North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service

Anger in Families

The true test of a family's commitment to one will not be the avoidance of conflict, but rather how it chooses to respond to inevitable conflict.
--Ted Bowman

Anger is a primitive emotion. When adults become upset, they may act like the young children they are raising. Perhaps this is because anger as a feeling is developed in all human babies at 3 to 4 months of age. Anger is a strong emotion that remain with us our entire lives. Learning to recognize and deal with this potentially dangerous emotion is important work for all families.

What Does Anger Look Like? Sound Like? Feel Like?

We can often tell by physical signs when people are upset. The heart pounds faster, palms sweat, the face turns red or perhaps grows pale. The jaw is set, eyes are fixed and lips form a tight line. The angry child may shout "I hate you" while the angry adult may curse. Both might scream or yell. Anger may turn to physical abuse, like a hit or a kick. People lose control of their tempers and have tantrums. Often this is the case with young children because they are in the process of learning the correct ways to show their anger.

Anger May Show Up Quietly As Well

Passive aggressive behaviors -- such as not responding to parents and appearing uncooperative, hopeless or self-destructive -- may be signals of anger turned inward.

What To Do

Children learn by what they see their parents and other adults do. This is called modeling. When we model the behaviors that we want our children to use, they will eventually catch on to them. When children are young and not able to communicate everything verbally (with words), they tend to have fists and feet and teeth do their talking for them.

When this happens, first care for the victim. This helps relieve some of your own anger by helping the hurt one and giving you time to think of a helpful, respectful way to handle the child who has done the hurting. It also pulls attention away from the aggressor if the child has harmed for attention.

Next, explain that people are not for hurting. To make this effective, you must be calm and gentle with the child to model the type of behavior you expect. Express what the child is feeling in words, such as "You are feeling angry," and help her express what she wants. "You want to play with the bear, too."

"What would you like to do while you wait for your turn?" This will help a child identify his feelings, express his needs in a positive way and begin to problem solve.

Remember, children have a right to their feelings, but adults make the rules about actions.

Work with the Zones

To change a behavior, stop the old behavior and then offer alternatives that satisfy the same area (zone) of the body that the negative behavior was linked to. For example, if the child becomes angry and bites, offer a cool wash cloth or a safe-to-chew toy. If a child acts out her anger by using fists and arms, offer a pounding block, Playdough or show her how to pound the floor with her fists. Provide crayons and markers with paper to have the child draw or write how she feels.

If the child kicks, work with this zone by offering a ball and an open space to kick it. Kicking soft snow or the tops off from dandelions can also offer the active feet an alternative. Running in an open space or even around a couple of chairs might work, too.

For the child who puts his whole self into it, such as body slamming or smashing others, try a big bear hug (friendly and gentle) or a pile of cushions to attack.

Common Causes of Anger in Children are:

Why Parents Get Angry

In her book Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, Nancy Samalin writes, "The greater our love, the greater too our capacity for feeling a full range of troubling emotions, including anger, resentment and even rage. It is only natural that these strong emotions are sometimes expressed in our relationships with our children, for they are the people in whom we invest our greatest love, our most intense feelings and our highest expectations."

All This Being True...

Even though parents get angry, they must control their behavior. Easier said than done? Yes! Here are some things to remember next time your child "pushes your buttons."

This newsletter is published for North Dakota families with preschoolers by the NDSU Extension Service and distributed through your county extension office. See your extension agent for more parenting information and other home economics programs.

Parenting Preschoolers, Issue No. 16

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service