Experiencing the full range of our children’s emotions when they’re toddlers can be challenging. But what about when they’re four, five and six and they’re still having angry outbursts?
Dealing with tantrums can leave us feeling frustrated and helpless – and we can easily wind up feeling angry and blaming ourselves. Karen Young, psychologist and founder of Hey Sigmund, explains the best ways to help our children manage their big emotions.
Listen to Karen Young on Feed Play Love
It’s not just your kids – tantrums are normal
We know we can expect tantrums from our toddlers, but Karen says it’s not unusual for our kids to express their anger as they grow. “The part of the brain that actually manages big feelings, in boys, they’re now saying it won’t be properly developed until they’re closer to 30. And girls … it’s early to mid-twenties.”
Karen says that remembering that young kids often can’t connect their feelings to the cause, is key to understanding how to respond. “With kids … their brains aren’t at a point yet where they can connect the words to the emotion. So they can’t always say what they’re feeling and this will develop as they get older, but then during adolescence they’re driven by the ‘feeling’ brain again, so we see it all over again. And that’s how it’s meant to be. And it feels big as a parent when it happens – even if it only happens once or twice a month. It still feels big when it happens.”
Make space for expression
Karen says that first step to helping our kids manage their big feelings is by allowing them to express them. “Then the thing to remember is it’s not a reflection on them. It’s not a reflection on our parenting. It’s part of what happens. Some kids will tantrum more than others, just because of how they’re built; how they’re wired. And that’s okay. You know: big feelings, big thinkers.”
MORE Behaviour and Discipline
While it may seem like our little people are being irrational and directing their anger unjustly at us, their ever-weary parents, Karen says that there is something valid going on underneath an outburst and it’s our job to find out what that is. It may be that they’re tired, hungry or need some one-on-one attention. It’s possible that they’ve been trying to stay calm and controlled and are now just exhausted. That they can express their anger with you, their parent, means that to an extent, they feel safe enough to do so.
Save discipline for calm times
You’re not failing as a parent if your child has angry outbursts. It’s often not about a lack of discipline, but a stage of development. One thing that our kids do need, Karen says, are clear structures and boundaries. But the time to remind them of what’s acceptable and what’s not, is when they’re calm.
“The work happens in calm times,” Karen explains, “Because in the midst of an argument – and you imagine for you, if you’re feeling fury, because you’ve had a terrible day or whatever, and someone wants to put boundaries around you and talk to you about calm, rational behaviour – it’s not going to land.”
What to say when kids have angry outbursts
When our kids get angry, Karen recommends being sympathetic in the moment. “What you need is someone to go, ‘You look like you’ve had a terrible day. Do you want to talk about it? Do you need a cuddle?’ … And then afterwards is where we do the work.”
When our kids are calm again, Karen says, is the time to say, “‘What happened then? Things are a bit upside down. How can you put it right? Do you need my help? What’s a better plan for next time? How can we stop this getting out of control again?’”
Learning how to manage anger takes time
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and teaching our children how to manage their emotions will take time. A long time.
The conversations around feelings and what’s acceptable behaviour, are going to have to be repeated: “Because it takes time for their brain to wire,” says Karen. “For that self-control part at the front of the brain — that doesn’t even really come online [until they’re] 6,7,8 years old. And it takes a long, long time to develop. So it’s the conversation that happens when they’re calm and leaving space for it to happen.”
Stay the course (even if you get judged)
Saving discipline and boundary setting for calm times can be especially challenging when tantrums happen in public or in front of friends or family members. Karen says that just staying with our kids through this moment is important. “I think there’s a lot of pressure on us [as parents], especially if a tantrum happens publicly, to be seen to be responding and doing something.”
Even if other people are judging your parenting, Karen suggests parents stay the course and wait to discipline. “Cause you get the ‘judgies’,” Karen confirms. People who may say, “‘Are you just going let your kid do that? Is that the type of mum you are?’ Yeah, that’s the type of my mum I am. Because this is not the time to do it, it will happen afterwards.”
The 3 things to do when your child is angry
“First of all, we validate what we’re feeling,” says Karen. “So they need exactly what we need … they need someone to notice what’s going on: ‘I know you’re really angry’. And not [saying it] in a kind of an over-calm, Zen way, because that can be a bit invalidating.”
Karen points out that if you’re really angry and someone spoke to you condescendingly, it would just be annoying. Kids feel the same.
2. Match their energy
Karen explains, “We match it with the energy but not with the anger. So it might be [saying], ‘I can see how upset you are. I get it. I know you are. Do you need my help? Do you want to come and sit with me?’”
3. Stay close
“Physical proximity; touch, calms an emotional brain,” Karen explains. “And sometimes it’s just about being still and present. Close enough to them and letting the storm ride its way out. And it is like a storm. When there’s a storm, you ride it out. You don’t talk a storm out of being a storm, you don’t push against it because you can’t do anything about it. You make sure everything’s safe, you batten down, and you wait for it to pass because the work happens afterwards.”