Kids seeing red: Helping your child understand it's okay to be angry

Kinderling News & Features

We all get angry. Sometimes it can be over the silliest of things, but it’s always about something. It’s the same for children. The difference is often they don’t have the language or physical skills to be able communicate it to their parents. And that’s when a child is labelled as a troublemaker or tantrum-chucker.

Anger is normal

In little ones, anger most often comes from a feeling of stress, frustration or disappointment when something hasn’t gone their way. Child Psychologist Michelle Karavas saw her own sons becoming frustrated and angry, and decided to write a book called The Day My Brain Went Crazy, to help them understand the scary emotion.

Michelle said that “with my son a lot of it was to do with that frustration when he was little. He would find it really hard because he didn’t have the language skills to express how he was feeling.” It’s that anger and frustration parents are quick to label as a tantrum and trouble making, but Michelle said it’s rooted in frustration from not being understood.

“I guess for toddlers too it looks like more tantrums because they don't have the social or emotional tools to deal with their emotions. And they also don't have the language skills to express how they're actually feeling,” she said.

Listen to Michelle on Kinderling Conversation:

Explain the physical feeling of anger

It’s no secret that anger can be felt all over your body when you’re truly mad. But it’s easy to forget that the emotion isn’t just an intangible concept, but something that effects how our bodies cope. That can be scary for little people.

Michelle’s point of view is that children need to understand what is happening in their body when they’re angry, so that they can best cope with it, and not become overwhelmed. “I use books and we talk about feelings and emotions in my family. Trying to educate [a child] that your body is your best friend. It gives you warning signs when it's getting angry and then they are aware of what’s happening in their body, it’s their way of saying 'right now my body is telling me I need to calm down in a healthy way'.”

Michelle explained that some children say the things they physically feel when angry are;

  • ‘My heart beats really fast’
  • ‘I get really hot’
  • ‘I start to burst into tears’
  • ‘I get a really sore head’
  • ‘My feet start to clench’

Use creative visual tools

As language is one of obstacles that can contribute to frustration when a child is trying to communicate how they feel, Michelle recommended parents have visual cues and charts around the house as a reference.

“I think visuals are a great tool because when a child is in that heightened emotion or that state of anger, too much talk is really overwhelming for their brain. They don't want to hear instructions and they don't want to hear what they've done wrong.  A visual tool is a great idea because it teaches children just to go and have a look at one or two strategies - then they can then do that in their own time, on their own accord without getting pressure from anyone.”

Some visual cues Michelle recommended are pictures on the fridge such as;

  • Someone taking a deep breath
  • A soccer ball
  • A trampoline

These visual cues serve as reminders when a child is angry that there are healthy ways to process and display their anger.

Michelle with Kinderling Conversation host Shevonne Hunt and Michelle's book 'The Day My Brain Went Crazy'.

Come up with healthy ways to show anger

Once you’ve discussed these physical signs of anger, the next step is to come up with healthy ways to get that anger out.

When you’re angry your body is pumped with adrenaline, Michelle explained. If we don’t teach our children what to do with that adrenaline that’s when they can lash out and hurt themselves or other people. “We need to burn off that anger because really sitting down and being still is not going to be a helpful strategy,” she explained.

Some suggestions Michelle offered are;

  • Punching a pillow
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Kicking a ball outside
  • Scribble on a piece of paper, rip it up and toss it away

As well as offering those suggestions, Michelle added that kids love coming up with their own ideas too. When they’re not in the throes of a meltdown, sit down together and ask them what they want to do, or if they have any ideas that they could make their very own when they’re mad. 

Kids are great - they'll come up with their own ideas and go 'yeah maybe I could try that one at home' or 'that's what we've got in the backyard' or 'yeah I could punch my mattress instead'. So often they come up with great suggestions as well once you get started.”