Parents expect temper tantrums from 2- and 3-year-olds. But angry outbursts don't
always stop after the toddler years. Older kids sometimes have trouble handling anger
and frustration too.
Some kids only lose their cool once in a while, but others seem to have a harder
time when things don't go their way. Kids who tend to have strong reactions by nature
will need more help from parents to manage their tempers.
Controlling outbursts can be hard for kids — and helping them learn to do
so is a tough job for the parents who love them. Try to be patient and positive, and
know that these skills take time to develop and that just about every child can improve
with the right coaching.
A Parent's Role
Managing kids can be a challenge. Some days keeping the peace while keeping your
cool seems impossible. But whether you're reacting to an occasional temper flare-up
or a pattern of outbursts, managing your own anger when things get heated will make
it easier to teach kids to do the same.
To help tame a temper, try to be your child's ally — you're both rooting
for your child to triumph over the temper that keeps leading to trouble.
While your own patience may be frayed by angry outbursts, opposition, defiance,
arguing, and talking back, it's during these episodes that you need your patience
most. Of course you feel angry, but what counts is how you handle that.
Reacting to kids' meltdowns with yelling and outbursts of your own will only teach
them to do the same (and actually is associated with an increase in children's negative
behaviors). But keeping your cool and calmly working through a frustrating situation
lets you show — and teach — appropriate ways to handle anger and frustration.
Let's say you hear your kids fighting over a toy in the other room. You have ignored
it, hoping that they would work it out themselves. But the arguing turns into screaming
and soon you hear doors slamming, the thump of hitting, and crying. You decide to
get involved before someone gets really hurt.
By the time you arrive at the scene of the fight, you may be at the end of your
own rope. After all, the sound of screaming is upsetting, and you may be frustrated
that your kids aren't sharing or trying to get along. (And you know that this toy
they're fighting over is going to be lost, broken, or ignored before long anyway!)
So what's the best way for you to react? With your own self-control intact. Teaching
by example is your most powerful tool. Speak calmly, clearly, and firmly — not
with anger, blame, harsh criticisms, threats, or putdowns.
Of course, that's easier said than done. But remember that you're trying to teach
your kids how to handle anger. If you yell or threaten, you'll model and ingrain the
exact kinds of behavior you want to discourage. Your kids will see that you're so
angry and unable to control your own temper that you can't help but scream —
and that won't help them learn not to scream.
What You Can Do
Regulating emotions and managing behavior are skills that develop slowly over time
during childhood. Just like any other skills, your kids will need to learn and practice
them, with your help.
If it's unusual for your child to have a tantrum, when one does happen, clearly
but calmly review the rules. Saying something like "I know you're upset, but no yelling
and no name-calling, please" might be all your child needs to hear to regain composure.
Then patiently give an instruction, like "tell me what you're upset about" or "please
apologize to your brother for calling him that name." In this way, you're guiding
your child back to acceptable behavior and encouraging self-control.
Also, tell your child what will happen if he or she doesn't calm down — for
example, "If you don't calm down, you need to go to your room until you're able to
Kids whose temper outbursts are routine might lack the self-control necessary to
deal with frustration and anger and need more help managing those emotions. These
steps can help:
Help kids put it into words. If your child is in the middle of
an outburst, find out what's wrong. If necessary, use a time-out to get your child
to settle down or remind him or her about house rules and expectations —
"There's no yelling or throwing stuff; please stop that right now and cool it." Remind
your child to talk to you without whining, sulking, or yelling. Do not engage
with them if they continue to yell or whine, as we want to teach them that they can
gain your attention through calm behavior. Once your child calms down, ask what got
him or her so upset. You might say, "Use your words to tell me what's wrong and what
you're mad about." This helps your child put emotions into words and figure out what,
if anything, needs to be done to solve the problem. However, don't push too hard for
your child to talk right then. He or she may need some time to reflect before being
ready to talk.
Listen and respond. When your child puts the feelings into words,
it's up to you to listen and say that you understand. If your child is struggling
for words, offer some help: "so that made you angry," "you must have felt frustrated,"
or "that must have hurt your feelings." Offer to help find an answer if there's a
problem to be solved, a conflict to be mended, or an apology to be made. Many times,
feeling listened to and understood is all kids need to calm down. But while acknowledging
your child's feelings, make it clear that strong emotions aren't an excuse for bad
behavior. Make it clear that it’s OK to feel mad, but it’s not OK to react
to that anger by yelling or hitting. "I know you're mad, but it's still not OK to
hit." Then tell your child some things to try instead. Some kids really just need
to be "heard" first.
