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Helping Children Understand and Express Angry Feelings

"Children have the right to feel angry, but not the right to hurt others." With quiet simplicity Mr. Rogers articulated one of the most basic concepts in helping children to develop empathy, compassion, and self-control. Learning to recognize, contain, and find socially acceptable ways to express angry feelings is a long journey; easy for some children and far more difficult for others. As early childhood educators we have the opportunity and responsibility to help children live, work, and play together as contributing members of a caring community.

Angry feelings, themselves, do not cause problems in the classroom — everyone gets angry at times. It is how the child expresses and manages his or her anger that is the issue. Learning to constructively contain and appropriately express anger is an important task of early childhood. Adults, often uncomfortable themselves with anger, frequently attempt to cajole children away from their angry feelings. All too often we hear adults tell children, "Stop being so angry." At times adults punish children for their angry outbursts, "You need to go to your room until you can play nicely." While we must support children in finding healthier outlets, we also must allow them to express, and ultimately master, their feelings. Only when this occurs will children experience the satisfaction and security associated with having inner controls.

But what causes a child to be angry? Often this is obvious — a child's immediate needs or wants have been frustrated. At other times the source of anger is more subtle — a child's momentary, frightened feelings of vulnerability. Children often feel overwhelmed and powerless and, in a moment of self-protection, they may lash out in anger.

Most adults have found other ways to handle anger. One may take to exercise; another might share her anger with a sympathetic friend. Young children have not yet discovered these techniques. Parents and teachers need to allow children ownership of their feelings while continuously teaching and reinforcing more constructive behaviors.

Before a child can start the journey toward inner control, he or she must first learn what is "inner" and what is "outer". Infants need to learn where their mouths, hands, and feet begin and end. Parents and caregivers intuitively teach babies about their body boundaries by engaging in games like "Pat a Cake", "This Little Piggy" and naming body parts while gently touching them.

Gaining control over their bodies becomes the next challenge for young children. Experienced early childhood teachers recognize that mastering self-control is an imperfect process. Young children often can not, rather than will not, stop themselves from reacting physically. It is not necessarily a matter of choice.

We need to provide children with ample opportunities for developing impulse control. Freeze dancing, stop and go games, pouring activities, keeping trains on a track, obstacle courses, and dot to dot tracing (but not as a substitute for creative art) offer authentic experiences for children to practice controlling their bodies.

As children mature and are better able to control their bodies, they, just like adults, need to find socially acceptable ways to express angry feelings. For most young children using their words is still a difficult task in the heat of an emotional experience. Our job is to help children find physical outlets where they can safely let off steam. Pounding clay, tearing paper, crayoning hard, throwing soft balls, drumming, running, jumping, and hammering are all activities that can offer relief.

By the end of the preschool years most children have developed enough impulse control to be able to express their emotions verbally and symbolically. Now is the time when children are able to use dramatic play, painting or drawing, and story telling as outlets for strong negative emotions.

The road to inner control is a slow, up-and–down process. All children regress at times, and will, no doubt, have angry outbursts. But there are many things we can do to help. As parents and teachers we should:

  • » Allow the anger, not the hurting
  • » Keep expectations age-appropriate
  • » Anticipate situations and structure the environment for greater success
  • » Use social conflicts as teachable moments leading to emotional growth
  • » Encourage children to use words and appropriate physical outlets
  • » Be clear, supportive, consistent, and firm in your responses
  • » Problem solve with children and look for win/win outcomes
  • » Be empathic and emotionally available — this can be reassuring and can help a child contain his upset feelings
  • » Provide a quiet place for children to regain composure in the company of an adult
  • » Resist the temptation to demand an apology from an angry child
  • » In conflict between peers teach empathy — it is more important for one child to ask another "Are you OK?" than it is to apologize

Learning to understand, contain, and appropriately express anger is one of the most important tasks of early childhood. Children who have good problem solving skills, who can emotionally connect with peers, and who know that adults are there to comfort them will be well on their way to a healthy adulthood.

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