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Help your kids manage anger at any age

As parents, we must guide our children wisely as they navigate their emotional experiences at each stage of their development. Here's some guidance on managing anger issues with toddlers, grade-schoolers, tweens, and teens.

This article courtesy of HomeLife magazine.

We all feel anger at different times throughout our lives. The emotion itself is nothing to be feared or avoided. In fact, the emotion can be a perfectly appropriate and healthy response to a number of situations. There are clear accounts in the Gospels of John and Mark where we see evidence of Jesus' anger. In John 2, Jesus scatters the coins of the moneychangers and overturns the table in response to what He encounters in the temple courts. Equally, in Mark 3, Jesus enters the synagogue and feels anger and distress in response to the Pharisees' attempts to accuse Him.

Jesus felt anger. We feel anger. Likewise, our children will feel anger. As parents, we have a responsibility to guide our children wisely as they navigate their emotional experiences at each stage of their development. Our kids desperately need to see us model feeling deeply and working through emotions in healthy ways. Here's age-appropriate guidance that can help.

Guiding Toddlers

Toddlers have vocabulary limitations. Parenting within this stage of development is an ongoing process of expanding vocabulary. Toddlers need us to model or role-play responses involving the use of words. Before children can speak, sign language is a useful tool to help them ask for what they need rather than simply acting out.

Toddlers also need help redirecting their anger toward something useful. Kids their age get stuck in the feeling and don't know what to do with it. They need guidance for using words (accepting blame or asking for forgiveness), going to a safe place (taking a timeout), and moving into repairing a relationship (giving back a toy they grabbed).

Encouraging Elementary-age Kids

Elementary-age children have a stronger (but not fully developed) vocabulary. They need continued encouragement to use their words when they experience strong emotions rather than simply acting recklessly. Often girls are more successful at this than boys. By age 9 to 10, the male brain begins channeling all primary emotions (sadness, disappointment, fear) into anger. Boys need help differentiating emotions or else they stay stuck on the anger channel. Both genders need guidance, modeling, and ongoing practice to advance in this emotional strategy.

Elementary-age kids also benefit from having an identified space for the physical expression of their anger. When counseling distraught parents, I encourage them to consider having a punching bag, an inflatable object in a playroom, or a plastic bat next to a tree in the yard as an outlet for anger. This approach is counter-cultural to messages we often send to kids such as "Stop being angry" or "No yelling." By using these phrases, we're often inviting kids to withhold emotion, bottle up feelings, or deny themselves. Our kids can't make themselves stop feeling any more than we can.

By allowing kids to express the physicality of emotions in a safe way, we're teaching them in healthy, constructive ways to process emotion. In counseling boys, I talk with them about how I learned to shoot hoops or run when I felt anxious, angry, or any other emotion that seemed to take my heart and mind hostage.

Informing Tweens

Tweens desperately need parents and other godly adults to flood them with information about their changing bodies, minds, and emotions. As their bodies are growing, these changes will drive unpredictable responses, distortions in their thinking, and a range of emotions. Such changes aren't to be feared but celebrated. We can help tweens see puberty in physical, emotional, and spiritual contexts. The onset of puberty is the indicator that our sons and daughters are crossing the bridge from childhood into young adulthood - that God is forming them into young men and women. The more information we give our tweens, the more prepared they feel as they experience the onset of adolescence (and all the emotions that come with it), and the more safe they feel in talking with parents about the range of changes.

Redirecting Teenagers

Teens are vulnerable to experiencing anger regarding insignificant incidences. They can be rational and thoughtful individuals one moment and unreasonable, explosive aliens the next. As they experience surges of hormones, they're vulnerable to emotional instability.

Adolescents need us to parent with wisdom, strength, understanding, and mercy. When they act or respond in anger, they may need a similar correction we would give toddlers and elementary-age children, such as redirection toward something more constructive or useful. Teens will also benefit from parents adding an important phrase into their parenting vocabulary: "Try again." These words reflect God's grace to our children.

A do-over communicates a message of, "I believe in you, I believe you're capable of more, I'm willing to forgive that response, and you need to try a different one."

When adolescents aren't ready to try again, we best respond to their anger by encouraging them (or ourselves) to halt the conversation, create some space and distance to de-escalate, and then revisit the exchange in a more rational, less emotionally charged moment. Allowing for this kind of timeout communicates to our teens that we respect them (and ourselves) enough to avoid staying engaged in a dead-end, caught-in-the-cross-fire, potential-to-harm kind of conversation.

Equally important is to parent teens with the knowledge that developmentally they're pursuing independence and identity apart from us. We must listen for evidence of where our children are desperately seeking to find a voice.

In all stages of development, kids learn more through observation than instruction. As parents and the primary disciplers of our kids, we can't pay enough attention to our own emotional journeys. It's vital that our growing children see adult men and women who have the ability to feel anger and navigate the emotion without harm to themselves or others. Paul addressed this when he instructed the Ephesians to "Be angry and do not sin. Don't let the sun go down on your anger" (4:26). Our kids need us to teach them how to feel anger, work their way through the emotion (not around it, over it, or away from it), and channel the intensity of the feeling into something useful. It's always our job to be the grown-ups.

David Thomas, LMSW, is the director of counseling for men and boys at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, Tenn. He's the co-author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, a frequent guest on national television and radio, and a nationally known speaker. He and his wife, Connie, have a daughter and three wild things (twin sons and a feisty yellow lab puppy).