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Head off child anger and aggression before it starts

Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton shares advice for helping kids learn from their feelings. Read an excerpt from his new book.
/ Source: TODAY

Learning how to handle fights and confrontation is part of growing up. But handling these tricky situations with skill can take some parental guidance. To help parents learn how to handle their children's feelings of anger, pediatrician and child development expert T. Berry Brazelton wrote "Mastering Anger and Aggression: The Brazelton Way." Read an excerpt from his book.

Helping Young Children Understand and Master Their Angry Feelings
Most adults think of anger as an ugly emotion, one to keep under cover. Parents are likely to be horrified at their children’s displays of hostility and loss of control. Yet anger is not only unavoidable, but necessary. There are many triggers for a child’s predictable outbursts, and these become less upsetting when parents can anticipate them and understand how they can help their child learn to get them under control.

Anger not only alerts a child to danger and provides the necessary energy to respond to it, but it is a clear form of expression of himself as a person. Anger, at certain times in his development, becomes a child’s way of establishing his independence. Parents will need to understand this purpose and work with it while providing firm limits, so their child can grow up feeling strong and independent, but safe in his outbursts. This book will lead parents through the “touchpoints” of anger—when they surface, and what we need to do about them. At the point where we can’t tolerate a child’s aggression, our own anger can prompt us to say, “Now it’s time for discipline, to make your anger safe.” As they help their child understand and master his emotions, parents will use their own as their guide, and as a model for the child.

Learning to handle angry feelings, to channel aggressive urges into constructive action is a lifelong challenge. Parents may be surprised by how early their baby communicates his feelings, how early he senses and responds to theirs. Their job will be to welcome and accept a wide range of feelings, to help the child express them effectively, and to learn that he can handle them safely—on his own.

The First Angry Feelings
A baby’s first angry outburst can come as shock to new parents. This is bound to happen before he’s even 4 months old! Remember the first time your baby cried out angrily when you took too long to fetch his bottle? You were taken aback by his sharp new cries and down-turned mouth. In the first months, parents watch for their baby’s needy cries—of hunger, pain, boredom, and fatigue—and are ready to respond. But seeing their baby get mad can be a shock. No longer so cute, nor so sweet and innocent, an angry baby is signaling a new way in which he is becoming a person.

The emergence of angry feelings and the aggressive behavior that they sometimes lead to is hardly as eagerly awaited as a baby’s first word, or first step. But like those two critically important events, angry feelings and figuring out what to do about them are important ways for him to assert himself and make a place for himself in his world. His parents will have to make room for this new part of his personality. If they can face these feelings, they can also help their baby learn to face them.

Where Do Angry Feelings Come From?Anger most often arises when our survival or well being appears to be threatened. We seem to have been designed to react this way so that we will recognize our predicament and do something about it. In fact, anger can set off physical responses—flushing, sweating, pounding heart, breathing hard and fast—that push us toward aggressive action.

Sometimes, though, anger leads to action too quickly, without time to think. Aggression can then cause harm that might have been avoided, and may even fail to provide the self-protection that had been its goal. Often we misunderstand and overreact. Or, when feeling entitled, we become irate about something we’d do better to accept. One 4-year-old, disappointed that his birthday party was winding down, stomped into the living room as the last guest left, and to his parents’ amazement, mightily toppled over two heavy armchairs. He couldn’t accept that his special day wouldn’t last forever.

We can all remember such feelings. But limits can help young children learn when they’ve pushed too far: Discipline becomes the second most important gift parents can give a child. Love comes first, but learning how to rein in strong feelings like anger and disappointment and to live within limits comes next. Birthday presents pale in comparison.

Angry feelings are an internal signal that warns of a threat, real or imagined, from without or within. (The 4-year-old was threatened not only by the end of his party, but also by the overload of excitement within him.) However, when these feelings linger, outlasting their purpose, there is a cost: Later on, a child may become cross, transferring his initial feelings to an unrelated situation, or he may turn inward, and become depressed. Neither of these reactions is readily understood by the child or his parents.

Self-AssertionThough “aggression” often refers to fighting or other hurtful physical acts, it can also mean simply asserting one’s self. It is possible to protect one’s self, get what one needs, and realize one’s potential, all without hurting anyone. We value a child who is passionate about life and about others, a child who explores, tries out his impulses, and follows his dreams. But as he learns to assert himself in these ways, he needs his parents (or caregivers) nearby to set safe limits on this exploration. He will need to test them. A parent’s limits reassure him that he will not be allowed to go too far. Discipline will show him that he will still be cared for in spite of his attempts to separate and become his own person. The tantrums of the second and third years are part of this passionate approach to life. Parents who remember this can see these years as the “terrific twos” instead of the “terrible twos.”

Identifying and Naming Angry FeelingsChildren experience irritation, annoyance, frustration, and anger, along with the physical sensations that may go with them, before they have words for such feelings. Even when they do, young children are for the most part too caught up in their busy activity of the moment to be monitoring their own feelings. As a result, they more often seem to be taken by surprise by them, and may need our help to stop, gather themselves, and figure out what the feeling is, where it came from, and what to do about it. Some children seem to do this on their own. Most need a parent’s help to find words and use them. We often use terms like “boiling over” or “hotheaded” or “overheated” to convey what it feels like when anger is about to spill into action. Though this may seem abstract, four- and five-year-olds readily understand these images of angry feelings heating up inside. The longer anger lingers without being addressed, the more likely it is to boil over. That’s one reason why learning to identify and name feelings early in life are critical skills.

Handling Angry FeelingsWhen a child knows that he is feeling angry, he has the chance to let others know. But if these feelings overwhelm him, he’ll lose control. Then his wailing and flailing will be his way of telling the world how he feels. With his cries, even a newborn can let his parents know when something is wrong, and that they must do something about it. As distressing as this can be for parents, there can also be a sense of relief in knowing that their baby can already alert them to his needs. Some babies can do so more clearly than others. Older children, too, differ in their capacity to register protest in clear, understandable ways that parents will want to respond to.

As they grow older, most children will learn to control themselves long enough to find words to communicate their angry feelings clearly. Sometimes, simply being understood seems to be enough to settle those feelings. At other times, though, the cause of the child’s anger needs to be dealt with. “She bit me” or “He took my toy” or “They won’t let me play with them” are familiar cries for adult help. Now you can step in and help him learn to handle his anger and resolve the conflict that set it off.

Parents feel the weight of their responsibility to help their child find constructive ways to handle anger. But later he will need to feel confident that he can control his anger on his own. So from the first, think of this as your child’s job, though he will need your help. First, he’ll need to learn to calm the intensity and physical distress that go with angry feelings, so that he’ll be ready for the next tasks: understanding the source of the angry feelings, and figuring out what, if anything, can be done to address the cause.

From "Mastering Anger and Aggression: The Brazelton Way," by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press.