Kids are little people with huge emotions, and when they don’t know what to do with their emotions, they may act out physically. Learn how to stop your kid from hitting with this detailed step-by-step guide!
As a Marriage & Family Therapist and Parenting Specialist, anger has to be the number one reason why a parent brings a child into my office.
Everything from 2-year-olds in a classic temper tantrum, to 10-year-olds hitting, biting, and scratching their parents, to 17-year-olds who have caused well over $10,000 in damage to the family home, have walked through my doors and into treatment. Anger is a tough one to work with because it can be so destructive, but it’s not impossible.
What does your child do in the middle of a rage? Does he hit you? Does he throw things in the house or at you? Does he yell, curse, scream, and degrade you?
If you find yourself nodding your head, then you’re probably feeling a mixture of embarrassment, desperation, sadness, and even shame. No one wants to have this kind of problem on their hands. And no one really understands how they got to this point.
Let’s start by coming to understanding that you are not a bad parent AND you have not failed. As we dive into the necessary pieces to correcting this problem, you’ll notice much of the work will be with YOU.
Yes, your child will need to do some work as well, but you will be putting in most of the effort to restore order in the home.
I’m also going to assume that your child is not suffering from any learning disabilities or mental health conditions. This doesn’t mean that these strategies won’t work for your child, but there is some additional work that would need to be done to manage these unwanted behaviors successfully.
With that said, let’s take that deeper dive into “anger,” and learn what you can start doing today to restore harmony to your home!
What is Anger?
We all know that anger is an emotion, but what most parents don’t know is that anger is typically a secondary emotion. Another emotion comes first, and then rapidly develops and morphs into anger.
Understanding what these underlying emotions are that trigger anger is going to be vital in helping you work with your child.
While there is much debate over this topic, in my clinical practice as a therapist, I define these emotions as follows:
1. Frustration (“unmet expectations”)
When dealing with anger in young children, it’s crucial for us, as parents, to help them develop an understanding of what they are experiencing. We do this by assisting them in voicing their emotions and developing a vocabulary for appropriate self-expression.
Let’s look at an example:
Sally is playing with her doll when her younger sister comes and takes it away from her. Sally starts to cry, showing signs that she is upset.
Dad comes in, and when he discovers what the issue is, he asks Sally to please let her younger sister have a turn with the doll. Sally becomes more upset, begins to yell and scream, and ultimately snatches the doll back while shoving her younger sister to the ground.
In this example, we can see that Sally is angry. We can also guess that she is probably frustrated, right? She might have been expecting that Dad would give the toy back to her, but instead, he allows the younger sibling to keep the toy.
Sally’s expectation isn’t met, and thus, produces frustration.
We might also be able to infer that Sally’s feelings could be hurt, too. Sally may be expecting her Dad to come in and get her toy back, but instead, Dad allows the sibling to keep the toy. Does this mean that Daddy loves younger sister more? Is younger sister more important than her?
So, what should Dad do?
Step-by-Step Guide to Tackling Anger
You can tackle anger outbursts with these 5 steps. Regardless of how old your child is and no matter what the situation, you are going to want to go through these 5 steps every single time your child is having a temper tantrum or anger outburst.
Before you go through these steps, however, make sure you and your child are safe.
If your child is a danger to themselves or others, you should consider calling 911 or your local PET/PMRT number (Psychiatric Emergency Team/Psychiatric Mobil Response Team). This is a team of mental health professionals who have been trained and designated by your county to assess if someone needs to be hospitalized. You can find this number by googling your county’s mental health department website.
Once you’ve determined that your child is not at risk of harming themselves and is not a danger to others, you can proceed with the steps I’m going to give you today. Use these steps every single time your child becomes angry.
Be consistent! This part is extremely important and vital to the success of helping you restore harmony to your home.
Failure to use these steps consistently throughout the day and over time means that you will continue to have problems with physical and verbal aggression, as well as with anger outbursts.
With that said, let’s look at the Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Anger Outbursts.
