How to deal with my 5 year old’s anger?

girl-angryQ. My five-year-old daughter has a habit of screaming and shouting when she gets frustrated and upset (for example when we have to say no to her). Her outbursts can last for a long time and are very wearing. My question is how can I teach her to express/deal with her anger/ frustration without screaming? I just keep saying, “Take a deep breath and calm down. Just say I’m angry with you but don’t shout it.” It doesn’t seem to be working though. I’m a bit confused about what to teach her about anger. Some books say to have them physically express it, for example, hitting a pillow or going outdoors and yelling.

My gut feeling is that for a child like my daughter, who is already very physical, this isn’t a good idea, which is why I tell her to take a deep breath and calm down. This is generally the model I use if I am really annoyed with her over something (for example, re-decorating the sink with my lipstick!), I will say to her in a stern voice, “I am very cross with you right now, so I am going to take a deep breath and calm down, then we will talk about this.” I’m an adult though, so I can do this, but when she is very frustrated she seems to find it virtually impossible not to act it out, even if it’s a tiny poke or sly flick of her foot.

Should I ignore these tiny expressions or is that being inconsistent, meaning I am teaching her a little anger is okay? Also, is trying to teach her to calm down without some physical outburst unfair to her?

A. An important part of parenting is to help our children understand and manage their emotions, especially the angry ones. This is the basis of emotional intelligence which will be most important in helping children learn to get on with people and to have satisfying relationships as they grow up.

Tune into your child
The key in doing this is empathy – the more you can tune into and understand your daughter, the more she will be able to understand herself. Being tuned in will also help us choose what is the best response to make when a child is angry. For example, sometimes a child needs space when they are angry – “Sit down there for a minute and when you are calm we can talk” – and at other times they might need to be soothed – for a young child sometimes an empathic hug can be all they need to help them calm down.

Separate feelings from actions
Above all, it is important to always acknowledge their feelings and to separate these from their actions – “I know you are angry at not being able to watch TV, but you must not hit out”. You want to show them they have a choice in how they deal with their emotions and, in the long term, teach them how to express angry feelings without taking them out on other people. Of course, this takes time and patience, especially with a five year old such as your daughter.

Be a role model
To achieve this, it is important to be a role model to your daughter and to show her different ways to manage angry emotions (for example, naming angry feelings and taking a break from a potential row). The key to managing anger is learning to interrupt it before it escalates out of control, and different strategies work for different children.

Physical activity and Relaxation techniques
While doing something physical can be a good way to diffuse anger and calm the body, you have to be careful which activity you choose. While some children can benefit from yelling at or venting their anger on a pillow, for others it can increase their rage especially if, as they pound the pillow, they are rehashing the original row in their mind or even visualising hitting out at the person they are angry with.

Far safer are other physical activities that take the child away from the angry incident such as taking a walk or doing jumping jacks or even stretching. In addition, you can also help your daughter learn relaxation strategies, which you can use when things get too much (such as counting her breaths, noticing body sensations such as her heartbeat, and so on).

Create Solutions
A creative way to teach your daughter a range of strategies is to use a “When I am angry chart” which lists lots of positive strategies that she can employ when she is frustrated such as:
(1) Saying what I feel
(2) Asking for a hug
(3) Counting to 10
(4) Pausing
(5) Walking away
(6) Doing three jumps
(7) Listening to my breathing
(8) Thinking cool thoughts
To help her learn in a fun way, you can practise these tactics together and give her a star each time she uses them.

Include Positive Discipline techniques
In addition to supporting her to manage her anger, it is important to include some positive discipline strategies as well. It is not okay for your daughter to yell or hit out when angry, so you need also to clearly assert these rules – “You need to calm down now, please” – as well as to have consequences if she continues to act up – “If you continue screaming you will have to sit outside” or “If you hit again, the toy gets taken away”.

You ask in your question whether you should discipline every protest or show of anger such as a “sly flick of her foot”. This is down to your judgment as a parent – sometimes it is okay to let things go, especially if the point has been made and she is making progress, but at a later stage you might need to address it directly – “Keep your foot in. If you hit out again, you will lose your treat.”

Follow up with a chat
In the long term, communication is the key to managing anger. You want your daughter to be able to understand her feelings and to learn how to talk out conflicts and solve the underlying problems. For this reason it is important to follow up angry exchanges with a chat where you take time to encourage her to talk about what happened and to listen to her feelings, before exploring with her other ways of behaving.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, February 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.