Slamming doors. Screaming fits. Sheets ripped off his bed. When eight-year-old Michel gets angry, says his mom, Marie Sigg*, he gets angry big.
Like a lot of kids, Michel gets frustrated when things don’t go his way, whether it’s having to get dressed or not being allowed to watch a DVD after school. But unlike most kids—including his chill younger brother, Simon—his reaction can be intense and last anywhere from 20 to 45 excruciating minutes. “If we didn’t have Simon, we’d probably feel like Michel’s outbursts were our fault,” says Sigg. “But we don’t parent them in radically different ways, so I can see that it’s just Michel’s temperament.”
Why do some kids seem wired to get angry faster than others? According to psychologist Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, the answer is simple: “Kids explode because they lack the skills to not explode. Just as a child may have trouble learning to read, some children just don’t have a lot of innate talent for flexibility, tolerating frustration or solving problems.”
To help kids gain these skills, Greene suggests parents identify the situations in which their kids are most likely to lose it, like homework time, getting ready for school or eating unfamiliar foods. They tend to be highly predictable, which means you can work ahead of time to find solutions and prevent explosive reactions. How? When everyone’s calm, bring up a potentially volatile situation in a neutral way: “I’ve noticed you’re having difficulty when it’s time to brush your teeth. What’s up?” Then listen. Maybe he hates the taste of the toothpaste or the feel of the bristles. Maybe he’s too exhausted by the end of the day to handle even one more tiny task. Once you understand his perspective, brainstorm solutions together: a different flavour, a softer brush or brushing immediately after dinner, for example.
Sigg is working on a version of this approach with Michel. “I’ve been trying to go with empathy: ‘Yes, it’s disappointing that you can’t watch a DVD right now. I can see why you’re angry. I wonder if we can find a way to make that work.’ He’s starting to be able to come up with his own solutions, like, ‘Can we plan a time when I can?’”
You can help kids identify activities that make them feel calm and in control, as well as body cues that indicate they’re becoming upset, says Mirella DiSanto, a family and child clinician at the Peel Children’s Centre in Mississauga, Ont. By helping him label his feelings and recognize physical cues (maybe his mouth tightens or his eyebrows knit), you might divert the outburst. “You could say, ‘I hear your voice getting higher. You seem upset. How can I help you? Would you like me to put some music on?’”
In the midst of an outburst, the best thing—maybe the only thing—to do is to try to keep calm, keep your child safe and let her know you’re there for her until the situation passes. Sigg and her partner have learned the hard way that getting angry only prolongs Michel’s tantrums. “If one of us starts to get frustrated, we’ll tag out and the other one will keep cool with Michel,” she says.
Children prone to these outbursts can be tough to parent. If you feel like you need extra support, get in touch with a children’s mental health centre, which can connect you with resources and provide some support and strategies.
Sigg says that as Michel gets older, and as they have adjusted their parenting strategies, he is slowly developing the capacity to rein in his outsized emotions. “Until recently, he couldn’t articulate why he was so mad, but lately, he’s been able to reflect, to come back of his own volition and say, ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just got so frustrated.’ It seems like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Expert tip: “If you don’t stop yelling, I’ll take away your iPod!” It’s a tempting strategy to use with a raging kid, but don’t. Rewards and punishments are motivational tools, says psychologist Ross Greene. “Easily frustrated kids don’t lack the motivation to do well, they simply aren’t very good at it.” Wait until your child is calm before figuring out how to make things right.
* Name has been changed
A version of this article appeared in our April 2015 issue with the headline, “Short fuse,” p. 62.