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No parent looks forward to their child’s next tantrum.
But instead of dreading it, treating each tantrum as a learning opportunity could help your child learn to better manage their emotions — a skill they’ll need to be happier and more successful as they grow up.
After all, the occasional angry outburst is inevitable, says Jazmine McCoy, a clinical psychologist based in the Atlanta suburbs. Your goal as a parent of young children shouldn’t be to avoid or suppress it at all costs. Instead, McCoy tells CNBC Make It: “The goal is to raise a child who knows how to handle their anger in a healthy way.”
Learning to effectively regulate emotions, especially intense ones like anger and sadness, can help children develop resilience, improve their attention spans and boost cognitive development, research shows. Those skills and traits are all key to your kids’ overall success and well-being, according to psychologists.
For parents, how you talk about anger — especially when responding to a surprise outburst — is key to teaching your child how to appropriately handle that emotion, says McCoy.
“It’s OK to be angry,” she says. “Anger is an emotion that’s a message. It’s here to tell us something important. So let’s pay attention to it.”
Here are four steps to follow, according to McCoy:
Children need to feel heard and understood, especially by their parents, McCoy says. They should know that intense, negative emotions are normal — and that their parents are here to help, and will still love them unconditionally even when they’re acting out.
But accepting an emotion doesn’t necessarily mean accepting the harmful behavior it might spur, like yelling or hitting someone. In those cases, McCoy says, you can clearly state boundaries that should not be crossed.
“Say your child gets angry and starts to yell,” she says. “You can draw a boundary: ‘Hey, [this is] important. I want to hear what you have to say. But it is hard to understand when you’re yelling … Let’s calm our bodies down.”
Acknowledging your child’s anger can help them put words to the intense emotions they’re feeling. That’s an important step toward helping them manage those feelings without acting out.
This can be as simple as asking your child what’s making them angry and why, even if you already know. Then you can talk through ways to solve the problem, like playing with another toy while they wait for their sibling to finish with the one they initially wanted.
“When we teach our child how to communicate with their words, then they don’t need to feel like they have to yell [and] get aggressive to communicate what they need,” McCoy says.
McCoy is also a fan of using children’s books and other media to kickstart conversations about feelings. You can ask your child why they think a character in their favorite book is upset, for instance, and brainstorm potential solutions.
Teaching your child to take deep breaths when they’re upset is a popular and effective way to de-escalate angry outbursts.
McCoy says there’s a trick to using that strategy effectively: Practice those deep breaths yourself, in front of them. Tell your child you want to take a pause from the conversation to take a few deep breaths. Show them how it calms you down, and see if they follow suit.
That’s because the method can backfire if kids feel like their parents are forcing them to take deep breaths, she says. “We don’t necessarily force them to take that deep breath. We can just model it,” says McCoy.
Don’t respond to anger with more anger
As frustrating as it can be to watch your sweet toddler suddenly explode in anger, McCoy says you have to remember they’re too young to regulate their big feelings.
Yelling at kids can have lasting negative effects on their self-esteem and emotional development. Even if your annoyance isn’t verbalized, your child can still sense your anger, which can escalate the situation.
Taking a step back and discussing your own feelings of frustration with your kids can help.
“It comes down to the messages we send [and] how we model our anger,” says McCoy. “Do we just yell and [then] pretend like nothing ever happened? Or do we say, ‘You know what, I feel frustrated, I take accountability, I’m apologizing, and this is how I’m going to change [and] cope with those feelings. And I’m going to model this for you.'”
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