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Parents of toddlers everywhere look forward to the end of the tantrum. A day without fits of anger for no good reason becomes the light at the end of the tunnel for tired parents. Spend enough time at your local tot lot and you will hear the discussion about 5 being the “magic age” of reasoning. At 5, so say the veteran parents, kids no longer throw tantrums because you can actually reason with them. You can calm them down and help them solve the problem before they go boneless in the middle of the sidewalk. It's a nice story, and there is something to be said for the connection between age and fewer tantrums, but little kids can have some very big emotions.
"Meltdowns" becomes the new word for tantrums when kids enter the elementary school years, and some kids are more prone to melting down than others. Personality plays a role in how a child copes with stress and frustration, but so do various environmental factors (academic stress, family stress and medical issues, to name a few). The truth is that anger is a very common emotion (even among adults). Being quick to anger doesn't mean that a child lacks control or can't handle frustration — it simply means that a child hasn't yet learned how to channel feelings of frustration and anger.
Children are not born into this world with the necessary skills to channel and manage their anger. These are skills that children learn along the way. More often than not, they look to their parents for clues to the mystery of effectively coping with anger and frustration, but they also pick up tips (adaptive and maladaptive) at school, on the playground and on the playing field. Bottom line: If you want your child to learn to cope with anger without screaming, yelling and falling into a heap of sadness in the middle of the park, you have to teach your child adaptive coping skills.
Recognize anger cues
You know that feeling you get when everything seems to be falling apart and you just want to scream? Perhaps you grit your teeth until you get a headache or clench your fists while you attempt to breathe? Kids experience similar feelings when anger sets in, but they don't recognize those feelings as anger cues. They don't necessarily draw the connections between a racing heartbeat and a pending meltdown. While adults listen to these cues and find a way to cope instead of blowing up, many kids shift right into meltdown mode, no matter the circumstances.
Using a blank outline of a body (I recommend printing two: one for you and one for your child), help your child map out the places on his body where anger leaves its mark. If your child tightens his leg and arm muscles in response to frustration, for example, color the legs and arms of the body bright red and talk about it. Examples of physical symptoms of anger and frustration include:
- Clenched fists
- Clenched jaw
- Tight muscles
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
If your child can recognize anger cues, your child can begin to manage anger in a more adaptive manner.
Teach calming strategies
Many people rely on relaxation breathing to calm the senses during times of stress, and for good reason. Relaxation breathing can slow the heart rate and restore a feeling of inner calm. It can give you the time you need to reset yourself and look at the problem from a different angle.
All kids are different and different calming strategies will appeal to different kids. It's important to teach kids several options for calming down before reacting so that they have more than one strategy to utilize in the moment. Practice calming strategies regularly throughout the week, even during happy times, for the best results.
- Relaxation breathing (in for a count of three, hold for three, out for three. Repeat three times)
- Stress ball (keeping a variety of stress balls and squeeze toys on hand helps kids get that physical feeling of anger out)
- Paper tearing (tearing paper into tiny pieces can be very cathartic for kids, especially while verbalizing triggers of frustration)
- Coloring (filling a blank page with color can really calm the senses and reset the soul)
- Exercise (a 10-minute walk is an effective strategy, as are jumping jacks, jumping rope and other indoor physical activities)
Teach problem solving
Many kids become frustrated because they encounter a problem that seems impossible to solve. They get stuck in a specific thought pattern and aren't sure how to get beyond the obstacle. Teaching kids to stop what they're doing and use a calming strategy to calm down first helps them regroup before attempting to move forward in frustration. Once they are calm, teach them to look at the problem from a different angle.
Brainstorming is an effective problem solving tool for young children. Putting a white board or chalkboard at kid level in the play area encourages use of this tool. Ask your child to yell out every possible solution they can think of, no matter how silly, and write them down. Talk about each solution, circle the three best solutions, and help your child map out ways to solve the problem using each of the three. Your child can take it from there.
Show, don't tell
In an effort to avoid burdening children with adult problems, parents have a tendency to hide all feelings of anger and frustration from kids. The problem here is that anger is a very normal emotion and kids need to learn that all people experience anger at times. If you normalize for your kids, it won't feel quite as big and scary.
While it's generally a good idea to keep the specifics of grownup problems from the kids, it helps to model healthy anger management skills in the home. Talk about it when you feel frustrated instead of running to the bathroom and shutting the door. Verbalize what your anger feels like, model a relaxation strategy, and problem solve out loud. When parents show their kids that anger is a normal emotion and can be effectively managed, kids learn how to take control of their own anger.