There are many things young children are especially adept at: sneaking into your bed at night, colouring on the walls, and finding that lipstick in your bag, even when it's in the secret pocket. But the one skill they all develop is waiting for just the right time to throw a tantrum for maximum impact - namely in a crowded supermarket or packed playground.
Just like adults, young children can get angry. And when they're angry, everyone around them knows about it. From screaming and throwing things, to hitting out and lying on the ground face-down, children express their anger in different ways. But how do you know when their anger is more than typical pre-schooler behaviour? And just what can a three- or four-year-old have to get so angry about?
Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and attachment specialist at Solamh, says anger is a normal, healthy, albeit unpleasant human emotion that can be felt even in infancy.
"Frustration, anxiety and even anger can be observed in infants, and certainly beyond toddlerhood, children are exploring ways to express these feelings, usually at a behavioural level at this stage," says Joanna. "We should not dismiss or try to 'get rid' of anger because sometimes, angry is exactly how we should feel in a given situation. It is not the feeling but how we learn to manage and express the feeling that can be the issue."
When your day revolves around snack, nap and play times, you'd wonder what a small child has to get angry about. But then again, just as with adults, it becomes clear when you take a minute to see the world from the child's point of view.
"It is hard to be small in a big world, to crave independence when you are mostly dependent on others to meet your needs," says Joanna. "Add to this that you are still developing language and you don't have the emotional language yet to express how you are feeling. At this age, behaviour is your language and this is how children display, process and experience emotions, including anger. Physical dysregulation can often serve as a trigger for emotional or anger outbursts, so before you respond to the angry behaviour, pause and quickly assess if your child could be hungry, thirsty, tired or unwell and respond to those physical states first."
Aoife Lee, parent coach at Parent Support, agrees there are plenty of things that can anger young children.
"Toddlers and pre-schoolers can become easily frustrated if things just don't go their way, if they are out of their routine or if they are not prepared for what's going on. Children begin to push and test the boundaries, which is a natural part of your child's development, and there are so many reasons why this might happen. Sometimes, if a child's language has not developed well enough yet, one of their means to communicate frustration can be hitting out," says Aoife.
Aoife also points out that once the angry feelings develop, children are unable to rationalise and self-regulate the way adults can. "When they get frustrated or don't get their own way, children act on their impulses. We can see their emotions spill over and they may lose control as they struggle to remain calm. As adults, we generally know what we need to do when get really upset or stressed, like going for a walk, stepping away from the situation and taking deep breaths. Our children do not have the same awareness," she says.
Without this awareness, the anger manifests itself in either a temper tantrum or a meltdown. Joanna Fortune emphasises the difference between the two.
"Be aware that these are very different things," she says, "because a tantrum is a performance of sorts, it happens quickly in immediate response to something and requires a witness. A meltdown is a signal that I have become so sensory overstimulated that I cannot be co-regulated with you and I melt down. There could be five or 500 people around me and I have no control over this."
As overwhelming as these emotions are for little ones, parents too can find these outbursts difficult to deal with, and they may just want the situation to end. But it is vital that parents teach their children how to handle these feelings, rather than try and make them just go away.
"If angry outbursts and behaviours are left unresponded to, or if parents minimise and explain away behaviour on behalf of their children, it can result in children not internalising good boundaries, not being able to know when they have gone too far, not acquiring a capacity to self-regulate their emotional states later on, and in some cases may see anger outbursts escalate into more physical violence," warns Joanna.
Aoife has worked with many families over the years where tantrums and outbursts have taken over family life. One family, she recalls, were at their wits end. Every time their three-year-old didn't get what he wanted, he would bang his forehead off the kitchen tiles until the parents gave in - just so the banging would stop.
"On my first home visit, I was able to see exactly what they were going through," says Aoife. "I focused on supporting the parents on why he was behaving the way he was, from his point of view. James (not his real name) had learned that this head banging was effective - it got his parents' attention and so continued it as a means to not only express his frustration but also to push his parents to give in each time. Then we worked on how they could manage these outbursts and tantrums effectively through a range of tailored practical techniques. James went from multiple daily outbursts to once in a blue moon."
Creating boundaries for children is the first step parents can take in helping their children deal with their feelings. "Creating expectations and boundaries for our children are key, so children know what the consequences are if they hit out, kick, bite, pull hair etc.," Aoife says. "If a child is allowed to behave without any boundaries, it can feel very scary for the child, leaving them feeling insecure and for some, out of control."
And while all children have outbursts, there may be times when the anger is beyond developmental behaviour, in which case, professional help may be required.
"If anger is at an explosive level; is incongruent with the situation they are responding to; is linked with physical aggression/violence and/or is causing them significant trouble in school, it may well be a good idea to consult with a suitably qualified child psychotherapist," says Joanna.
So, what can parents do in that moment when their child is feeling angry? Aoife Lee has a few simple steps for adults to help both them and their child through an angry episode.
Naming the feelings: "When you see a situation begin to simmer, or feel like it's gone beyond recovery, resist the natural instinct to ask your child 'what's wrong?' or 'how are you feeling?' - the likelihood is they won't know what to say. You might try instead to identify and name the feelings for them. For example, 'I know that you are really cross that you can't go outside but it's time to get ready for bed', or 'I can see you are really angry because you can't have the toy in the shop'. Naming their emotions is not going to stop things instantaneously, but it can often diffuse a situation while also helping the child identify their feelings in the moment and manage the big emotions."
Encourage a quiet space versus timeout: "Both children and adults sometimes need to find a quiet space, away from an argument or emotionally charged situation, no matter what age we are. Try to give your child the option to 'cool down' or take a break and come back to the discussion when they have had some time to think alone. The more your child can identify that this quiet space is a positive option, the more beneficial it can be for the family, for example a pop-up tent or a large beanbag can work as their quiet space. Very often adults are quick to send children out to the 'naughty step' as a means to calm down but I never recommend this as I don't believe it works. Offering your child this quiet space when it's getting all too much can be a gentle alternative, again it may not 'work' on the first suggestion but continue to offer your child this space and it may just click with them."
Take a breath: "If our children learn to recognise that breathing will help their growing bodies relax at times of stress, this provides them with a way of coping when their emotions spill over. Help your child while sitting with them face to face, show them how to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth - breathe with them, slowly and calmly. Try to show that they can regain control. The more you practise this together the more they can identify with breathing as a helpful cool-down method, and they might begin to use it in their own time without any grown-ups taking over. Our children need us to guide them through the tough times, helping them to keep as calm as possible, they rely on us to be in control - this is ok. Like anything it takes time, effort and a lot of perseverance."
1 Learn how to stay calm — This takes time and commitment. “It’s important that we as adults can take control as calmly as possible. This takes practice and conscious planning on our part,” says Aoife. “There is a fantastic app called Headspace and it’s easy to use for both adults and children. The app is a great way to practise mindfulness on a daily basis while learning about how we can take control of our own overwhelming feelings. If we make a decision that ‘I have no patience’ we will reinforce this and so will not allow room for change. Be open to making a positive change, it’s amazing once we are aware how effective it can be.
2 Stop and breathe — If you feel your anger rising, just stop what you’re doing. Now is not the time to get into a debate with your child, or to discipline them. Just breathe…
3 Get some space — If your child is safe, remove yourself from the situation for a moment so it doesn’t escalate.