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When my daughter Evelynne was just a baby we called her "Sweet Evie Jean," because she was the most content and happy little person. Now that she's 2 we've met her other half – her wild, spirited, passionate side that gives me emotional whiplash if I'm not ready for it. She has a quick-flaring temper, much like my own, a temper I have spent years attempting to manage.
When she was really small and didn't have the words to spell out her feelings her anger would manifest in self-harm. She would literally hit, pinch, or slap herself when she felt her anger well up. I noticed this beginning to happen when she didn't want me changing her diaper. It was like her anger was buzzing around inside her and needed a place to go.
I don't think anger is a bad emotion, but it's strong and needs help to be managed. Anger is telling us something is wrong. It gives us energy. It helps us fight our battles. One time my husband said about me, "You are like a cannon and I'm just trying to direct you." Anger needs to be unpacked so it can be understood. That is HARD to do in the moment because our responses to anger usually cloud the issue.
So, how do I help my passionate little girl manage these flare ups and learn tools to help her as she grows? Telling her she can't be angry or that anger is a wrong emotion is only going to stunt her growth. I correct any hitting, kicking, pinching, slapping, scratching or my least favorite – screaming. I repeat, repeat, repeat and try not to let it spark my temper too. She knows hurting herself or others is a "bad choice." Acknowledging that she's disappointed, sad, or frustrated can lead us to a conversation about how she's feeling – when she stops seeing red.
We've been able to talk about it more as she's nearing 3. She has a lot more language at her command now. We talked just today about counting to four before we roar- like in Daniel Tiger. She told me she doesn't like it when I'm angry with her. I acknowledged this, apologized and tell I have to work on my temper too. It's a life-long process for us passionate folks.
She's learning – truly learning what her strong feelings mean. She's remembering our conversations (the ones we have after she's thrown a fit) and slowly beginning to apply them. She's watching me. She calls me out when I let my temper get the best of me. I desperately want to be a good example to her. Part of my example is controlling my temper (like an adult) and part of this example is showing her what to do when you do lose your cool.
A couple things I've learned:
- Anger is usually a secondary emotion. Once the heat fades, I can explore the anger. I picture following a string to a hidden treasure or perhaps a buried pain. Misunderstanding and hurt feelings can be acknowledged this way.
- Use sayings and rhymes that encourage good behavior: Think Daniel Tiger's "Take a deep breath and count to four." These are easy for young ones to remember (and old ones like me) and offer a distraction.
- Let your kids do something physical: Evie's anger needs an outlet or she hurts herself or others. My Uncle had his kids dig holes.
- Shut it down: Don't take their anger personally (easier said than done), but shut down it down quickly. Evie will come up to me and lightly kick me if she's mad. That's an immediate time out and loss of privileges.
- Time-in: Sometimes my angry little girl needs me, but can't bring herself to say it. So, we take a two-minute time in where I separate her and hold her. Usually she's crying and needs to be held more than she needs to be left alone.
I'm not writing this as an expert, but as a recovering yeller and fellow parent who is trying ALL THE THINGS. Some of what I've tried has worked one day and not another. Some days I've kept my cool and other days I've regretted losing it. Being honest about where I'm at, naming my feelings and teaching her to do the same is all I can do to hopefully direct her "cannon" in the right direction.
Images by Kelly Wilbanks & Katie Bryant
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.