Fred Rogers often said that one of his most important messages was helping children find constructive ways to deal with their angry feelings. He wanted to help children and their parents understand that anger is natural and normal, but that there are healthy things we can do when we’re angry – things that don’t hurt others.
Almost everyone gets angry sometimes. That’s just part of being human, whether you’re a grownup or child. But we have to learn what to do with the mad that we feel, and that’s a long, hard process. It happens little by little. In fact, it’s something we work on all through our lives.
When do we get mad? Usually when we feel helpless or left out or frustrated. So it’s no wonder children get angry a lot…and angry with the people who are closest to them, like parents and friends. It’s the people we like the most who can make us feel gladdest…and maddest! In fact, love and anger are often intertwined in our closest relationships.
Finding Ways to Express Angry Feelings
Have you noticed that you get tense and tight when you’re upset, angry, or worried? There’s a lot of physical energy tied up in feelings. When children have healthy outlets, they have ways to release some of the energy that is bound up inside.
There are many ways we can help children learn to deal positively with their angry feelings. For one thing, we can let them know we understand that they’re angry. We can also encourage them to use words and say, “I’m mad!” or “Stop that!” We can suggest healthy outlets, like having them knock over their own block buildings, bang an angry “song” on a xylophone or make an angry picture.
Of course what works as a release for one child may not work for another. It can take a while until a child finds some way of expression that’s comfortable for him or her. That’s why we’ve always offered lots of different activities – music, painting, working with clay, physical activity – so that children can discover what feels right for them.
Helping Children Learn Self-Control
There’s such a good feeling in being able to control “the mad that you feel.” But children aren’t born with self-control. They learn it gradually as they grow from infants to toddlers to preschoolers — and beyond. And they learn it best with the help of the people they love.
When children know their parents care deeply about them and care about whatever they’re feeling, they are more likely to be able to talk about their feelings rather than act them out. When your child seems to be angry, you could say something like, “I know you’re mad about that, but you can’t hurt!” When a child is getting angry with a friend, you could say, “Tell him (or her) that you’re angry! It helps when you use words.” At a quiet time, talk about other things children can do when they’re angry so they won’t hurt anyone or break things.
It takes thought and emotional energy to work through our own angry moments. If that’s what we’d like our children to learn, we’re going to have to make it clear to them that we value being able to “stop” from doing something that may hurt: stop and then do something else instead that doesn’t hurt anyone. Children will “catch” that message from us if we believe it’s important. And they’ll want to make it their own, in order to become more like those they love.
Talking about angry feelings:
- Children learn from your example. When you use words to talk about your angry feelings, your child sees that there are things people can do when they’re mad that don’t hurt.
- Talk about different constructive ways people can handle their mad feelings at school, at home or with friends.
- Help your child know that listening and compromising are powerful tools for working out conflicts.
- Give your child ways to practice self-control by playing games like “red light, green light,” or stringing beads, or moving toy cars along a “road” made from a piece of masking tape.
- When your child is about to hit but holds back, that’s an important time to say something like, “I’m proud of you! You wanted to hit, but you stopped yourself! Look how well you’re growing!”
- Praise your child for small moments of control, like for trying something hard, taking turns, or waiting.
- Try to help your child calm down. You may have to try different things to find out what works for your child. And that will change as your child grows.
- When children get angry, sometimes parents get angry, too, and that makes the children more upset than ever. If you can stay calm but firm, your child may be more able to get back into control.