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Helping Children with Their Angry Feelings: What we Can Continue to Learn from Fred Rogers

By Hedda Sharapan

A friend of mine was driving along in the car when she heard an argument in the back seat between her son and daughter. Checking on them through the rear view mirror, she was upset to see her 5-year-old son reach over and punch his older sister. She told him, “You know there are other things you can do besides hitting your sister when you get angry with her.” He looked up at her quizzically and asked, “There are?”

What a great reminder to us that children aren’t born with anger management skills. We have to teach them those skills. They’re essential for success in school, in family life and later on in the workplace. In fact, that’s one of the core messages Fred Rogers wove all throughout the whole Neighborhood series, through his words, his songs and the Make-Believe stories. Even in his landmark PSAs about world conflict, he talked about how important it is for our society’s survival that we help children find healthy ways to deal with anger.

Anger is part of being human
Fred’s overall approach to anger grew out of his lifelong studies of children and families. He talked about anger as natural and normal, as part of being human. But he always added that what matters most is learning what to DO with those angry feelings, and that’s a lifelong process.

Fred went further and reminded us of our role as parents and educators: “…when children express their anger, they need to trust—way down deep—that we adults will help them find some socially acceptable way of expressing that feeling—some way that’s not going to hurt anybody, some way that might help everybody to grow.”

Understanding children’s anger
One way to begin to address children’s anger is by thinking about times when we’ve felt angry. Isn’t it usually when we feel powerless, helpless, left out or frustrated? Think about how often children have those feelings. So it’s no wonder they get angry a lot…and angry with people who are closest to them, like parents and friends.

When I’m doing a workshop about children’s anger, I ask the adults (parents and/or teachers) to reflect on how they react when they’re very angry. They usually say things like, “my heart races,” “my blood pressure goes up,” “my muscles get tense.”

Those physical symptoms are the effect of stress hormones that pour into our system when we’re really angry. That chemical change turns on the most primitive part of our brain, the “fight or flight” mode, and what turns off is the most mature part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, where all our rational thinking takes place, including our understanding of consequences! Think of the situation as if it were cavemen days, where switching on the most primitive part of our brain was a protective measure, so that when we face danger, we run or fight, instead of taking the time to stop and think, which might get us hurt or in further danger.

People often laugh when I ask if anyone can talk sense into us at that point. Of course not! We need to calm down first to lower our stress hormones. Then we’re able to use the mature part of our brain.

Stress hormones are part of children’s chemistry, too, when they’re angry, and they have a similar effect on children. So we have to help children calm down first, before we can help them learn better ways to handle their anger. It makes sense to have that conversation at a quiet time that’s not so emotional, outside the angry situation, so children will be more open to hearing us.

Sometimes when children get angry, their parents get angry, too, and that makes children more upset. If you can stay calm but firm, your child may be more able to get back into control.

What CAN we do when we get angry?
If what matters most is helping children find healthy ways to express their anger, we need to be clear about those options. One mother I know turned to her child’s teacher for advice about her daughter who was hitting when she got angry. The teacher suggested that at a quiet (not angry) time, they work together to make two lists – “What I CAN do when I’m mad” and “What I CAN’T do when I’m mad.” Even though the child couldn’t read yet, having this visual reminder, written on paper seemed to validate the concept and make it powerful. And the mother appreciated having the written list to keep her focused at challenging moments.

For younger children, the list of “what I CAN do” might include physical things like: run fast, stomp your feet, do a mad dance, dig in the dirt, pound a pillow, yell “I’m mad” or scribble. Older children can benefit from those physical outlets, too, but they may also be able to channel their angry energy into something creative, like make a mad picture, use a puppet, sing a mad song, or write an angry note.

On the “what I CAN”T do “ list might be such things as hit, kick, throw things, spit, swear, break something, hurt yourself or someone else. Where would you include something like “slam doors”? Different families have different ideas of what’s acceptable.

No matter what the specific examples are for your family, you’ll be giving your child the clear message that “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hurt.”

As children grow, they’re more able to put their feelings into words, and as Fred Rogers would say, “Whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.” It really can help to talk about what makes us angry, especially when we have a caring listener (who doesn’t make us feel bad for being angry or try to talk us out of our anger). Just knowing you care can help your child feel better. Haven’t you noticed how much it helps when someone validates your anger or helps you know you have the right to feel that way?

