The other night I got to speak to a group of potential foster parents who were just about to finish their training classes. They had really great questions about the realities of foster care and a realistic understanding that training classes are just not able to address all the potential scenarios you’ll run into as a foster parent.
One woman asked a great question about how you deescalate kids who are really angry. Over our years working with kids from toddlers to teens we have found what works and what doesn’t when dealing with angry children. I want to share with you our 5 step process for working through the rage with your child.
(*I need to acknowledge the reality that these tips do not work for every child. We had one kid in particular who didn’t respond to any of our attempts to deescalate him. It was a heartbreaking situation, but he couldn’t live safely in your average home environment. I offer these tips with a great humility about my own inability to make them be successful for every kid in every situation. If your child needs more help dealing with his anger, please get him the help he needs.*)
Tip #1: It’s hard to rage at someone who is agreeing with you.
When you’re faced with an angry child, look for common ground and try to be empathetic. It is not you against this child, it is you and this child against the problem. So if a child is raging because he can’t get his shoes on, you get to say, “Oh it is SO FRUSTRATING when you can’t get your shoes on! I can see you’re trying REALLY HARD! What can I do to help you?” I have found that sometimes I can even diffuse the situation by getting ridiculously more upset than they are about it and making them laugh. So in the shoe situation I might say, “Oh no! ARE YOU KIDDING ME, SHOES! HELP A SISTER OUT!”
When they see me being super dramatic (which is NOT my norm) it can help them snap out of it. With teenagers it might be something like, “I know it’s frustrating to have a curfew. Do you feel like you don’t get to do the fun things your friends are doing? Can you think of a way we could have your friends over here so the curfew isn’t an issue? Help me figure out how we can make this work.”
Tip #2: Ask them how you can help.
Often our kids rage because they feel powerless. We can help empower them by asking them how we can help. Would a drink of water right now be helpful? Do you need a strong hug? Would a story or snack be helpful? Do you need a few minutes alone in your room to help you calm down? Give them several options and see if they can think of something that might help them. It is good in this moment to help them be aware of their bodies and what their body might need–deep breathing is almost always a good option.
Tip #3: Balance nurture and structure.
Our kids need to know they are loved even when they rage. They also need to know it is NOT okay to scream, throw things, yell insults, etc. We want to help them understand it’s okay for them to be upset and there are healthy ways to express emotions. There are also unsafe ways to express emotions and we can’t allow those behaviors in our home. I have found when kids know the limits and know there are boundaries and consequences, they feel more safe and don’t need to rage in quite the same way.
For me, this has meant a lot of repeating, “I want to help you, but I can’t when you’re screaming at me. Let me know when you’re ready to speak calmly and we can talk about this.” My kids know I’m hearing them and acknowledging that they are upset, but they also know they cannot treat me disrespectfully in the process. This is most effective if you start it when your kids are VERY young. Angry toddlers should not hit their parents. It doesn’t matter how much that actually doesn’t hurt you, what matters is that they learn they cannot be physically violent when they’re angry.
Tip #4: Help them deal with the consequences of their rage.
It’s important to make sure our kids know there are consequences for things done in rage, BUT they happen after the fact, when we’re all calm again. “When you were really upset earlier you said some very nasty things to your sister. I need you to write her an apology letter and think of one kind thing you can do for her to help heal your relationship. In this house we are not going to say those kinds of words to each other. I would never allow her to talk that way to you, and I can’t allow you to talk that way to her.” Broken dishes get paid for, kicked walls get scrubbed, messed up rooms get cleaned. We might do these activities together and talk through times when we’ve been angry, too.
Tip #5: Have them come up with a plan for next time.
For kids who struggle with anger, this situation is likely to repeat itself. It’s good to talk through with your child what happened: why did they get so angry, what could they do to prevent that response, and how could they cope with it once it happened. Talk about what they might need in the moment that they have a hard time expressing when they’re flooded with emotions. When the next time comes, you can calmly remind them of your plan. “You are feeling some big feelings! Remember last time we said when you feel that way, it would be good for you to take a few minutes in your room to calm down? How about we try that now and see how it goes. That way we know for next time if that really helps.”
I think it’s so good and important to help kids learn to handle their own feelings and to encourage them to be a bit of a detective about what helps them. So often The Problem isn’t actually the problem, it’s their struggle to cope with their feelings. When we can help them figure out what helps them in the moment, we’ve given them the tools to address LOTS of problems and not just the specific one they’re struggling with today.
If we look at all of our children’s tantrums as isolated incidents and try to step in and solve them, we’re not helping our kids learn how to cope with their big feelings. We’ve got to look at the big picture. The child screaming about his homework doesn’t just need homework help. The child throwing his lunch across the room doesn’t just need a different kind of sandwich. Our kids need to be empowered to handle uncomfortable moments, frustrating situations, and hurtful encounters without LOSING IT. We need to walk them through the process of identifying their emotions, calming their bodies, thinking about solutions and making restitution as needed.
Maralee is a mother of six pretty incredible kids ages seven and under. Four of my kids were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, three through foster care) and two of our sons we made ourselves. Prior to becoming parents, my husband and I were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise 17 boys during our five year tenure. I’m crazy passionate about caring for kids, foster parenting and adoption, making my husband a fairly decent dinner every night, staying on top of the laundry, watching ridiculous documentaries, and doing everything I do for God’s glory. Read more from Maralee at her blog, A Musing Maralee.