The Angry Child: 4 Key Strategies for Teaching Self-Control

The TERRIBLE TWO’s. AND THREES. Did you just get a chill down your spine? A flashback to that moment you put down a serious wrestling move in the middle of the candy aisle and had to briskly carry your screaming, flailing toddler out of the store with all frozen and presumed judgmental eyes on you? You are not alone. No parent escapes these moments. Now of course we all hope and assume they will grow out of it; but I am continually amazed by how many teens, young adults, and even people in their 40s lack healthy self-control (verbally, emotionally, and even physically). So what is going on? And what should we do as parents? It is important to note that research in brain science and psychology does tell us there are kids who struggle to learn and master basic social skills and for whom parents must seek extra professional help and guidance. But for the typical child, self-control is taught (and modeled) by the parents.

So how do we prepare our children to face their emotions and more specifically, how do we teach self-control?? Here are four key strategies:

Key Strategy #1: GIVE CONSEQUENCES

Authors’ Cloud and Townsend in their book, “Boundaries with Kids: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Help Your Children Gain Control of Their Lives” consider the concept “YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW” to be one of the most basic and fundamental lessons of life. When a child learns that there are consequences, good or bad, for every choice and every action, he is able to realize that he CAN have some measurable control over the quality of his life.

Now as a parent also recognizing this principal of life and reality, I must likewise teach it to my children by allowing them to FEEL this reality from a young age. I must allow my children to experience negative consequences for bad choices and actions while in my care. No chores? No play-time. You won’t turn off the tablet when I tell you to? You lose it. Throw your toy in a raging tantrum and break the lamp? That CERTAINLY doesn’t give you what you want and now you not only lose the toy, you will work to pay off and replace the lamp! Because this is the reality of life.

It is also of incredible and significant importance that we use tangible, reality-based consequences (such as loss of time, possessions, or time with valuable people); and not only that, but ensuring the consequence FITS THE CRIME. I’ll never forget this one particular parent, upon learning that his tween daughter was binge-eating and food-hoarding, proceeded to punish her by removing her bedroom door from its hinges. Now this consequence I could totally understand if she was caught running a meth lab in her bedroom. But food-hoarding? Not so much. The consequence must make sense and be a tangible loss felt by your child. So also, do not use manipulative, emotional or psychological consequences such as nagging, withdrawing love, guilt trips, or playing the victim. If we nag or make statements like “If you don’t listen you will make mommy cry,” then your CRYING or NAGGING becomes the problem a child focuses on trying to end- rather than recognizing it is their BEHAVIOR that needs to end. Psychological and manipulative consequences can also trigger anger and resentment in a child; especially if they are made to feel responsible for your happiness. However again, with tangible reality-based consequences that create a personal loss for the child, they are more likely to instead experience sadness- which is a pathway to change. So ultimately the goal is to get them to recognize that THEIR behavior is the problem, not YOUR feelings or your needs; and that they have the power to change their behavior and thus change the outcome.

Key Strategy #2: GIVE CHOICES

The freedom to choose is at the root of self-control. As a parent, my goal is not to control my children, but to give them the opportunity to choose between right and wrong. So how do we help our children reach a place where they want to make the right choice?? CONSEQUENCES. We make the wrong choice so painful, that they will not want to choose it. Over time, they begin to associate wrong choices with PAIN- which is THE REALITY OF LIFE! I know I am repeating myself on this point, but it is KEY here.

• “You can continue to ignore me and go to time-out, or you can do what I asked and then finish playing. Your choice.”

• “You can clean your room now and then go play baseball with your friends, or you can sit in your dirty room by yourself for the rest of the evening and clean it tomorrow. Your choice.”

• “You can speak to me in a calm tone of voice without yelling, or you can continue to yell and you can forget about the playground this evening.”

In reality as adults, we must choose every day between doing whatever we feel like doing and doing what we need to do in order to be successful. Reality does not allow me to eat anything I want and not gain weight. Nor does it allow me to curse out my boss and still keep my job; to spend all my money and not be broke. So must our children feel this reality! As parents, we give them one choice or the other and be careful never to grant both of their wishes: “I want to get my own way,” AND “I want things to go well for me.” We provide them with the choices, and we make the wrong choice painful.

