By Colleen Russo Johnson
It's OK and normal to be angry, no matter how old you are! Often with kids, we spend a lot of time talking to them about positive, feel-good emotions like happiness, love, and joy. While these tend to be easier (and even fun) subjects to tackle, they only represent a few of the many emotions kids experience on a regular basis. This is why it's important for us to acknowledge and help our kids work through other emotions, too.
Anger doesn't have to be unpleasant or something we avoid. It is just as valuable as our other emotions and can actually feel pretty good to express it. Sometimes, a little screaming or punching a pillow helps us release the tension that anger creates. When we deal with anger directly, we can better understand what matters to us and where our personal limits lie. By the way, this is true for pretty much all ages.
Kids are definitely capable of handling and working through anger, so as adults, we have an opportunity to lead. As you get ready to talk about anger with young kids, keep these tips in mind. They will help your child learn about their feelings and practice healthy expressions.
Think about what anger looks and sounds like
Invite your child to think about this with you. Use your own expressions, as well as examples from books or movies (e.g., screaming, glaring, crossed arms, furrowed brows, stomping). Offer up some examples you know of, and invite them to do the same. Recognition is an important first step to understanding anger.
Talk about how anger feels
What does anger feel like in the body? Where exactly do you feel the anger? Is it lots of places? Notice changes in heartbeat (does your heart beat faster or slower?) and temperature (do you feel cooler or warmer?), or behaviors such as clenched muscles and teeth, etc. Helping children identify what anger looks, sounds, and feels like, both in others and in themselves, increases their emotional understanding and competence.
Practice looking for the signs
Help your child practice recognizing signs of anger before the feeling becomes overwhelming. When you notice early signs of anger, it can really help you regulate emotions more effectively. It's best to talk about anger when children are not feeling angry. This can help them build the emotional understanding, expression, and regulation skills they need when their anger does bubble up.
Take your anger temperature
Acknowledge that it's possible to feel different levels of anger. You might feel just a little angry if someone accidentally spills water on you, but if someone breaks your favorite toy on purpose, you'll likely feel very angry! Along with a temperature system, you can introduce a number scale from one to five to help kids find a way to show their level of anger.
Validate your child's feelings
Try not to make kids feel bad for their natural emotions. We all feel in different ways, so let's embrace this. Always validate your child's feelings; this doesn't mean you agree with it, but it means you recognize their emotion. When children are in the thick of it, they may not want to problem-solve or immediately feel happy; they may just want to be angry and make sure that you know it. And, as frustrating and ear-wrenching as it can be, we should encourage this recognition process. Sometimes all they need to hear is, "You are feeling really angry, aren't you?"
Model positive strategies for managing anger
As you talk about ways to manage anger, share with your child what makes you angry and what you do to calm it. It's good for kids to see that adults also get angry, and how they deal with these feelings. Model concrete strategies like taking deep breaths, spending time alone, and asking for help. This shows your child that it takes effort to regulate our emotions, and it gets easier with practice. We're not perfect. When you're not proud of your reactions (e.g., raising your voice) don't be hard on yourself. Instead, use it as a learning opportunity –– apologize, and explain to your child how you wished you had reacted instead. Set an intention to respond differently in the future.
Remember that it's OK to be angry, and we should pass this acceptance on to our kids. Just as all of our emotions have a purpose, so does anger. Anger is OK, and learning how to channel and accept angry feelings is an important prerequisite for learning how to calm it.
This article features advice from the psychologists, educators, and experts at OK Play. They believe play-based education in early childhood is crucial for positive social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson is a nationally recognized developmental
psychologist with an expertise in children's media and technology and
the cofounder of OK Play, an app built for families to create, bond and
grow together every day through play (available on iOS or Android). She holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University.
- Streubel, B., Gunzenhauser, C., Grosse, G., & Saalbach, H. (2020). Emotion-specific vocabulary and its contribution to emotion understanding in 4- to 9-year-old children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 193.
- Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Helping young children: Control anger and handle disappointment. Young Exceptional Children, 7(1), 21-29.