Anger in preschool aged children can be pretty frightening or upsetting for the adults around them. We may feel overwhelmed in the face of such strong emotions, or unsure how best to deal with the aggressive behaviours that often accompany extreme anger. In many cases, the child cannot even express why they are angry and this can make it particularly difficult to understand and deal with.
Firstly, we need to examine our own experiences of anger. If you were taught it wasn’t okay to be angry, you may consciously or unconsciously project this belief onto your children. You will find it helpful to try and put this belief aside and concentrate on teaching your children how to manage their anger in appropriate ways.
Why is your preschooler angry?
Children (and adults) get angry for a wide range of reasons. Some of the more common ones are:
- Loneliness or rejection
- Needing an emotional connection
- Embarrassment or humiliation
- Physical illness
- Perceived or actual injustices
- Hormonal fluctuations
- A feeling of powerlessness
Anger often occurs when a need or desire isn’t met, or when a goal is blocked. The best thing we can do for our children is to ensure we address as many of the issues in the list above as we can. This will help them deal better with any other needs or blocked goals.
Toddlers and preschoolers are well known for their angry outbursts and tantrums. They have a limited perception of the world and get frustrated easily. They have a wider understanding of vocabulary than they are able to express, so struggle to get their ideas across. They see other people around them being allowed or able to do things, and yet they cannot. They feel strong emotions but have not learned how to deal with them. It’s no wonder they meltdown so often!
See our article on Toddler Tantrums for great ideas on how to manage your toddler’s anger.
As children get older they tend to have fewer angry outbursts. Preschool children can express themselves verbally and are more physically able than toddlers, so this lessens two of the major causes of toddler tantrums. They still have a limited ability to understand anger, even though they may be very capable at feeling and expressing it! This is the age to start reasoning with children and explaining how to react appropriately when angry, although many children won’t be able to use all these techniques until they are older preschoolers.
How to deal with it
The best time to deal with anger is before it hits. Below are some tips for creating a safe emotional environment in your family:
For all ages
- Talk about your feelings and listen to your children talk about theirs non-judgmentally.
- Make sure your children understand that their feelings are okay.
- Don’t laugh or belittle them for their feelings. If they are reacting disproportionately, that is generally a sign something else is going on for them. Take some time to sit down with them and work out what the deeper problem is.
- Model good responses to situations that make you angry.
- Discuss with your children what “gets their goat” or arouses anger in them.
- Discuss with your children what helps them calm down. Some might want a hug, others might want space. Would a punching bag in their room help them vent or could they express their emotions in a diary?
- Ensure that any triggers for your child are avoided as much as possible.
For younger children
- Describe what you see happening to help them develop words for their feelings: eg You are trying to put the red block on top of the tower and it keeps falling off. How frustrating!
- Teach them an “emotional script” they can say in certain situations. Eg if another child takes the toy they were playing with, you could teach them to say “I was playing with that, please give it back”.
- Help them to find an appropriate tone when angry: strong enough to be noticed and taken seriously without yelling at another person.
- Use a distraction to refocus their attention.
So what do you do when your child reacts inappropriately?
- Safety should be your primary concern here. Evaluate whether your child or someone else is likely to be hurt and act quickly to minimise the risk. You may need to remove an object from your child, remove your child from a location, or if this isn’t possible ask the other children to remove themselves while you deal with the child. If you are dealing with an older child and are feeling like your personal safety is at risk, leave the situation as soon as you can and call someone to help you.
- Your next response depends very much on the situation and individual child.
- If you know your child likes space when angry, say something like: I’m just going to read my book over in the corner. Come to me when you’re ready to talk.
- If your child likes physical comfort, offer them a hug.
- If you know there are particular triggers that have exacerbated the situation, deal with them. Are they hungry? Thirsty? Overstimulated?
- Don’t try to reason with your child until they have calmed down
- Don’t punish your child for feeling angry, although you may want to impose some consequences for any inappropriate responses. Eg replacing a glass they broke.
When to seek help
- If you are feeling like you cannot cope with your child’s anger.
- If you are concerned for their safety, your safety or the safety of others.
- If an older child has frequent difficulty explaining their anger after it occurs.
- If the anger is getting in the way of your day to day life.
- If your child has a sudden unexplained increase in angry episodes.
- If your child seems angry more often than they are not.
- If teachers or caregivers have expressed concern about your child’s anger.
- It may be beneficial for your child to talk to someone about their feelings if there are other stresses going on, eg. divorce, death, moving, sickness.
Where to go for help
Parent help line: 0800 568 856