Have you ever put a baby to sleep and woken up the next morning with a hormonal teenager?
I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking, “Yes, my baby grew up too fast.”
But actually, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about putting down a sweet, fun, mischievous little kid only to have them wake up with the attitude of a teenager!
We all know that teenagers can be on the moody side; but since when are 8-year-olds?
When did “teenage angst” become toddler angst?
The hard truth is, some kids are just angry. It doesn’t make them bad, and it doesn’t mean you’ve messed them up for life. It is important however, to address it as soon as you can so that you can teach them the life skills to navigate life as an adult.
And another truth is that anger is anger regardless of age. I’m firmly convinced that the things that make a child angry are the same frustrations our teens face and actually… the same rage-inducing experiences that we feel as adults.
So the good news is, if you can apply a few simple principles to your life, there might be an increase of peace all around.
Anger is counterfeit control
There’s always a reason for why people behave the way they do.
I’m going to say that again.
There’s always a reason for why people act as they do.
This is the great frustration of new parents! You have a newborn in your home and you don’t know why they are screaming! Even when the three biggies are taken care of (hungry, tired, or uncomfortable), and they are still crying.
(This is why those super annoying great-aunties give you every home remedy for colic known to history. “Just rub their nose in rose petals while blowing gently on their feet and you’ll have that baby sleeping in no time! It worked with all my kids!”)
With infants, we know there must be a reason why they are crying and we work hard to figure it out. But for some reason, when our kids, or spouse, or the guy in the sports car, are losing their minds, we think it’s just because they are angry people.
Not so! There is still a reason and one reason is that anger gives us counterfeit control over others, ourselves, and our world.
I say counterfeit because while anger gets a result, the result is damaging. It makes us into an unattractive person so we lose relationships. When we get angry at our body, anger can cause us to harm our bodies. When we get angry at work, we lose our jobs.
Now anger isn’t always bad. When we are angry at injustice in the world, this is a good thing. But the anger I’m talking about is a temper. Not injustice. Just a temper.
But anger does get a result. It just isn’t an appropriate way to get a result. So how do we help our kids regain control over their anger? There are three basic ways; give them a voice, a choice and a compromise.
Give them a voice
One of the reasons kids resort to anger is that they don’t feel like they have a legitimate voice in the world. I sometimes wonder if this is where part of the lure of social media lies. If a child doesn’t feel like they have a voice at home, then they can find a voice on social media.
Giving children a voice means that we listen to them. It’s that simple.
Communication between generations is notoriously difficult; it literally feels like we speak a different language from our kids, so giving a child a voice may also mean giving them words.
Think about this.
Because behavior betrays a need, our job as parents is to help meet that need. But how can we meet a need that is being screamed at us? In a situation where you have a child losing their mind, ideally you will remain calm, and then, in a window of sanity, you offer them to chance to say what they need in a calm way.
You are training them to communicate their feelings and needs and then you do your job as a parent to help meet that need.
Now you might be thinking, “What need are they expressing when they are losing their minds about eating broccoli?”
You’re right. There are times when we need to gently, but firmly, maintain the rules of the home. “We eat our vegetables in this home because it’s good for our bodies.”
But there are often extraneous circumstances that make the broccoli-eating-angst worse. Maybe they had a hard day at school. Maybe they are exhausted. Maybe you have paid ZERO attention to them for a while and this is the only way they know to get a bit of interaction.
This is where step two comes in.
Give them a choice
Anytime we give a kid a choice we are giving them voice.
Now they may not like the choice(s) they are given but we are still sharing authority with them by letting them help make a decision.
Let’s go back to the dinner table where Julie is losing her ever living mind over the broccoli on her plate. Here’s what it would look like in our home.
“Julie, I’m going to offer you two choices.” (I’m holding up two fingers. I’m speaking slowly because her little brain is overwhelmed and can’t keep up. I’m also calm because my calmness will affect her chaos.) “Either you can eat your broccoli and have cookies for dessert or you can leave your broccoli for today and not have dessert.”
Choices work very well with discipline, too.
If you can offer options for discipline, you are giving a voice to the child. You aren’t letting them off the hook for getting kicked out of class, but you are involving them in their consequences. Maybe they have a choice to be grounded for a week from video games or write and read and apology letter to their teacher.
One choice that could be offered is called a compromise.
Offer a compromise
This is where things can feel a little wishy-washy for parents with a strong authoritarian style of parenting. Our natural tendency when a child is whining or crying or throwing a fit is to respond by dropping the hammer.
The job of a parent is to help guide our kids into a healthy, autonomous adulthood. And learning to compromise is a key skill for life. Negotiation is used all over the place; in business deals, employer/employee relationships, and in marriage. Learning to negotiate compromises is a critical skill.
So, if broccoli makes your kid gag, ask what vegetable would work tonight.
The thing is we are teaching to eat healthy foods, we aren’t teaching compliance (we might be, but that isn’t the case in our example), so aren’t there healthy alternatives to broccoli? Of course there are.
This week when you see your child losing their minds, whether or not you see it as trivial, try and meet their need. Give them a voice by offering a choice and help them to negotiate their needs by offering a compromise.
I know there are times when our kids just actually need to obey and take out the blinking garbage, but as parents we are tasked with the incredible responsibility and privilege of mentoring our children into adulthood.
So give it a try this week. You’ve got a good kid after all. They just need your help with their temper.
Thom Van Dycke has worked with children and youth since 2001 and is a passionate advocate for healthy foster care. Together with his wife, since 2011, they have welcomed 30 foster children into their home. In 2017, Thom Van Dycke was trained as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention Practitioner.