• Dr. Vin

Calming an Angry Child



You can calm an angry child.

What works better than reasoning or yelling to stop an angry child (age 2 and up)?

HELPING MOM, who tries to reason with the child: “But it is your brother’s turn to play with that toy”, says a mother to her angry 2½ year old, who is resisting giving up his toy to his 4 year old brother. Her response is ineffective. As a result the child ramps up into a tantrum. That is because “reasoning” with a child who is in the throws of a meltdown will NOT reverse that meltdown. Why not? Because that is how the brain is wired when we are overheated: Too hot to hear. Think of it this way: When steam is coming out of your ears, reasonable thoughts cannot come in.

SOLUTION for Mom: Get yourself calmed down before responding. How? First, take a breath and focus on your body. Next, notice where you feel tension in your body. Send some slow breaths to that area to reduce tension. Once calmer, employ the “Name it to Tame it” technique (from The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson).

Here is how: Get down on child’s level and first acknowledge his feelings, “You are angry”. Then repeat the steps of what happened. “You were playing with the toy, then Mom said it was your brother’s turn and you did not want to stop playing with it. So then you got mad.”

As the child gets acknowledged in his feeling, he feels seen and calms down. When he hears the story (or he can tell the story himself of what happened) his thinking brain gets back online. Only when thinking and feeling are both present can the child hear and respond to a reasonable request.

A reasonable request example: “You give your brother the toy and watch the clock. In two minutes it will be your turn again.” (Help him know when two minutes are up). If done after “Name it to Tame It”, the request often works!

HELPING DAD, who gets easily frustrated (perhaps because he had an angry parent and feels controlled by the child’s anger). So he gets angry and yells orders when the child acts up.

SOLUTION for Dad: First, come down from your own anger. Here is one way: Move away from the child (if child is safe) at first impulse of wanting to yell. Take a timeout by going somewhere and take some time away and a few slow breaths until you feel calmer and less angry. Remind yourself the child is just trying to communicate, feeling desperate and not really trying to be in charge. When your compassion for the child returns, go back to her.

Get down at the child’s level and help her feel safe by showing that you see her. Do this by mirroring her feelings. You can say, “I see you got mad when we said it was bedtime. I know you do not want to go to bed yet.” This should soothe her. Look at her and look to see if she calms down. Once she does, calmly and firmly give the limit and the routine, for example, “We need to brush teeth, get in pajamas, read one book, then go to bed.” Your calm authority makes her feel safe and secure.

General summary: To deal with an angry child, name their feeling before giving reasons for their needed change in behavior. (Name it to Tame It). If you get angry, take a timeout until you calm down, then mirror the child’s feelings, and help them feel seen, safe, soothed and secure. Finally, calmly set reasonable boundaries. Children are just like adults in this way: when we feel understood in our anger, we usually feel better, calmer, more openhearted, and more able to reason.


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