What's a "healthy" or "good" way for preschoolers to express anger? I tell my four-year-old son that he can't hit and that he shouldn't yell at me either, but then what's left?
Anger is one of those emotions we don't like talking about. It can be an ugly feeling. In young children, an anger response can happen super quickly, and often takes parents by surprise- and usually in really inconvenient places.
Like anything we teach our preschoolers, emotional response is something that needs to be taught in layers. The best time to teach a child how to manage angry feelings just isn't in the middle of an epic tantrum.
The cool thing about preschoolers is that (for the most part) they are still pretty open to direct self improvement. It's absolutely OK to sit down with a child and say, "I've noticed that sometimes, your body gets really angry when Mommy or Daddy need to say "no" about something. I bet you've noticed that too. Let's figure out some ways to help with that."
When making changes to a child's behavior, I like to talk more about their "body" or "brain." It is a little bit more concrete, and a whole lot less personally attacking.
1. In a calm moment, ask your child about some things that make her body feel really angry. Ask her what it feels like in her brain, and in her body (you might be surprised what you hear- kids are pretty darn good at describing emotions).
2. Draw a (simple!) time line to help your child understand the sequence of his feelings. Ask him to show you when on the time line his body feels this way.
3. Focus on what happens right before a freak out- is it Mommy saying "no?" Is it Daddy asking you to clean up your toys?
4. Help your child think of a couple of "great ideas" to catch her body before it gets really angry. Some ideas kids often gravitate to are:
- Close your eyes and take three deep breaths in through your nose
- Repeat a calm word (relax, ah, calm- let your child come up with it)
- Stretch your arms and legs
- Count slowly from 1-10
From there, the responsibility is Mom or Dad's. What are the patterns you notice in your child's anger? Does he get really freaked at the store? At the end of the day? When he's hungry? Look for a trend, and then anticipate it coming.
My nearly three-year-old daughter does not like to be interrupted from any- and I mean ANY enjoyable activity. If she is abruptly asked to transition, drama ensues. The fit can range from an assertive, "I AM PLAYING NOW..." to a full blown meltdown on the floor. Knowing what is coming next has helped her immensely... I find I need to talk to her about plans until I am sick of hearing my voice:
"We are going to be bringing your brother to school in 5 minutes... (then keep repeating the warnings...4 minutes... 3... 2... 1... ) OK! Now it is time to bring your brother to school. Say 'bye' to your play kitchen and let's put on your shoes!"
"We are going to Target today! Mommy needs to buy socks, a card, and juice. We are not going to be buying a toy. Got it?"
Knowing what to expect has curbed most of her anger response... unless she is tired or hungry. Then it all goes out the window.
Finally, help your child develop an emotional vocabulary. Reading books or playing together, and labeling emotions (A LOT) is what young kids need to understand and eventually manage their own feelings. How are you Peeling by Saxton Freymann and My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss are two of my favorites, since they lend themselves to conversation. Discovery Toys has an open-ended bean bag game, Flip Flop Faces that I like to use with young children to explore emotion and start dialogue.
Is teaching anger management a tricky job? Sometimes. But the good news is, kids want the tools. They don't like feeling out of control anymore than parents like dealing with it.