Don’t know what to do when your child is upset? Use these effective strategies to help calm your angry child.
Anger is a difficult emotion to talk about, deal with, and confront, especially in small children, precisely because they have very BIG emotions and little self-control.
In fact, part of parenting means helping children learn how to appropriately and effectively deal with their emotions – even when you have to teach this lesson 1 thousand times before they get it!
First, remember that all feelings are valid! It’s perfectly ok for you or your child to feel anger and outrage (especially at an injustice – perceived or real), but what you do with that anger is the important part.
Remember, kids, especially very small ones, are just beginning to learn what their emotions are, how to manage them, and appropriate ways of expressing them (especially in public!).
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Here are some specific things you can do to calm an angry child.
What to do before your child gets angry
Self-control takes a long time to develop and small children especially need help to manage their emotions and behavior. This is primarily because their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that is in charge of planning, impulse control, and managing emotions) doesn’t fully develop until age 25 (yikes!).
Don’t worry – you don’t have to wait until then to see improvement in your child’s ability to handle difficult emotions. There are many things you can do to help your children regulate their emotions and develop self-control.
You can work to prevent escalations. If you know your child is triggered by certain situations or activities, be actively present to help diffuse anger before it escalates out of control.
You can help them with coping techniques. When your kids are calm, teach them coping skills (deep breathing, counting, etc.) and practice them often.
All of this will require lots of patient practice (as with most things when raising little kids) and will not go perfectly every time. Be patient and persevere!
What you can do to calm an angry child
When your child is in the midst of strong angry feelings or a big outburst of angry emotions, you cannot reason with him, because his ability to process information is limited. Repeat after me, you cannot reason with him!
As adults, we want to reason our way out of difficult situations, but when your child is overwhelmed with difficult emotions you need to wait until he calms down before you can talk with him because he can’t stop and process through difficulties with logic the same way as an adult can.
The most important (and probably most difficult) thing you, as a parent, can do is to remain calm. Yelling back won’t help (ask me how I know this!).
I know how hard it can be to stay calm when your kids are very upset. I used to think frustrating thoughts like “They’re driving me crazy” or “I just want to escape”, but now I find that I stay calmer by repeating helpful phrases in my head. Things like:
- My child is having a hard time.
- I can be calm and set a good example.
- Let me help her manage her feelings.
- I would be upset if that happened to me too.
It also helps to slow down and take a few, deep deliberate breaths before immediately reacting (as long as no one is in physical danger).
Related: Anger management tips for Moms
Stay present and show your child that you are there to help by repeating a calming phrase or word:
- I’m here.
- I love you.
- I understand you are mad.
- It’s ok to be angry.
Children need parents who are consistently calm and confident. No one is perfect and you won’t always be that way, but your effort and apologies are what counts.
Four steps to take when your child is angry
- Acknowledge her feelings
Teach your child to recognize and name her feelings.
You can say: You seem really frustrated right now.
Everyone wants to feel heard and understood.
You can say: I would also be angry if someone took my toy.
- Establish boundaries to keep everyone safe
You always want to make sure your child and others around her are safe. Establish a rule and hold it firmly. It could be something like “It’s ok to feel mad, but not ok to hit (throw items, break things, or be rude and disrespectful)”.
You can say: I understand you are really angry, but you cannot hit your sister.
- Encourage your child to practice a calming technique
See below for ideas on things you can actively teach your child to do during angry outbursts.
You can say: Let’s take a deep breath and count to four.
My 2 girls (ages 4 and 2) and I have watched a LOT of Daniel Tiger on PBS and the show has short, catchy songs addressing different parenting problems. One of the songs is “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four“. My girls and I have often used this song to remind each other to calm down when one of us is upset or angry.
What to do after an angry outburst from your child
When your child is calm, this is where the real work begins. Talk to them (briefly!) about the situation. Specifically, what they can do when they are angry and how you can handle these situations.
When I get mad at my girls, afterwards I often say something like “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, instead I should have calmly asked you to get your shoes on.” My 4-year-old repeats this sometimes to me after she gets mad.
Teach healthy ways to deal with anger
Talk about healthy ways to deal with anger (not just after angry outbursts, but during calm moments too).
- stop, take a deep breath and count slowly to 4
- grab a soft ball and squish hard
- draw their feelings
- do some jumping jacks
- give yourself a big, tight hug
- slow down and relax
Teach problem-solving skills.
Anger bubbles up in kids often when they don’t have tools to handle social situations. I’ve noticed this in conflicts between my girls involving sharing, for example.
Take time to teach problem-solving skills to your kids using role-play. You will have to walk them step by step through this multiple times on numerous occasions.
What you can do during calm moments with your child
There are many things you can do daily to help your child learn skills to handle anger.
Notice and name good behavior
- Thank you for asking before taking that toy.
- I noticed you were getting frustrated and I’m glad you came to ask me for help.
- It looks like you might be getting frustrated. Let’s take some deep breaths and try again.
Teach emotional intelligence
- Help your kids understand that feelings are normal and they don’t need to be afraid of them.
- Teach them healthy ways of dealing with difficult emotions (by modeling them yourself and actively teaching coping techniques).
Emotional intelligence will also help your kids have better, healthier relationships with others.
Build a strong connection with your child
When you have a strong, loving connection with your child, she will feel safe around you, especially when she has to deal with difficult, scary emotions to deal with.
You know that friend that you can be real and honest with? The one who loves you always and supports you through difficult times and emotions? Be that for your child!
Model healthy emotional reactions
If you model being calm, then your child will feel safe and also learn how to be calm from your example.
You can also model appropriate responses when you yourself are angry:
- I feel really frustrated right now, I am going to take a break.
- I can’t talk right now because I’m very angry. I will talk to you when I am calm.
- I need to take some deep breaths right now.
This might seem silly or unimportant, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my 2 young daughters (ages 4 and 2) do what they’ve seen me do (for good or bad).
My oldest has yelled the same frustrated sentences that I have used in my worst parenting moments.
She has also used the same calming techniques that I’ve modeled for her (specifically pausing to take some deep breaths or saying out loud “I feel really frustrated!”). And she’s only 4!
Related: How to gently handle temper tantrums
Lastly, here are some of my favorite parenting books that talk more in-depth about children, parenting, and emotions:
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Laura Markham
No-Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King
Don’t be afraid or stressed when your children are angry. Remember all feelings are valid you just need to help your children learn how to manage them and learn effective and appropriate ways of dealing with them. Be ready to practice, practice, practice! And don’t give up. Raising kids means the long haul for all sorts of lessons. I’d love to hear what you do to calm an angry child! Share your best tips below.