Step 1: Help Your Child Regulate Their Emotions
Children who have intense anger reactions typically need help regulating their emotions. You can help by teaching your child techniques to help them calm down, like Counting to 10 or Deep Breathing.
When your child is in the thick of an anger outburst, they can’t hear you, and their brain can’t process anything you are saying. They need to calm down first before your words have any effect on them.
Therefore, you need to teach your child how to regulate their emotions. The secret to this step, however, is you must do it daily!
Teaching emotion regulation is an on-going process. If you aren’t helping your kids master these skills daily, it won’t be any good to you once the anger hijacks their brain.
Step 2: Help Your Child Label Their Emotions
It is essential to help your child identify the emotion they are feeling and encourage them to use their words to express themselves. We need to prompt our kids to use their coping skills and their words to explain what they are experiencing.
Letting your child know that you can’t understand what they are trying to tell you when they scream will help motivate young kids to try and calm down.
Consider offering your child different emotion words to help them identify what they are feeling. For young children who are still learning to speak, you can suggest a word for them.
For example, you might say, “It looks like you are angry right now. I can see you are angry because you are crying, and your fists are clenched.”
This helps your child, not only develop their language and emotion identification, but it also helps them learn what their body does when they are feeling a certain way.
Step 3: Develop Communication of Wants & Needs
Once your child can label their emotions, the next step is to help them learn to communicate their wants and needs.
Remember, anger stems from hurt, frustration, and/or fear. You can help your child learn to identify these primary emotions by helping them express why they are angry in the first place.
This step gives your child space, time, and opportunity to express themselves to you. It doesn’t matter where you are – you can always do this step.
When children express their feelings and thoughts about why they feel the way they do, it’s also important that we listen! Try to remember what it was like to be a kid again yourself.
Be empathetic. Feeling understood goes a long way in helping to subdue anger.
Step 4: Help Your Child Think of an Alternative Behavior
I always encourage parents to discuss appropriate ways to express anger. Some families are entirely ok with children stomping their feet or screaming into a pillow, but other families are very opposed to this.
Think about ways your child can express anger in your home. Spend some time talking and practicing with your child about these “acceptable” ways of expressing anger and model it too!
Just like Step 1, practicing these alternative behaviors will help your child remember to use these behaviors when they get upset. As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect!”
Step 5: Prompt Your Child to Use Their Alternate Behavior
Finally, when your child gets angry and starts acting out, remind them of the “appropriate” ways to express themselves. Prompt them to do what it is you already practiced with them. And tell them to use their relaxation tools to help them calm down too!
If your child forgets their regulation skills and to use the alternate behavior, that’s ok. Remember, they are learning, and anger makes it hard to remember what you should be doing in any given situation.
When everything has settled down, review with your child how they can improve. Remember to be empathetic, calm, and warm when having this discussion. Being demeaning, harsh, or disapproving during this process is likely to produce shame in your child and could even backfire! You’ve got to stay in control of yourself.
If you are feeling angry yourself, give yourself a little time to calm down. Once you feel more in control, then you can have this discussion.
Get Help if You Need it!
I hope this was helpful to you as you navigate anger outbursts in your own home. As parents, we are all works-in-progress, so be sure to give yourself some grace, and never stop learning!
Read more on this topic, and don’t be afraid to seek out help. Marriage & Family Therapists are experts in family relationships. Find one near you that can help you become the best version of your parenting-self! You don’t have to do it alone.
There is so much more we could go into that would help you have an even better grasp of anger. One of my more popular books is “Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Anger Outbursts,” which goes into depth on how to prevent these problems in your home and how to eliminate them! You can get this book for FREE if you find yourself wanting more help on how to manage your child’s anger.
With that said, good luck! I wish you and your family the absolute best.
This is a guest post by K.C. Dreisbach. K.C. is a wife, mother of two, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is respected and well-known for her work with families managing challenging parenting issues. She combines clinical research in psychology with her own knowledge and experience as a mother to help families become united and full of love.