In 2013, I became a father for the first time.
When I looked at that cute, precious bundle of joy, it did not cross my mind that I would have to help my son manage this incredible mix of emotions as he grew up. Besides that, I had to learn to manage mine too.
Four years into this journey, I cannot say that my wife and I have perfected our approach in helping our children deal with anger, but the acronym — ANGER — helps us remember the points to get through this together.
When our first child, Nathan*, was younger and unable to verbally express his feelings, my wife and I would help him identify his emotions by asking if he felt angry, frustrated or sad. While we knew the emotion based on his outward expressions, he needed to hear us identify them and acknowledge how he felt.
This is the stage that we are in right now with Jane*, our second child. As Nathan began to communicate verbally, we would ask him to describe his feelings on his own.
One important thing that I have learnt in my life is that negativity fuels more negativity — you scream, I scream, everybody screams, and nobody listens. With negativity, it is so easy to react with the same.
The difference between reacting and responding is that the latter includes more thoughtfulness in it. As a parent, my job in such situations is to diffuse the negativity and not add to it, lest I become a child to my child. In most situations, my wife and I would respond first by taking care of our emotions and ensuring that we aren’t simply reacting reflexively to the child’s expression of anger.
We would respond by taking care of our emotions and ensuring that we aren’t simply reacting to our child’s expression of anger.
Give Time and Space
Whenever possible and appropriate, we give our children the time and space to express their negative emotions. We feel that it is important not to short-circuit the process of their expressions, otherwise, our children may end up with extreme ways of articulating their emotions.
On one extreme of the spectrum, they might choose to suppress their emotions — especially in front of us — since we told them to “stop the nonsense” and showed no interest to dwell deeper into the situations. Conversely, they might become really good at emotional blackmail, since crying and screaming got them what they wanted. Give them time and space, but definitely not give in or give up.
We help them calm down by going to a quiet, less-stimulating space, which could be one of the rooms if we’re home or a less crowded area. Noisy restaurants and kiddie rides in malls are common trigger venues, so going where the sounds of nature replace electronic beeps and rowdy music will help too.
Give them time and space, but definitely not give in or give up.
It’s important to be aware of how the environment affects our responses too. When there’s an audience watching how you handle your emotional child, take the stress level down a notch for all involved by moving somewhere else to process the issue privately.
Express within Limits
When Nathan has an anger outburst at home and starts to shout uncontrollably, we would let him go through the course of the expression, first acknowledging his emotions and asking him to let us know when he is ready to talk about what happened.
We have also established an understanding that we will intervene when he hurts himself physically, hurts others physically or with words, or becomes a nuisance to others. In such scenarios, I would put a firm stop to his actions before removing him from the stressful environment to a less stressful one to help him process his feelings.
Restore and Teach
The idea behind processing our children’s emotions with them is to help bring them back to a state of calm, and repair any relational damage that occurred as part of the incident.
For our son, we work on helping him identify the reasons behind his intense feelings, teaching him the things he could do or say to avoid a repeat of the situation if possible, and expressing his emotions safely. For example, this process helps him manage his unhappiness when he’s unable to get what he wants. Instead of blowing up with anger or frustration, he has learnt to negotiate terms, as well as settle for alternatives or suitable explanations.
Processing their emotions with them helps them get back to a state of calm, and repair any relational damage that may have occurred.
Ultimately, whatever approach we choose to help our children deal with anger must be undergirded by love, so that our children will be able to come out of any angry situation knowing that Papa and Mama did what they did because they cared.
Anger is a normal emotion — even expected — when we consider the frustrations that young children face as they grapple to gain control over their minds, emotions and bodies. Being prepared to deal with it whenever it crops up is already half the battle won, turning each moment of anger into a milestone of trust and learning between us and our children.
* These names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.
© 2017 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Galvin currently works in the area of education research and has previously worked as an educator, youth counsellor, mentor and coach. He and his wife blog about their parenting journey at SngJia.
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