Parents expect temper tantrums from 2-year-olds, but angry
outbursts don't necessarily stop after the toddler years. Older
kids sometimes have trouble handling anger and frustration,
Some kids only lose their cool on occasion. But others seem to
have a harder time when things don't go their way. Kids who tend to
have strong reactions by nature will need more help from parents to
manage their tempers.
Controlling outbursts can be difficult for kids - and helping
them learn to do so is a tough job for the parents who love them.
Try to be patient and positive, and know that these skills take
time to develop and that just about every child can improve with
the right coaching.
A Parent's Role
Managing kids - whether it's one or more - can be a challenge.
Some days keeping the peace while keeping your cool seems
impossible. But whether you're reacting to an occasional temper
flare-up or a pattern of outbursts, managing your own anger when
things get heated will make it easier to teach kids to do the
To help tame a temper, try to be your child's ally - you're
both rooting for your child to triumph over the temper that keeps
getting him or her into trouble.
While your own patience may be frayed by angry outbursts,
opposition, defiance, arguing, and talking back, it's during these
episodes that you need your patience most. Of course you feel
angry, but what counts is how you handle that.
Reacting to your child's meltdowns with yelling and outbursts of
your own will only teach your child to do the same. But keeping
your cool and calmly working through a frustrating situation lets
you show - and teach - your child appropriate ways to handle anger
Let's say you hear your kids fighting over a toy in the other
room. You have ignored it, hoping that they would work it out
themselves. But the arguing turns into screaming, and soon you hear
doors slamming, the thump of hitting, and an eruption into tears.
You decide to get involved before someone gets hurt.
By the time you arrive at the scene of the fight, you may be at
the end of your own rope. After all, the sound of screaming is
upsetting, and you may be frustrated that your kids aren't sharing
or trying to get along. (And you know that this toy they're
fighting over is going to be lost, broken, or ignored before long
So what's the best way for you to react? With your own
self-control intact. Teaching by example is your most powerful
tool. Speak calmly, clearly, and firmly - not with anger, blame,
harsh criticisms, threats, or putdowns. Of course, that's easier
said than done. But remember that you're trying to teach your child
how to handle anger. If you yell or threaten, you'll model and
ingrain the exact kinds of behavior you want to discourage. Your
child sees you so angry and so incapable of controlling your own
temper that you can't help but scream - and that won't help your
child learn not to scream.
What You Can Do
Regulating emotions and managing behavior are skills that
develop slowly over time during childhood. Just like any other
skills, your child will need to learn and practice them, with your
If it's uncharacteristic for your child to have a tantrum, on
the rare occasion that it happens all you may need to do is clearly
but calmly review the rules. "I know you're upset, but no
yelling and no name-calling, please" may be all your child
needs to gain composure. Follow up by clearly, calmly, and
patiently giving an instruction like "tell me what you're
upset about" or "please apologize to your brother for
calling him that name." In this way, you're guiding your child
back to acceptable behavior and encouraging self-control.
Kids whose temper outbursts are routine may lack the necessary
self-control to deal with frustration and anger, and may need more
help managing those emotions. These steps may help:
Help your child put it into words.
If your child is in the midst of an outburst, find out what's
wrong. If necessary, use a time-out to get your child to settle
down, or calmly issue a reminder about house rules and expectations
- "There's no yelling or throwing stuff; please stop that
right now and cool your jets." Remind your child to talk to
you without whining, sulking, or yelling. Once your child calms
down, ask what got him or her so upset. You might say, "Use
your words to tell me what's wrong and what you're mad about."
By doing this you help your child put emotions into words and
figure out what, if anything, needs to be done to solve the
Listen and respond.
Once your child puts the feelings into words, it's up to you to
listen and say that you understand. If your child is struggling for
words, offer some help: "so that made you angry,"
"you must have felt frustrated," or "that must have
hurt your feelings." Offer to help find an answer if there's a
problem to be solved, a conflict to be mended, or if an apology is
required. Many times, feeling listened to and understood is all
kids need to regain their composure. But while acknowledging your
child's feelings, it's important to make it clear that strong
emotions aren't an excuse for unacceptable behavior. "I know
you're mad, but it's still not OK to hit." Then tell your
child some things to try instead.