Create clear ground rules and stick to them. Talk about house
rules regularly so your kids know what you expect of them. Be clear about what is
and what is not acceptable without using threats, accusations, or putdowns. Your kids
will get the message if you make clear, simple statements about what's off limits
and explain what you do want them to do. You might say: "There's no yelling in this
house. Use your words to tell me what's upsetting you."
Here are some other good-behavior rules to try:
In this family, we don't hit, push, or shove.
There's no screaming allowed.
There's no door-slamming in our house.
There's no name calling.
We don't say mean things in this family.
You may not throw things or break things on purpose.
Coping Strategies for Kids
Kids who've learned that it's not OK to yell, hit, and throw stuff when they're
upset need other strategies for calming down when they're angry. Offer some ideas
to help them learn safe ways to get the anger out or to find other activities that
can create a better mood.
Take a break from the situation. Tell your kids that it's OK to
walk away from a conflict to avoid an angry outburst. By moving to another part of
the house or the backyard, a child can get some space and work on calming down.
Find a way to (safely) get the anger out. There may be no punching
walls, but you can suggest some good ways for a child to vent. Doing a bunch of jumping
jacks, dancing around the bedroom, or going outside and doing cartwheels are all good
choices. Or your child can choose to write about or draw a picture of what is so upsetting.
Learn to shift. This one is tough for kids — and adults,
too. Explain that part of calming down is moving from a really angry mood to a more
in-control mood. Instead of thinking of the person or situation that caused the anger,
encourage kids to think of something else to do that might bring about a better mood
— like a walk around the block, a bike ride, playing a game, reading a favorite
book, digging in the garden, or listening to a favorite song. Try one of these things
together so you both see how doing something different can change the way a person
Building a Strong Foundation
Fortunately, really angry episodes don't happen too often for most kids. Those
with temper troubles often have an active, strong-willed style and extra energy that
needs to be discharged.
Try these steps during the calm times — they can prevent problems before
they start by helping kids learn and practice skills needed to manage the heat of
Make sure kids get enough sleep. Sleep is very important
to their well-being. The link between a lack of sleep and a child's behavior isn't
always obvious. When adults are tired, they can be grumpy or have low energy, but
kids can become hyper or disagreeable or have extremes in behavior.
Most kids' sleep requirements
fall within a predictable range of hours based on their age, but each child is a unique
individual with distinct sleep needs.
Help them label emotions. Help kids get in the habit of saying
what they're feeling and why — for example, "I'm mad because I have to clean
my room while my friends are playing." Using words doesn't get a child out of doing
a chore, but having the discussion can calm the situation. You're having a conversation
instead of an argument. Praise your child for talking about it instead of slamming
the door, for instance.
See that kids get a lot of physical activity. Active play can
really help kids who have big tempers. Encourage outside play and sports your child
likes. Karate, wrestling, and running can be especially good for kids who are trying
to get their tempers under control. But any activity that gets the heart pumping can
help burn off energy and stress.
Encourage kids to take control. Compare a temper to a puppy that
hasn't yet learned to behave and that's running around all over the place getting
into things. Puppies might not mean to be bad — but they need to be trained
so that they can learn that there's no eating shoes, no jumping on people or certain
furniture, etc. The point is that your child's temper — like a puppy —
needs to be trained to learn when it's OK to play, how to use all that extra energy,
and how to follow rules.
Recognize successes. Many times these go unnoticed so be sure
to comment on how well your child handled a difficult situation when you see positive
behaviors. Point out specifically what you liked about the way they handled it, so
they'll be more likely to use these strategies in future situations.
Try to be flexible. Parenting can be a tiring experience, but
try not to be too rigid. Hearing a constant chorus of "no" can be disheartening for
kids. Sometimes, of course, "no" is absolutely the only answer — "no, you can't
ride your bike without your helmet!" But other times, you might let the kids win one.
For instance, if your kids want to keep the wiffle ball game going a little longer
and they ask appropriately, maybe give it 15 more minutes.
Try to identify "at-risk" situations and be proactive. For example, if your child
has difficulty with transitions, give warnings ahead of time. Similarly, if your kids
have trouble turning off the television when asked, be clear how long they can watch
TV or play video games and then set a 5-minute warning timer. Be sure to enforce the
As anyone who's been really angry knows, following sensible advice can be tough
when emotions run high. Give your kids responsibility for getting under control, but
be there to remind them how to do it.
Most kids can learn to get better at handling anger and frustration. But if your
child often gets into fights and arguments with friends, siblings, and adults, additional
help might be needed. Talk with the other adults in your child's life — teachers,
school counselors, and coaches might be able to help, and your child's doctor can
recommend a counselor or psychologist.