As a caregiver, you’re going to see the full spectrum of human emotion play out in your child at one time or another: joy, pride, sadness, love, worry…and, of course, anger. It’s sometimes hard for parents to accept that the little bundle of joy they cradled in their arms is now a person able to act out big, sometimes scary, emotions.
But the truth is, anger is a healthy and normal emotion, and handling an angry child is simply part of the child-rearing journey.
As caregivers, it’s up to us to prepare for dealing with expressions of anger. Here, we’ll cover:
- How to de-escalate big emotions in your toddler
- How to ensure safety for the child and people around them
- How to maintain your composure during these moments
- The most effective ways to communicate with an angry child
Recognizing and Validating Your Child's Anger
Childhood anger issues stem from underlying feelings like frustration, fear, or a sense of powerlessness. By recognizing what upsets your child and finding the deeper trigger that sets off a tantrum, yelling, or crying fit, you can take steps to address the real issue and help your child learn better ways to cope.
The first step in calming an angry child is validating their anger.
Just like you wouldn’t tell your child that it’s wrong or bad to feel lonely, sad, or scared, feeling angry isn’t shameful. So, how do you validate this intense emotion? By meeting rage with empathy and understanding.
- Tell your child you see how upset they are
- Ask what you can do to help
- Be patient if your child refuses to talk when upset
- Listen non-judgmentally when and if they’re able to tell you why they’re angry
Creating a Safe and Calm Environment
When a child is in the middle of an anger outburst, sometimes talking with them won’t be effective. Instead, try to focus on safety. As long as your child isn’t hurting themselves or others, it’s best to let the tantrum wind down in appropriate ways.
Here are some tips for ensuring safety and calm around an angry child:
- Check the space – During an outburst, try to keep your child away from sharp objects like counters, tables, stairs, etc. If you’re at home, their room is often the most calming and safe setting. If you’re in public, try to guide your child to an area without hazards such as cars, bystanders, or other kids, if possible. Your car can provide a safe, closed space where you can let them sit and decompress.
- Minimize noise and light – A dim, quiet space is ideal for settling an overstimulated child. If possible, lower the lights, turn off the TV, and ask siblings to leave the room.
- Avoid confrontation – When your child is in the middle of a tantrum, direct confrontations aren’t helpful. Raising your voice will only create more stress and agitation. Instead, stay close by to ensure their safety, but allow the tantrum to wind down without engaging.
- Create a designated safe zone – If your child has angry outbursts regularly, it can help to plan ahead by creating an area that’s set up for self-soothing. Make a comfort corner in their room or the living room the “safe zone.” Outfit it with items your child finds comforting, like a special stuffie for hugging, a weighted blanket, or a curtain for privacy and minimizing light.
Maintaining Parental Composure
Maintaining your own emotional regulation during your child’s meltdown is a cornerstone of effective support and guidance. When you stay calm, your child will eventually pick up on the message that outbursts aren’t a way to force you to give in. Staying calm also comforts your child when their anger stems from fear or anxiety.
However, it’s also incredibly challenging to stay calm, and you won’t always do it perfectly—but that’s okay!
Work on presenting a calm exterior by:
- Pausing before responding – Unless your child is in immediate danger due to their outburst, you don’t need to respond instantly. Instead, take a breath and consider how you want to react.
- Thinking about your own emotions – Reflecting on the feelings your child’s anger triggers in you can help you be less reactive. For example, you may be feeling angry too. You may be embarrassed if other adults are present. You may even feel scared of your child’s behavior. All of these feelings and others are normal reactions to a raging young child.
- Being quietly present – While your child is in a rage, you don’t need to say more than “I’m here when you’re ready,” or “If you want to talk, I will listen and help.” Try simply sitting quietly nearby and focusing on your breathing. Keeping your heart rate and breathing even may help your child’s parasympathetic nervous system regulate itself during stress.1
Effective Communication Techniques
How you communicate before, during, and after an anger episode is key to teaching your child to manage anger appropriately, as well as how to repair after an episode. During the outburst, put your energy into staying calm and keeping your child safe. Before and after is when you can work on teachable moments and setting boundaries.
#1 Setting Clear Boundaries and Consistent Consequences
When your child is calm, have a talk about your expectations for behavior and what happens if those boundaries aren’t followed.
- Make boundaries clear and simple – “I’m not going to let you hit,” “I’m not going to let you throw things,” etc.
- Explain consequences directly and clearly – “If you yell at your sibling, we’ll have to go home early.”
- Enforce consequences consistently – With time, your child will learn that there are predictable consequences for tantrums and that rage doesn’t get them the outcome they want. Predictability is comforting for a child who is struggling with big feelings.