Key Strategy #3: TEACH COPING SKILLS

So then what do you do when the painful wrong choice initiates overwhelming rage in a child? You teach them to cope with that “big” emotion. As a therapist, coping skills are a major part of what I teach because it is a building block for managing anger, anxiety, and a whole host of “big” emotions. Some examples of popular coping skills are taking deep breaths, counting, going for a walk (teens), listening to music, journaling, etc. I’ve even had some kids with major aggression issues and multiple fist-planted holes in the walls of their homes move toward punching a pillow until they can restrain the urge to throw a left hook. The main idea is that the child learns healthy ways to self-soothe and calm down. The emotion is very real to a child and anger can seem completely overwhelming to their little, underdeveloped psyche. And honestly, identifying and teaching coping skills really doesn’t require a professional therapist. You know your child. Together, you and your child can figure out what works for them. My five-year old superhero son deals with his anger by going to his super-suit closet, donning his HULK mask, and then sitting in the corner seething while repeatedly stating “Hulk Angry” with the deepest, raspiest voice he can muster (I tell myself he is deep breathing and I tell him he can wear his HULK mask as long as he doesn’t HULK smash!). Seriously, whatever works. Help your child learn to manage the emotion and to calm down. He will thank you one day… when he manages to keep a job because he doesn’t tell the boss what everyone else is thinking!

Key Strategy #4: PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH

And then… it’s 3am. It doesn’t matter that you just worked a 40-hour week because the baby is screaming; so you slowly roll out of bed for the third time in 45 minutes. As you traverse the dark house, groggy and foggy, the inevitable happens. LEGO. Barefoot. No one judges the silent obscenity that passes through your lips; or the secret thoughts of vengeance…on the Legos. I don’t think you’re human if you have never considered walking over to that big ugly yellow bucket and dumping the whole lot right down in the trash with the dirty diapers! As parents, we can’t always beat our own humanity! Anger, frustration, and overwhelming exhaustion that brings us to inhumane levels of baseline functioning can be a daily battle. However, what we MUST ensure is that we do not stoop to the same level of the child who is still in the early stages of social, emotional, moral, and cognitive development. With my own eyes and on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a child in rage throw an object at his parent; and then watched the angry parent throw it right back at the child. That is unacceptable. I would expect that from a sibling maybe. But not from a parent. This may be the single most important strategy for teaching self-control: modeling it. If I cannot control my own emotion and likewise my actions, why should my child? And children are always watching; watching, learning, and imitating. If you feel your own anger rising while dealing with defiance and opposition from your child, take a time out for yourself. Cool down. And then come back and give consequences with a calm, loving demeanor. Even with empathy: “I know it is so sad and disappointing that you won’t be able to go to the playground now. But maybe next time you will make a better choice.” Not easy, I know. But totally doable. Also when you can take your own emotion out of the equation, again your child will see the consequence as related to their own behavior; and not just your angry retaliation.

So ultimately our primary goal as parents is to teach and train our children to be prepared for life: life on their own, life as adults. So from as early as possible, our children must learn and understand reality as it truly is; otherwise they will be unprepared for it. If we do not prepare them for reality, at best, they may experience a little disillusionment, maybe a shaky adjustment. But at worst, they may experience failure to thrive. As hard as it may be to give consequences, or to watch your child experience the pain of their choices while in your care, consider how much harsher the world is; and how much harsher the consequences. You are preparing them for that. You are providing the connection between pain and poor choices. SO if you haven’t been giving your child appropriate and healthy consequences, today is the day to start! Remember to still provide them the choice between doing what they want (and experiencing pain) and doing what you asked (and having things go well for them). Praise them when the make the right choice! Teach them to self-soothe when angry. This is an invaluable, lifelong skill. And then show them what self-control looks like and why choosing self-control will give them the best quality of life!

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” Galatians 6:7

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