How Kids Can Express Anger Without Falling Apart

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A seven-year-old girl flies into a rage when she’s angry. She throws things around her room. She pulls drawers out of the dresser and dumps the contents. She screams. She cries. She says words she won’t recall saying when she’s finally calm. When the anger subsides, she falls to the floor and whimpers, apologizing to her mom and begging for forgiveness.

Her mom calls out of concern. She’s afraid that her daughter will accidentally get hurt in these moments. They aren’t frequent, but they are intense. This little girl is otherwise generally mild-mannered. She doesn’t have any problems at school. She enjoys regular play dates with several friends. The problem, it seems, is that she struggles with emotional regulation. She stores up her feelings until she blows.

Internalizing emotions is a common problem with young children. Many children lack the language to adequately express their emotions.

They also tend to push down their feelings because they would rather be playing and having fun. When they do have squabbles with other kids, they are often told to simply apologize and move on.

Emotional regulation isn’t just about anger, but anger is a difficult emotion for kids to manage. Young kids tend to face consequences for expressing their anger. Tantrums, the most rudimentary expression of anger and frustration, are often met with time outs or removal of privileges. Yelling and talking back are other expressions of anger that tend to earn kids time spent in their rooms.

Instead of handing out consequences for what parents consider “misbehavior”, it makes more sense to teach kids how to express and cope with anger in a healthy way.

It takes time and patience to make these changes, but empowering kids to verbalize and work through their big feelings helps them internalize important life skills.

Try a few of these strategies to help your kids express their anger:

Teach the volcano:

Young children don’t realize that stuffing emotions all day long results in a bigger meltdown later on. Talk to your kids about how the hot lava in volcanoes bubbles beneath the surface for a while before it erupts. Research. Watch videos.

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Tell your kids that stuffed negative emotions are like lava. Those feelings bubble and expand until they erupt. To keep those feelings hidden beneath the surface is to help the anger boil and grow.

Draw a volcano and ask your child to write or draw the triggers that cause the angry feelings inside the volcano. When the volcano is full, talk about how to say those feelings out loud and seek help before your child erupts.

Get the “mads” out:

Anger causes people to tense their muscles. It can also cause your heart to race. You might even break into a sweat simply from experiencing this negative emotion. That’s okay. Negative emotions are not to be feared or pushed aside. Working through emotions helps us learn about ourselves and others.

When my son is frustrated, he clenches his fists and grits his teeth. These are natural reactions to frustration. I like to take him outside when I see frustration rising and help him “get his mads out”. When he was young, this meant stomping around until we laughed. These days, shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball relieves the frustration so that he can find the emotional space to talk through the triggers.

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Color me red:

Coloring can be a very therapeutic activity. The physical act of coloring can help children release pent up emotions that we store in our muscles when we don’t know what to do with them. The finished product also lends itself to talking. It’s easier for kids to talk about emotions when they can step back instead of focusing on what they might perceive as their errors or mistakes.

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Give your child a plain piece of paper and ask her to color it red to show how mad she felt when (fill in trigger here). After she fills that paper with red, share a time that you felt that way. Talk about ways to get angry feelings out: Stomp your feet, squeeze a stress ball, or squish Play-Doh (to name a few). Follow that with calming activities like painting, coloring books, or sand play. Release the anger first, then shift into calming activities to do together.

It might be tempting to walk away from your child’s frustration so you can get some emotional space, but your child needs you in that moment. Meet anger with calm and you’ll show your child that it’s okay to have negative emotions and that they have ability to work through those feelings.

How do you help your little one deal with anger?

What do you think?

How Kids Can Express Anger Without Falling Apart

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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