#2 Identifying and Understanding Triggers
It’s not always easy to tell what sets off a rage, but understanding the why behind a tantrum is key to helping your child learn to handle it in the future. Many behavioral researchers believe that there are five general causes of behavior, including tantrums2:
- Seeking attention (from you, a friend, a teacher, etc.)
- Escape from a task or situation (chores, bathtime, getting dressed)
- Seeking something tangible (a toy, a favorite food)
- Sensory stimulation (when we do something simply because it feels good)
- Being overwhelmed by strong emotions (they don’t know how to communicate or regulate their feelings)
Talk with your child about what they were feeling before they got angry. Was there something they wanted? Were they feeling lonely or bored?
As you identify the situations that trigger your child, talk with them about how they can respond to that trigger differently next time. You might suggest these anger management activities for kids:
- Communicate their feelings by saying, “I am mad”
- Ask for a hug or comfort
- Stomp their feet
- Cry or let tears out
- Ask for help with problem solving
#3 Avoiding Negative Reinforcement
It can be tempting to adjust your behavior to avoid triggering your child. But by trying to change your actions to keep your child calm, you’re inadvertently showing them that tantrums work. In other words, you’re actually reinforcing their angry behavior by rewarding it.
When you need to do something that may set off a rage (enforcing bedtime, saying no to extra snacks, ending screen time, etc.):
- Go over your plan for responding to tantrums
- Be prepared to respond calmly and directly
- Stick to your boundaries and stay consistent
- Encourage change by responding positively to better behavior and disengaging from negative behavior
#4 Addressing Destructive Behavior
When anger escalates to the point of being destructive or dangerous, it’s challenging to know how to respond. While you don’t want to validate the tantrum by giving in, you also need to minimize harm.
When tantrums become destructive:
- Step in to prevent injury – If your child is throwing, hitting, punching, or flailing their arms, you may need to physically restrain them to prevent injury. Be gentle, but firm: “I can’t let you hit/throw/hurt yourself.”
After they calm down:
- –If another child got hurt or scared, talk to them about how they feel and make sure they’re okay. Your child will see that lashing out doesn’t put the attention on them—it puts your attention on the person they hurt.
- Talk about how to make amends when we hurt others – Explain that it’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s important to be honest about it when we do. Sharing a story like Repair Bear’s is a good way to start a conversation about fixing relationships after we hurt people.
- Suggest asking the other child if they are okay – Instead of saying they’re sorry, encourage your child to focus on how the other child feels. Asking if they are okay can help them reconnect, and an apology may come naturally.
If your child’s anger is frequent and uncontrollable, it’s important not to try to apply a diagnosis like ADHD or autism. Instead, consider seeking outside help. Family therapy can be very helpful if you feel that your child’s rage is destructive and causing harm to your family.
#5 Avoiding Escalation During Outbursts
Reasoning with your child during a rage isn’t going to be effective, and it’s likely to make you feel more frustrated. There are two reasons this won’t work:
- Adults can control angry impulses because of our prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of the brain that applies reasoning to emotional responses and can override impulsive behavior. In kids, this part of the brain is only beginning to develop. It won’t be fully online until the mid-to-late 20s.3
- During stress, even fully-formed PFCs don’t work as well. So, for a child, it’s extra hard to control emotional outbursts. It’s not their choice—it’s just the developmental stage of their brain.
Instead of reasoning or arguing, give your child clear, short directions while an outburst is occurring (“Take a deep breath,” “Let’s go to your comfort corner,” etc.). Keep your tone even and calm. Wait for them to calm down before trying to talk about the problem.
Learn to Keep the Peace At Home With Slumberkins
Understanding the causes of your child’s anger can help you respond in a way that’s not only kind but also effectively addresses the roots of the problem. With positive reinforcement, clear expectations for appropriate behavior, and firm but fair boundaries—along with time and patience—you can prepare your little one to handle this big emotion on their own.
Slumberkins can help with resources like our Conflict Resolution collection. Let Hammerhead the Shark show children healthier ways to express anger and frustration—and how to make amends after an emotional outburst happen.
- Lunkenheimer, Erika et al. “Parent-child coregulation of parasympathetic processes varies by social context and risk for psychopathology.” Psychophysiology vol. 55,2 (2018): 10.1111/psyp.12985. doi:10.1111/psyp.12985
- Gia, Miller. "Why do kids act out?" Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/why-do-kids-act-out/
- "The teen brain: 7 things to know." National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-7-things-to-know
- Bestbier, Lana, and Tim I Williams. “The Immediate Effects of Deep Pressure on Young People with Autism and Severe Intellectual Difficulties: Demonstrating Individual Differences.” Occupational therapy international vol. 2017 7534972. 9 Jan. 2017, doi:10.1155/2017/7534972