Helping Children Deal with Angry Feelings:

Continuing Fred Rogers' Legacy

Hedda Sharapan | March 2008

Helping Children Deal with Anger

Anger is a difficult feeling for most people – painful to feel and hard to express. We can’t expect our children never to be angry, any more than we can ask that of ourselves, but we can help them find healthy outlets for the mad that they feel – and help them know the good feeling that comes with self-control.

Fred Rogers

Here at Family Communications, Inc., we’re continuing to build on Fred Rogers’ legacy. One of his central messages was helping children find healthy ways to manage their anger. That’s more important in today’s world than ever.

When Fred Rogers talked about angry feelings as a natural part of being human, he almost always added, “but we don’t have to hurt anyone or ruin anything when we’re angry.” He also emphasized how important adults are in helping children learn how to handle their angry feelings. Children aren’t born with self-control. As a director of a childcare center told us, “I try to help my staff when they say, ‘He won’t stop.’ And I say, ‘Have you ever thought that maybe he can’t stop?’ And that’s a big difference.”

When children are angry, they need understanding from their caregivers, and at the same time, it’s essential to give them clear and firm limits. They need adults to stop them when they’re about to hurt…to help them find constructive, rather than destructive, outlets…to help them “use their words” instead of acting on their feelings…and to help them develop self-control so they can stop from hurting by using their own internal controls.

Anger is a natural part of being human. What matters most is what we DO with the anger!

“Use your words”

Language development plays a key role in helping children deal with their anger. There’s good reason why childcare providers often say to children, “Use your words.” When children become more able to talk about their anger or frustration or disappointment, they are less likely to bite or hit or hurt. It’s no wonder that Fred Rogers always told his young viewers that talking about feelings is “important talk.” When we can talk about our feelings, they can become a lot less overwhelming or upsetting or scary.

Of course talking about feelings can be a challenge for people at any age, but especially for young children who don’t have many words to describe what they’re feeling. Besides, feelings can be a jumble, and hard to sort out or name.

When children can talk about their feelings, those feelings can be more manageable. Here are some ways you can help children “use their words”:

  • Help children learn the words we use for feelings, like “mad,” “sad,” “frustrated,” “excited,” “glad,” or “disappointed.” Being able to say, “I’m mad” or “I’m excited” or “I’m frustrated” gives children power over their feelings so they can work on controlling them, instead of being controlled by them. Then they can more easily separate their feelings from their actions.
  • Talk about your own feelings. That helps children learn that we all have many of the same feelings. Knowing that our feelings are natural and normal for all of us can make it easier for children to talk about their feelings with us.
  • Be a caring listener. Have you ever found that just having a caring listener makes your hard times more manageable? Whether we’re adults or children, it helps to know that we’re not alone and that someone cares about us, no matter what we’re feeling.

The Process of Developing Self-Control

Social-emotional development plays another key role in helping children deal with their angry feelings. If we want children to deal constructively with their anger, we need to help them develop self-control, which is the ability to stop. They aren't born with self-control. That's something that emerges as they grow -- and with the support of caring adults.

We also need to keep in mind that the development of self-control is a long, slow process that begins in early childhood and extends to adult life. In many ways, self-control is the most important task of childhood because it enables us to live and work with other people. Getting along with others, which includes being able to deal with angry feelings, is often listed as one of the essential skills that children need in school.

Developing self-control is a process involving four stages:

  • Stage 1) Establishing body boundaries; Knowing where their body begins and ends;
  • Stage 2) Gaining impulse control; Being able to stop;
  • Stage 3) Using a physical outlet to release their anger;
  • Stage 4) Expressing their anger creatively.

Generally, the four stages correspond to infancy, toddlerhood, early preschool, and later preschool. Increasingly, however, we see more and more children (and sometimes teenagers and adults) who haven’t yet mastered these early developmental stages.

Keep in mind that at the early stages, children are not intentionally trying to hurt people or damage things, and may even be unaware of what they have done – or unable to stop. They need adults to be physically there, holding them back from hurting.

When we physically stop children who are hitting, we're letting them know that their behavior is not acceptable. We're providing a physical sense of what it feels like to stop from doing something. We can also say something like, "I'm not going to let you hit." Children need to trust that we will help them manage anger until they are able to do it for themselves. They may still need us to stop them from hurting when they are angry, but the experiences of successfully controlling their behaviors will, little by little, help them be more able to control their angry actions.

We’ve organized the activities below according to the stages. The activities suggested for each stage can help you:

  • identify which children need more help in the early stages because of the way they handle the activity;
  • monitor how children are progressing by the way they respond to the same or similar activity over time;
  • provide activities to help children work on mastering a particular stage.

