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Tips in responding to an angry child

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1. Catch the child being good. Tell the child what behaviours please you. Respond to positive efforts and reinforce good behaviour. An observing and sensitive parent will find countless opportunities during the day to make positive comments and compliments, such as “I like the way you washed the dishes without having me asking you to do so”; “I appreciate your hanging up your clothes and not throwing them on the floor”; “I’m glad you shared your snack with your sister”; “I like the way you’re able to think of others”; and “Thank you for telling the truth.”{{more}}

Similarly at school, teachers can positively reinforce good behaviour with statements like “I know it was difficult for you to wait your turn, and I’m pleased that you could do it”; “Thanks for sitting in your seat quietly”; “You worked hard on that project, and I admire your effort.”

2. Deliberately ignore inappropriate behaviour that can be tolerated. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the child, just the behaviour. The “ignoring” has to be planned and consistent. Even though this behaviour may be tolerated, the child must recognize that it is inappropriate.

3. Provide physical outlets and other alternatives. It is important for children to have opportunities for physical exercise and movement, both at home and at school.

4. Manipulate the surroundings. Aggressive behaviour can be encouraged by placing children in tough, tempting situations. We should try to plan the surroundings, so that certain things are less apt to happen. Stop a “problem” activity and substitute, temporarily, a more desirable one. Sometimes rules and regulations, as well as physical space, may be too confining.

5. Use closeness and touching. Connect physically to the child to curb his or her angry impulse. Young children are often calmed by having an adult come close by and express interest in the child’s activities. Children naturally try to involve adults in what they are doing, and the adult is often too annoyed at being bothered. Very young children (and children who are emotionally deprived) seem to need much more adult involvement in their interests. A child about to use a toy or tool in a destructive way is sometimes easily stopped by an adult who expresses interest in having it shown to him. An outburst from an older child struggling with a difficult reading selection can be prevented by a caring adult who moves near the child to say, “Show me which words are giving you trouble.”

6. Use affection. Sometimes all that is needed for any angry child to regain control is a sudden hug or other impulsive show of affection. Children with serious emotional problems, however, may have trouble accepting affection.

7. Ease tension through humour. Using jokes to distract the child out of a temper tantrum or outburst offers the child an opportunity to “save face.” However, it is important to distinguish between face-saving humour and sarcasm, teasing, or ridicule.

8. Appeal directly to the child. Tell him or her how you feel and ask for consideration. For example, a parent or a teacher may gain a child’s cooperation by saying, “I know that noise you’re making doesn’t usually bother me, but today I’ve got a headache, so could you find something else you’d enjoy doing?”

9. Explain situations. Help the child understand the cause of a stressed situation. We often fail to realize how easily young children can begin to react properly once they understand the cause of their frustration.

10. Use physical restraint. Occasionally a child may lose control so completely that he has to be physically restrained or removed from the scene to prevent him from hurting himself or others. This may also “save face” for the child. Physical restraint or removal from the scene should not be viewed by the child as punishment, but as a means of saying, “You can’t do that.” In such situations, an adult cannot afford to lose his or her temper and hurtful remarks by other children should not be tolerated.

11. Encourage children to see their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Help them to see that they can reach their goals.

12. Use promises and rewards. Promises of future pleasure can be used both to start and to stop behaviour. This approach should not be compared with bribery. We must know what the child likes – what brings him pleasure – and we must deliver on our promises.

13. Say “NO!” Limits should be clearly explained and enforced. Children should be free to function within those limits.

14. Tell the child that you accept his or her angry feelings, but offer other suggestions for expressing them. Teach children to put their angry feelings into words, rather than fists.

15. Build a positive self-image. Encourage children to see themselves as valued and valuable people.

16. Use punishment cautiously. There is a fine line between punishment that is hostile toward a child and punishment that is educational. DO NOT use physical punishment. Use time-out instead.

17. Model appropriate behaviour. Parents and teachers should be aware of the powerful influence of their actions on a child’s or group’s behaviour.

18. Teach children to express themselves verbally. Talking helps a child have control and thus reduces acting out behaviour. Encourage the child to say, for example, “I don’t like your taking my pencil. I don’t feel like sharing just now.”

Just remember that anger is a normal emotion. It is one which requires proper management and understanding, and one which should not be slighted, as angry children would undoubtedly become angry adults.

Prepared by Dr Jozelle Miller

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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