Managing anger - your child's anger and your own - could be one of your biggest challenges as a parent.
Maybe your child doesn't get the dessert or toy he wants. Or maybe he doesn't want to make his bed. Or to get ready for school. Or to do his homework. And suddenly he's angry.If it was just anger, you could probably handle it, but maybe your child yells, hits, sasses, swears or just downright disobeys you when he gets angry. And that makes you angry.
Now what? If the scenario plays out, there could be two people yelling, hitting, verbally jerking each other around, two people - when the conflict is over - reduced to emotional rubble.
So how can you prevent situations such as these from getting out of hand? Try these strategies:
-First make a commitment to control your anger. Opting for control is a good choice because kids imitate the way they see people near them expressing their anger. Your anger patterns will most likely become your children's anger patterns.
-Pay attention to how often you are tired, irritated, in a bad mood, worried, or overworked, and then get grouchy with your children. You may consistently respond to kids with impatience, a short temper or a sharp voice and still expect them to move meekly in the direction you'd like.
If so, take charge of your own responses so you don't encourage the anger and resistance you're trying to eliminate in your kids.
-Let your children know when you've momentarily succeeded in containing your temper. Point out, for example, that you usually get mad when you see muddy tracks going across your kitchen floor (probably the ultimate temper test), but this time you are not yelling and or mangling kids.
(Then, tongue-in-cheek, emphasize you won't turn into the Wicked Witch of the West if they hurry and clean up the mud!).
-Ask kids to tell you when they spot instances in which you're managing your frustrations more effectively than in the past. They'll love it, and if you're really working on containing your anger, you'll get some good feedback that will reinforce your growing self-control.
-Apologize when you lose your temper or are heavy-handed. Or, even better, apologize when you make that first caustic, critical response (which will help keep a situation from escalating). It is vital that kids learn to say I'm sorry when they've wounded other people - but they probably won't learn this unless they see you or other significant people in their lives apologizing.
-Talk to your child privately about typical situations in which one or both of you become angry. Do this when things are calm and there are good feelings between you.
Describe the child's usual responses and your own. If you contribute to the problem, talk about ways you're going to change your behavior. Ask your child to think of things he can do to control his anger and help the situation.
-As an incentive, you may want to create for your child some type of temporary reward program for anger control. For example, offer for the next week to give him a dime (or some other small attractive item) every time you notice (or he reports to you) he has controlled his temper instead of losing it. (The price, of course, goes up for teenagers.)
-Together decide on a code word like "truce" or "time out" that you can use anytime things get heated. This will give you both a chance to bring yourselves back into control and you can then deal with the problem. Don't let situations escalate in their usual manner - it won't serve any purpose.
-Frequently point out to your child instances in which he has managed anger and coped with frustration in effective ways. Say, for example, "Sometimes I have seen you get really angry - even slam down your books - when you couldn't do a math problem. Tonight you're showing more self-control. Frankly, I'm impressed."
-When you begin to see progress, point out the child's growth and prophesy he is on his way to becoming a person who can control his temper and manage even angry feelings in a positive way.
-When you see younger children in the throes of a temper tantrum, regard them as being "stuck" rather than "bad." Children have a tendency to shift to "automatic pilot" when they're angry and then have difficulty getting out of that mode. Instead of losing your own temper, think about how you can help children become "unstuck." This may mean calmly and with dispatch putting a child into his room for a short time-out. Or doing something unexpected to distract the child. Or even reaching out and holding the child close to you until the mood passes.
-When you need to express anger, select in advance words that don't wound but that let your child know you're angry. Think ahead - what are my options? Instead of dripping raw anger, you can state a rule, assert your values, give choices or describe a problem.
-When your child gets angry, hear him out. Help him to get to the feelings that underlie the anger: frustration, disappointment, resentment, fear, jealousy, hurt, embarrassment. Try to restore good feelings in the relationship instead of simply punishing him because you don't like his behavior. Remember that you may have inadvertently contributed to any problem he may be having with you.
Let your child know it's OK to feel angry, but it's not OK to express that anger in a hostile way - "It's important we both treat each other with respect even when we're angry."
When things are calm, talk about positive rules for expressing anger and then make sure you both follow those rules.
*Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.