Dealing with meltdowns can be difficult, but it’s during these times your angry child NEEDS you. Here are strategies to help you handle it.
My kids had been so excited to work on the school garden. You couldn’t peel them away from digging and turning the soil. Other than the occasional snack, they wanted to keep shoveling and pulling weeds.
And then it happened: One of them didn’t want to leave.
Whereas the other two were ready to go home, he wanted to stay and dig. So, my husband and I did the typical moves: we showed empathy and tried to make the transition light. We even gave him an incentive (“We’ll have lunch right when we get home”).
He finally followed us to the van, but once we got there, he burst into an epic meltdown. It was clear—I had an angry child on my hands.
He was kicking the chair, crying, and trying to hit us. It didn’t get better when we finally got home and my husband had to carry him all the way to the door. I wish I could say we kept our cool, but this isn’t a success story. Rather, it’s a learning moment.
Because this is what I learned, in hindsight:
My son needed me.
After the tears dried and I’m sorry’s said from both sides, I thought about what happened. Why did I still let his temper affect me? Why wasn’t I calm this time? What could I have told myself to better handle this situation?
And one phrase kept repeating itself, He needed you.
How to handle your angry child
So, here’s my best advice to you—which is more advice for me—when you’re dealing with bad behavior. Don’t think of his misbehavior as a personal attack on you or yet another hassle to go through (“Great, this just ruined our morning“). Or even that he’s testing your limits.
Instead, remind yourself that he needs you at this moment. The inability to manage his angry behavior is something he needs to work on—with your help.
Below are a few more tips I’ve since learned about how handle angry kids:
1. Contain unsafe or hurtful behaviors
Anger is normal and allowed, but the goal is to help your child regulate big emotions so he doesn’t escalate to explosive anger over every little thing. Don’t allow him to continue to hurt, hit, or break things around him.
Describe physical sensations he might feel so he can be more aware of the signs of anger before he explodes. You might say that when we get angry, we tend to feel our hearts beating faster, shaking in our bodies, and any other cues he might have.
In the future, he’ll know to look out for these cues and hopefully pause before he reacts.
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2. Stay calm
Keeping our cool is hard, especially when we feel attacked, when our day feels ruined, or when we struggle with anger management ourselves.
But staying calm helps you think clearly. You’re more likely to stick to positive reinforcement and be the supportive parent your child needs you to be. Staying calm also models the kind of behavior she can copy. You’re showing her the anger management skills she needs to learn and develop to manage her rage.
Read what to do when your child seems to ruin everyone’s day.
3. Accept your child’s emotions as real and normal
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At his most difficult times, your child just needs to feel heard. He wants to know that his feelings are valid and aren’t “childish” (even if to you it can seem like it). All these emotions and temper tantrums are normal, for every person and certainly for every child.
If he’s receptive, reach out and connect. Don’t lecture or give facts—instead, describe what you see. Let him know he seems upset that he lost a game, can’t find his toys, or has to leave a fun outing. Remind him that you’re here and will always love him, regardless of his temperament.
And if he allows it, embrace or put your hand on his back—the physical, non-verbal communication is a good reminder that you’re still here. As psychologist Ethan Kross wrote in Chatter:
“Research shows that when people feel the welcome, affectionate touch or embrace of those they are close to, they often interpret that as a sign that they are safe, loved, and supported. Caring physical contact from people we know and trust lowers our biological threat response, improves our ability to deal with stress, promotes relationship satisfaction, and reduces feelings of loneliness.”
But if he isn’t in the mood, then acknowledge that he isn’t, that you respect his space, and that you’re here when he’s ready.
4. Don’t diminish the reason your child got upset
We parents can say pretty insensitive stuff throughout our kids’ childhood, like, “Don’t worry—we’ll just get another one.”
As logical as that may seem to us, it’s not what our young children need to hear. They experienced an emotion about something meaningful enough to draw that kind of anger out of them.
To brush it aside as petty not only takes away the value of the reason they cried but of their emotions and feelings as well. This won’t help decrease his anger, but might even cause him to blame his frustration on you. Your child needs you to understand the depth of his frustration and that you take it seriously.
5. Only teach once your child is calm
Fair warning: trying to talk to an angry child will get you nowhere. At this stage, he’s too angry to listen to what you’re saying, much less process the lessons you’re trying to teach.
Once your child is calm, only then should you talk about what happened. Ask him to share what led to his anger, or talk about what he can do about it moving forward. Have him tell you what you can do that would help as well.
Give constructive feedback and suggestions if he’s willing to listen to them. He can take a deep breath, say “I’m mad,” run to you for a hug, or write or draw about it. These can become his toolbox of things to do to express anger in a better way.
And when everyone is calm, remind him that it’s okay to be mad. We all feel mad sometimes (even though it doesn’t feel good) but the mad feelings go away after a while.
6. Evaluate within yourself what happened
Think about how you interact with your child. Have you been saying “no” too often that this was her last straw from not having a say? What triggered her anger? Could you have transitioned to the next activity better?
Then, think about what sets you off and makes you angry right back at her. Perhaps you lose your temper when she does something you’d just told her not to. With this awareness, you know you’re better off ignoring her deliberate defiance than feeding into that trigger.
Or ask yourself if the issue is that big of a deal. I’d wanted to leave the school garden, but we technically didn’t have to, at least not right at that moment. I wanted to make it home in time to prepare lunch, but I didn’t have to follow the schedule so closely if it meant helping my son transition better.
Waiting a little bit would’ve been all he needed to accept the situation and leave. Maybe he would’ve walked away much calmer if we had given him five more minutes.
7. Prevent anger in the first place
Most of what we’ve discussed deals with anger after the fact, but we can do plenty to prevent it in the first place. Speak with empathy to any of your child’s emotions so he feels understood and heard, even if you’re disciplining.
“Fill his bucket” and give him your full attention even for just 10 minutes a day. And make him laugh, which can also release some of the tension he may be feeling.
8. Model anger management
If we want our kids to have self-control and exhibit appropriate behavior, then we need to be a good role model. Simple as that. It’s hard not to get sucked into the emotional pull of an angry child. You feel angry, inconvenienced, or disappointed.
But the best way to teach her how to handle anger is to do it yourself.
That might mean pausing before you lash out at her behavior. Saying “I’m going to my room because I feel too angry right now.” Or even apologizing after the fact to show that you’ve also made a mistake.
Learn why you should model the behavior you want to see in your child.
As normal as it is for kids to experience intense anger issues, responding to them can be difficult. But with the right steps, you can use these moments to teach your child how to manage his emotions.
The first step is to contain unsafe or aggressive behavior so he doesn’t continue to harm himself or others. Do your best to stay calm so you’re better able to think clearly and not feed the fire. Accept his emotions as real and valid, and don’t diminish the reason he got upset.
Talk about his angry outbursts only once he’s calm, and see what caused you to get angry and upset. Prevent his anger from flaring up in the first place, and lastly, model the behavior you want to see in him.
That day in the garden wasn’t the last time I dealt with an angry child or lost my temper, but I’ve since learned better ways to manage it. And that day taught me an important lesson: Sometimes, our kids simply need us. Beneath the tantrum, anxiety, or aggression, they need our help to get them through it.
Get more tips:
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
- Children’s Books about Anger to Help Your Child’s Behavior
- The Surprisingly Simple Question You Should Always Ask Yourself before Disciplining Your Child
- How to Respond When Your Child Says Hurtful Things to You
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
Then, check out Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival to teach your child to manage anger:
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