s emotions are heightened, it’s hard for signals to go past the limbic area of the brain to the top of the brain — or cortex — where the brain does thinking and reasoning. So, a person’s ability to think through their actions or respond in a thoughtful way is reduced. The more upset a person is, the harder it is to respond rationally. So, when a child is very angry or throwing a tantrum, it’s nearly impossible to reason with them in this high state of arousal.

Children can’t learn well when upset

In this state, a child’s brain will also struggle to take in and process information. In other words, it’s not a time for you to give your child a long speech on responsibility or kindness (no matter how much they need to hear it). It’s also not a great time to try to teach your child a new skill, like taking deep, calming breaths.

“I often tell parents to talk less when their kids are mad because they can’t process it anyway,” says Fraser Mental Health Professional and Clinical Mentor Sarah Danielson. “After they’re calm, they can listen and take in what you need to say.”

Make sure you’re calm

Danielson shares that there is a saying among therapists, “The first person in the room to regulate is myself.” Fraser Mental Health Professional Jessica Leschak says, like kids, it’s helpful for parents to learn how to regulate themselves before they’re in an upsetting situation. She works with parents to recognize signs that they’re getting upset, such as holding their breath, clenching their fists or feeling the urge to yell.

These types of reactions might be “automatic parenting,” which means how you automatically respond to an upsetting situation. Leschak says parents are often conditioned to respond this way because of how they were raised. And when other more soothing reactions aren’t working, they default to those responses.

After learning to recognize these feelings, Leschak helps parents come up with some “self-talk” messages, which help them regulate and be there for their child. These might sound like, “I can help him,” “I know what he needs to calm down” or maybe, “What she needs most from me is to be here.”

If you can’t get a handle on your anger, give yourself permission to take a break from the situation, as long as your child is safe. If another parent or caregiver is present who feels calm, let them take over. “It’s okay to tag out and let the other person step in,” says Danielson.

After you’re regulated, you can successfully model co-regulation for your child.

Modeling co-regulation

By remaining calm with an angry child, you’re modeling regulation. This is one way you teach them to regulate their emotions. Co-regulation can look like talking in a calm voice and taking deep breaths together. It can also be as simple as sitting with or near your child when they’re upset. When a child has reached the peak of a tantrum, often the best response is to just be present and calm. Some children might benefit from a hug, and some might not. But just being there provides a physical comfort.

“Sometimes, empathizing and validating feelings is helpful,” says Leschak. “You could also say, ‘I’m here for you. I understand this is really hard.’”

Talking about feelings can help

Sometimes removing a child from a situation can help. Perhaps if someone is yelling at the grocery store, you could say, “This is making me feel upset. Why don’t we go to the car and listen to some music?” Expressing your feelings also helps your children learn to recognize and acknowledge those feelings in themselves. Then, by providing a solution, you’re showing them a positive way to respond.

Danielson says with younger children, narrating can also help. For example, “Oh, it seems like you might be worried. Your body is moving fast, and you're asking me a lot of questions. I wonder if you’re feeling worried?” Or, “I see your hands are getting tight. Can we do something to help you feel better?” Then, do that activity that helps them regulate, either with them or remain close by while they do it. Again, you’re modeling co-regulation.

Certain strategies only work in certain situations

Maybe you’ve figured out that your child finds drawing soothing, so you make sure they always have a pad of paper and pencils available. But art-making is only going to help when a child is experiencing low levels of upset. If they’re really upset, they’re just going to throw their art supplies around.

To help head off a meltdown, you can try humor or distraction. Most parents are familiar with using distraction with young children. You can also remove your child from an upsetting situation or from an “audience.” Like, when a child is angry with their siblings, tell their siblings to go to their rooms, or ask your child to go to their room and then go with them. That way you’re removing the “audience.”

“Having an audience in your most vulnerable moment can make it really hard to regulate,” says Leschak. “It can feel like those eyes are judging them, and they feel shame that they can’t just calm down.”

Teach emotional regulation skills when a child is calm

You can’t teach regulation tools when a child is already upset. As mentioned before, when emotions are heightened, it’s very difficult for a person to think clearly or learn new things. So, practice these skills when your child is calm, and then repeat these often. Over time, many children learn how to use calming tools independently with practice and support.

One way to help a child self-soothe is through deep breathing techniques. Deep breaths bring more oxygen to your brain, and forces your body to slow down. One type of deep breathing exercise is volcano breaths, where you start with your hands pressed together at your heart, take a deep breath in while raising your hands over your head, and then let your hands fall gently to your sides while you exhale. You then repeat this several times. If you’ve done yoga before, you’re probably familiar with this type of breathing.

You can also have a child pretend their fingers are candles, have them breathe in through their nose, and breathe out through their mouth five times, blowing out each candle. Fraser also has a virtual sensory room, with this and other sensory activities, that you can use to help your child regulate.

Perhaps, your child prefers to move their body to regulate, whether that be outside or dancing to music in their room. Many children just need time alone to calm down, so give them space, and then let them know you’ll come check on them in a little bit.

“Figuring out what works for your children is really about attunement and interest in your children,” says Danielson. “Just remain curious and open to trying to understand your child better, and then you can make connections about what makes them feel better and what might be upsetting them.”

What about kids who are neurodivergent?

The Child Mind Institute states, “Children with ADHD or anxiety may find it particularly challenging to manage their emotions and need more help to develop emotional regulation skills.” Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to be emotionally impulsive, says Leschak. So, they’re even more likely to react without thinking in an emotionally charged situation.

While it can be harder for kids with ADHD and anxiety, teaching them about emotional regulation follows the same principles, Danielson says.

At the same time, parents can do other things to support neurodivergent children at home. Many children with anxiety, ADHD or autism do better with consistency, structure and predictability at home. When they know how things will go and their environment feels safe, they’re happier and better able to regulate when something upsetting does happen.

“It’s also important to remember that if they could manage to not get angry or upset, they would. So, try to offer them compassion and understanding,” says Leschak. “If you can be a bit more flexible, that is helpful for neurodivergent kids.”

Focus on relationship repair

Despite all your best efforts, your child will still have meltdowns and get very angry. Again, it’s nearly impossible to reason with anyone having a meltdown, so don’t try. Instead, stay calm, try co-regulating, or give them some space to be alone in their room or to kick a soccer ball around the yard, if that helps. Then, once they’ve cooled down, Danielson suggests you focus on repairing the relationship.

Even if your child was throwing items across their room, hitting you or a sibling, or screaming at you, let them know that doesn’t change anything in your relationship. You could give them a hug and tell them you love them. Or try something like, “We all feel worried sometimes. Let’s talk about what we can do the next time you feel worried.”

“If you need a second to regroup, that’s okay, too,” says Danielson “You can say, ‘I’m still mad and need time to cool down, but I’ll come back.”’

Leschak adds that it’s very challenging to parent children with high needs, like those with autism, mental health needs and disabilities.

“You’ll need a parent support network, where you can share what is going on without worrying about using a filter,” says Leschak. “That can be another parent, a friend, a support group, a therapist, or some combination of all of these. Just don’t try to do it all on your own.”