Creative Child

Don’t Punch the Pillow: 10 Ways to Calm an Angry Child

by Rebecca Eanes

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion, and learning to manage it appropriately is one key to emotional health and well-being. If your child is having frequent angry outbursts, it’s important to get to the root of the issue and teach them calming strategies that work. Before we get into those calming strategies, let’s look beneath the yelling, hitting, and aggressive behavior and into the emotional world of a child.

According to a paper from the National Scientific council on the Developing Child (2004), children rapidly develop their abilities to experience and express a wide range of emotions starting from birth. The emotional experience of newborns and infants occur most commonly during interactions with a caregiver, such as when feeding, comforting, and holding. They experience negative emotions and show distress when they are hungry, uncomfortable, or lonely, and they experience positive emotions when they are fed, soothed, talked to, etc. They cannot control their expression of overwhelming emotions and have no ability yet to regulate these on their own.

The emotional life of toddlers and preschoolers is much more complex, the paper says. Notably, the authors say, “The emotional health of young children is closely tied to the emotional and social characteristics of the environments in which they live.” While differences in temperament are part of their biological makeup, their experiences are coded in their brain circuitry, and what we both model and teach regarding emotions affects how their brain circuits get “wired.” The early childhood years are critical for learning positive ways to deal with one’s emotional world as the emotional center of the brain and the prefrontal cortex (where empathy, reasoning, and self-control lie) are rapidly developing.

This doesn’t mean that an older child who didn’t learn good emotional control as a preschooler now has little hope for the future, though. We are always capable of learning new skills and developing the mental muscle needed to exercise self-control. While early childhood is the optimal time for developing emotional intelligence, it’s not too late for the tween, teen, or adult.

Unfortunately, the tendency is to punish children when they display anger, and punishment only serves to compound the problem. Rather than discussing the feeling and helping them work through the emotion, it is common parenting practice to spank or to send a child to time-out for displaying anger in an unacceptable way. Hitting, insulting, biting, and yelling are not acceptable ways to express anger; this is a lesson children must learn, but we simply can’t expect them to be able to express anger more appropriately if we don’t show them what to do with this uncomfortable feeling. They may learn to only stuff it down in order to avoid punishment when it would be much more prudent to teach them to handle it in a healthy manner.

On the flip side of punishment are parents who go to great lengths to teach their children how to express anger appropriately by telling them to punch a pillow or a punching bag, scream into a cushion, stomp their feet, etc. I once thought these were appropriate tools to “get the anger out,” but research now tells us that these actions do not help us calm down. In fact, they continue the adrenaline rush that fuels the hostility.

This brings us to our main point: How do we help an angry child calm down?

10 Ways to Calm an Angry Child on page 2...

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