Stage 1) Establishing body boundaries

Before children can begin to control what they do with their mouths, hands, and feet, they need to have a physical sense of self -- where their bodies begin and end. While that generally develops in infancy, there are toddlers and preschoolers who don’t yet have a clear sense of their body boundaries.

Children who don’t have solid sense of their body boundaries may:

  • bump into people or things without realizing or meaning to;
  • often need adult support at circle time to stay within their own space;
  • eat off another child’s plate, take another child’s toys, sit where others are sitting;
  • spill water, sand, play materials and be messier than usual with art materials, food, etc.

Here are some general activities that help children work on body boundaries.

For infants and toddlers:

  • Simple naming games, such as when an adult touches the infant’s nose and says, “Here’s your nose.”
  • “This little piggy went to market”
  • “Pat-a-cake.”

For preschoolers:

  • Hand tracing
  • Body tracing
  • Finger plays
  • Handclapping games.

Stage 2) Learning to stop – gaining impulse control

Toddlers slowly become able to control their bodies. They learn to stop and start at will. They move through space in a controlled way. They can run fast and hard, and then stop. They learn to stop themselves from doing things they should not do, such as touching objects they have been told not to touch. Of course this doesn't happen overnight. When children of this stage become angry, they tend to hit, kick or bite. They aren't yet able to stop themselves from hurting others.

Children who don’t have good impulse control may:

  • move too fast; play too hard; push the physical limits;
  • build block towers too high; run cars too fast;
  • take too much food; use too much paint;
  • talk too loudly; sing louder and longer than others;
  • have trouble stopping when it's time to stop;
  • have difficulty with transitions and limits.

Here are some general activities that help children work on impulse control.

For toddlers:

  • Stop and go games
  • Stacking and pouring
  • Keeping toy trains on a track
  • Moving toy cars along a road

For preschoolers:

  • Obstacle courses
  • Lego® and other snap-together toys
  • Dot-to-dot pictures (but not as a substitute for creative art)

Stage 3) Finding Release through Physical Outlets

Once children have some self-control, they can often release their angry feelings in a physical and controlled way. At this age, children can also begin to use words instead of aggressive actions. When they’re angry, they can say they’re angry, but you may need to stay nearby to intervene if needed.

Children who are working on physical release of angry feelings:

  • generally have a strong ability to stop themselves;
  • usually feel better after physical activities;
  • may seem frustrated and unable to express their feelings in words.

Here are some general activities that help children through a physical release.

  • Pounding play clay
  • Throwing soft balls
  • Scribbling hard with crayons or markers’
  • Tearing paper
  • Running
  • Drumming
  • Dancing
  • Hammering

Stage 4) Channeling Angry Feelings into Creative Activity

During this stage, children begin to channel their angry feelings into creative activities, instead of physical ones. Now that they have developed stronger self-control and an ability to use words, they can express their anger symbolically by drawing a picture of a monster, playing about angry dinosaurs, or making up an angry song. They often express their feelings through play, storytelling, and art.

Children who are working on a creative release of angry feelings:

  • can express their feelings by drawing, painting, making up stories, dancing, and talking about how they feel;
  • seem calmer after these creative activities.

Here are some general activities that help children use creative channels.

  • Painting at the easel
  • Block building
  • Drawing
  • Playing music and making up songs
  • Dramatic play
  • Storytelling

Your role as a caregiver

As a child's caregiver, you have an important role to play in helping children develop one of the most important school (and life) readiness tools – being able to deal with their angry feelings. Your everyday care can make such an important difference, as you help children by:

  • building a nurturing, caring relationship with each child. We all learn to control our behavior to please the people who we feel care about us.
  • giving them rules and limits that are clear and simple so they’ll know what’s expected of them.
  • helping them stop -- with kindness and firmness -- when they are out of control.
  • encouraging activities, like the ones we’ve listed above, to strengthen skills that children need for self-control.

We know how easy it is to for adults to get angry at children for being angry. Then it’s harder for us to stay in control ourselves!  But when parents and caregivers gain a better understanding of how children gain inner controls, it’s often easier to be helpful and supportive.

Remember, too, with any development, children often take two steps forward and one step backward.  Some days will be better than others. Children generally regress if there's stress at home (like a new baby, financial worries, a move to a new place, or domestic violence) or if they're tired or not feeling well. Take care of yourself, too, because your patience and understanding will go a long way towards help them grow towards finding positive ways to manage their anger.