Developing self-control is a long, long process
Finding a healthy way to express our feelings is just one part of anger management. The other part is being able to stop from doing something on the “can’t do” list, something that might hurt someone or break something. Fred understood that “What children are really afraid of when they’re angry is that they’re going to hurt somebody, particularly somebody they love. And it’s really scary because they just feel overcome with rage.” They want us to help them find control, especially when they’re so angry they can’t find it themselves. Keep in mind that children aren’t born with self-control. That’s something they learn and develop as they grow, and in fact, that’s something we work on all our lives.

The best way to help children “stop” is to model it ourselves. They’re watching everything we do! Of course, we all lose our temper once in a while, but think about how helpful it can be to a child when you admit afterwards that you “lost it” and are sorry that you handled a situation poorly -- and that you’re working hard to control what you do with your anger, too. I know parents who find that saying “I’m sorry” and talking about the situation afterwards has helped them and their children feel better…and learn together some important things about dealing with angry situations.

Another way to help children develop self-control is to “Catch them doing something right.” When you see your child about to do something wrong, but stop and hold back, that’s the teachable moment! Fred called that “inside growing,” and that’s something to reinforce by saying something like, “I know you were really angry, but you didn’t hurt. I’m proud of you, and I hope you feel proud of yourself, too.”

Sometimes it’s easy to miss that “inside growing.” A father once told me how upset he was when his 4-year-old son yelled, “You pig!” at a playmate who was “hogging” the slide at the playground, until he realized that a few weeks before he would have hit her. When children use words instead of hitting, that’s progress to applaud. (Of course, then we may need to make another list – “what I CAN say when I’m mad”!)

Angry times in family life
Thinking about anger issues in family life reminds me of another Mister Rogers song, “It’s the people you like the most who can make you feel gladdest…It’s the people you like the most who can make you feel maddest!” Fred often reminded us that love and anger go hand in hand.

I learned a valuable lesson about that from my older daughter when she was seven years old. I had scolded her and sent her to her room. Under the door, she threw out a note on which she had written “I hate you, Mommy.” I picked it up and set it on the counter to get it out of the way. When she came out of her room and saw the paper, she turned it over and wrote, “I love you, Mommy.” Then she added “P.S. I will never hate you as much as I love you.” What a great reminder for my parenting, that it was okay if my children didn’t like the rules – or if they didn’t like me, at the moment!

Children need and want limits, even though they may test and challenge the rules. Somewhere deep within them, they’re hoping we’ll stop them. That’s what helps them feel safe. As Fred used to say, “Children do come to understand that when we set limits and enforce them, we’re showing that we love them.”

Mediator, not referee
So many conflicts happen between brothers and sisters or between friends, and I remember how tempting it was to want to step in as a referee. But I realized that the usual result of a “referee” mindset is that one child wins and the other loses – or “if you two can’t play with that, I’ll take it away” and then both children lose!

I recently read about a better way to think of our adult role -- as a mediator. That way, we’re helping children learn conflict-resolution skills. To set up mediation, each child has a turn talking while the other listens (with no interruptions.) Then, as mediator, you can ask them to think of solutions that could work for both of them, without judging the ideas. Then choose one of those ideas they feel they can work on. It’s a great way to learn negotiating skills.

Growing little by little
Certainly these strategies won’t always work, but as we grow in our parenting, hopefully we’ll learn to forgive ourselves for our imperfections…for times when we regret what we’ve said or done when we’re angry…and that we’ll remember children are forgiving, too, and that our relationship with them is strengthened by the everyday loving, nurturing times when we’ve really listened or when we’ve given some comfort or shared a fun time. Hopefully we’ll also remember that children grow little by little…and that they need our guidance in order to grow towards being compassionate, competent human beings. Nobody’s perfect, but it’s good to remember that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved – as parents or children.

(©2011 The Fred Rogers Company)

Hedda Sharapan, who holds an M.S. in Child Development, is the director of Early Childhood Initiatives at The Fred Rogers Company, a non-profit organization based in Pittsburgh, PA, whose mission is to carry on the work of Fred Rogers. She has been with the company for 44 years. This article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2011 issue of “Early Childhood.”

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