Q&A: Calming a Child's Anger

Each week Michele Borba answers your parenting questions right here on her blog. If you have a parenting problem or question leave a comment on this post and you may have yours answered next week!

We have an almost 10 year old girl who is our only child.  I'm 54 and my wife is 52.  She's a wonderful child but is having a hard time stopping herself from "hitting, kicking, and/or biting" her mother, and sometimes me.  We let her get away with it when she was small by not punishing her enough.  Now that behavior is still with her, though it has improved considerably.  Our daughter is a rather impulsive child, too.  We're at our wits end and I don't want to hit her back to make her stop the hitting.  But fear is a good teaching tool at times even though I seldom use it.  I want to protect her self-esteem and tell her she's a good girl even though she sometimes does bad things.  She knows we love her and she herself wants to stop the behavior but is having a hard time.  -Anonymous

Let's go straight to curbing your daughter's anger outbursts. Allowing a ten year old to continue biting and hitting is disastrous to your family's harmony and her self-esteem. This appears to be a habit since you're saying this started at a young age.

Just make sure there isn't anything else fueling the anger (stress, overscheduling, illness, ADHD). Once those are ruled out there are the seven steps to change inappropriate anger displays. This takes consistent commitment on your part and it is doable. but just know the change will happen gradually. She has been using this behavior so long it's now going to take a lot of "erasing" and re-framing. So here ya go...

  1. Commit to change. You MUST (both of you) decide to stop this ASAP. You must stay on the same page and be consistent. If not, you can actually increase the hitting. But with this kind of behavior you must respond every time the same way.

  2. Respond calmly. Do not hit her. Please. It is not effective in reducing anger (or any other behavior). It will only enforce the message that this is acceptable. Instead say calmly, "You are angry but you may not hit."

  3. Apply a consequence every single time she hits. You've allowed it in the past and she's learned she can get away with it. So no more! "That's hitting. Please go to time out." (Notice I said, "please.") Say it firmly, then do not argue with her. You need to set up a place for her to go. Her bedroom is too distracting with things to do so try sitting at the kitchen table or a place there is no TV or cell phones etc. Think about ten minutes max. She is impulsive and this will be hard. If she sits do not talk to her. Ignore her. Don't plead or threaten. The time (set a timer) starts when she calms down. (A timer is great because it will reduce a power struggle. You need to control the timer). If she doesn't go to time out don't pull her or force it Just say firmly, "You need to go to time out." If she still doesn't comply (she gets two tries) it's an automatic loss of a privilege (something she really cares about. Toys, TV, etc)."You didn't go to time out like I asked so there is no TV this evening." Walk away and enforce the privilege removal. If you find taking away a privilege is more effective than time out than do that instead. The trick is to let her know you're not tolerating the behavior.

  4. Reinforce using control. The fastest way to shape behavior is to acknowledge when a child is uses the right behavior. So whenever she is making an effort to display self control reinforce it. Try to aim for 5 positives to every 1 negative. It may take a while, but that's the goal. Only praise when deserved. If a reward system works- try it. I just don't want you doing too many things and overwhelming yourself, but once you get time out down then you can add a reward approach. A certain specified number of good displays of self control per day--say five--earns her a privilege. Add them up each week and it's a bigger prize. Keep track on a chart on the refrigerator. It must be clearly spelled out ahead.

  5. Teach a replacer behavior. This one is critical. You want her to stop hitting and biting, so what do you want her to do instead? You must teach a substitute behavior or she will only continue the inappropriate behavior. Teach her to name her feelings. Teach her to walk away (take her own time out). Teach her 1 + 3 + 10 (First say "I'm mad." Then take 3 slow deep breaths. Then count slowly to 10. There are a number of good anger management techniques (my book Parents Do Make a Difference lists a few and the 1 + 3 + 10) just teach only one and nor more than two.

  6. Rehearse the replacer. Change comes through practice. So practice, practice, practice the new replacer behavior when she is calm. It's the only way the replacer will kick in when she's angry.

  7. Rebuild your relationship. You are all stressed and frustrated. That can increase the anger. Find fun ways to reconnect. No cost ways. A walk. A movie rental. Baking cookies- whatever, but rebuild connection and if you don't see change in two weeks it's time to seek the help of a trained mental health professional.

Hang in there. New behaviors generally take a minimum of 21 days of repetition to kick in. You must be consistent so track your own responses on a calendar. Above all stay calm with her and don't give up! I would only take on the anger challenge now. Forget other issues. This is where to put your energy.

Click here to read more of Michele Borba's Q&As, or leave a comment below with your own questions and it may be answered next week.

Dr. Michele Borba is the author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them .

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