‘My child’s become so unreasonable. He used to be placid and easy going. Now he suddenly explodes for no reason.’ Perhaps you are like this parent, trying to figure out where your child’s anger has suddenly come from and what to do about it.

In my work as a Parent Coach, I’ve noticed how often parents find themselves dealing with children’s anger after they’ve experienced some major change. Perhaps it’s starting or changing schools, or after the death of a loved one. This all makes sense when we recognise that anger is a very common reaction in times of loss and it makes sense because anger is always an inner sign ‘I need change.’ And sometimes the change we   wish we had was to change things back to how they used to be.

It’s unsurprising that children, with limited reasoning and verbal skills, may express this anger in a socially unacceptable way – through tantrums, verbal or even physical outbursts – possibly at those closest to them. Claude’s father had recently walked out of the family home. Claude screams at his mother, ‘I hate you!’ Our reaction in such a situation may be to feel hurt or angry. Perhaps we would find it easier to cope if we remind ourselves that the child is battling with complex and painful emotions.
When a grieving child suddenly kicks the dog or smashes a treasured object, he may be trying to say something he cannot find words for. If he is experiencing frustration and anger, he needs to be handled with the same reassurance and care we would offer grieving adults. Punishing a child who is reacting negatively will only increase his rage and possibly cause him to bury his grief.  Rather, we need to guide him gently towards more socially acceptable outlets, and help him to find words for his feelings. For example, if a child has just thrown a toy across the room, a helpful response might be,‘You’re feeling angry. If you throw the toy it may break. Let’s find something else you would like to play with.’Acknowledge the child’s feelings, gently letting him know that his action was inappropriate, and find another activity that will help him ‘let off steam’ in an acceptable way.  Creative activities that can help hurting children vent their anger include:

  • play dough
  • puppets
  • fat wax crayons and large sheets of paper
  • hammer, wood and nails.

We can use activities like these to help children to ‘let off steam’ in a way that won’t hurt themselves or others. When a child is ‘stuck’ in their pain and anger and you are feeling unable to help them move through that experience I recommend seeking professional help such as Play Therapy. Your child may need a safe space to work though ‘tangled emotions’ and troubled thoughts, and play therapy uses toys, which are a child’s ‘natural language’ to give the child a safe space to do this. We also need to learn the skill of deepening  communication with our children.  (If you are in Ireland or nearby, don’t miss out on the ‘Coaching Approach to Parenting’ course. Click on this link for detail).

Sometimes a child’s experience with us is that it’s not okay to talk about troubling things. I love Catherine Wallace’s statement:

‘Listen eagerly to anything your child wants to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff  when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.’

This applies to children but recently I’ve been challenged to recognise how it applies with the elderly as well. An aging father wants to buy his adult daughter a rather expensive gift and she resists him spending money on her.

‘But I want to get you something special before I die,’ he says.

‘Don’t be talking like that, daddy,’ she exclaims. ‘Of course you’re not going to die!’

Whilst it’s not an easy subject to discuss, the fact is that sooner or later the old man must leave his loved ones and take that journey to an unknown destination. As with the child, if we shut down the conversation now when it doesn’t seem relevant or urgent to us, we may be shutting down the opportunity for the other to share their anxieties or to say something they need to say. When we shut down the topic of conversation by ignoring it, or making light of it, the message we might be giving is, ‘I can’t discuss this with you.’

Imagine if you had to take a journey to a foreign land and whenever you tried to broach the subject, people avoided the conversation. Imagine how much greater your anxiety would become if this subject is taboo. Imagine your sadness if you couldn’t say the words of farewell that deep inside you wanted to say.

This is why it’s so important  to use whatever entrances in conversation come your way, no matter how small or unexpected, to give the message, ‘If there’s something on your mind, I’m here to listen.’

When we learn how to create a safe space for any subject to be discussed, we give the gift of connectedness.

Part of this blog is an excerpt from ‘Working with Under Sixes – a  handbook for everyone in children’s ministry’ by Val Mullally. 

This practical book includes helpful chapters on:

– play

– storytelling

– encouraging creativity

–  dealing with discipline

and helping children cope with loss