Create clear ground rules and stick to them.
Set and maintain clear expectations for what is and what is not
acceptable. You can do this without using threats, accusations, or
putdowns. Your child will get the message if you make clear, simple
statements about what's off limits and explain what you want him or
her to do. You might say: "There's no yelling in this house.
Use your words to tell me what's upsetting you." Or try
- In this family, we don't hit or push or shove.
- There's no screaming allowed.
- There's no door-slamming in our house.
- There's no name calling.
- We don't do that in this family.
- You may not throw things or break things on purpose.
Coping Strategies for Your Child
Kids who've learned that it's not OK to yell, hit, and throw
stuff when they're upset need other strategies for calming down
when they're angry. Offer some ideas to help your child learn
safe ways to get the anger out or to find other activities that can
create a better mood.
Take a break from the situation.
Tell your child that it's OK to walk away from a conflict to avoid
an angry outburst. By moving to another part of the house or the
backyard, your child can get some space and work on calming
Find a way to (safely) get the anger out.
There may be no punching walls or even pillows, but you can suggest
some good ways for a child to vent. Doing a bunch of jumping jacks,
dancing around the bedroom, or going outside and doing cartwheels
are all good choices. Or your child can choose to write about or
draw a picture of what is so upsetting.
Learn to shift.
This one is tough for kids - and adults, too. Explain that part of
calming down is moving from a really angry mood to a more
in-control mood. Instead of thinking of the person or situation
that caused the anger, encourage your son or daughter to think of
something else to do. Suggest things to think of or do that might
bring about a better mood. Your child may feel better after a walk
around the block, a bike ride, playing a game, reading a favorite
book, digging in the garden, or listening to a favorite song. Try
one of these things together so you both experience how doing
something different can change the way a person feels.
Building a Strong Foundation
Fortunately, really angry episodes don't happen too often for
most kids. Those with temper troubles often have an active,
strong-willed style and extra energy that needs to be discharged.
Try these steps during the calm times - they can prevent problems
before they start by helping your child learn and practice skills
needed to manage the heat of the moment:
Help your child label emotions.
Help your child get in the habit of saying what he or she is
feeling and why - for example, "I'm mad because I have to
clean my room while my friends are playing." Using words
doesn't get your child out of doing a chore, but having the
discussion can defuse the situation. You're having a conversation
instead of an argument. Praise your child for talking about it
instead of slamming the door, for instance.
See that your child gets a lot of physical
Active play can really help kids who have big tempers. Encourage
outside play and sports your child likes. Karate, wrestling, and
running can be especially good for kids who are trying to get their
tempers under control. But any activity that gets the heart pumping
can help burn off energy and stress.
Encourage your child to take control.
Compare a temper to a puppy that hasn't yet learned to behave and
that's running around all over the place getting into things.
Puppies might not mean to be bad - but they need to be trained so
that they can learn that there's no eating shoes, no jumping on
people or certain furniture, etc. The point is that your child's
temper - like a puppy - needs to be trained to learn when it's OK
to play, how to use all that rambunctious energy, and how to follow
Try to be flexible.
Parenting can be a fatiguing experience, but try not to be too
rigid. Hearing a constant chorus of "no" can be
disheartening for kids. Sometimes, of course, "no" is
absolutely the only answer - "no, you can't ride your bike
without your helmet!" But other times, you might let the kids
win one. For instance, if your child wants to keep the wiffle ball
game going a little longer, maybe give it 15 more minutes.
As anyone who's been really angry knows, following sensible
advice can be tough when emotions run high. Give your child
responsibility for getting under control, but be there to remind
him or her of how to do it.
Most kids can learn to get better at handling anger and
frustration. But if your child frequently gets into fights and
arguments with friends, siblings, and adults, additional help might
be needed. Talk with the other adults in your child's life -
teachers, school counselors, and coaches might be able to help, and
your child's doctor can recommend a counselor or psychologist.
D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: April 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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