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Teach Your Child to Handle Anger

  • Toddlers

    Passionate Tempers

    Bagels and cream cheese. Hepburn and Tracy. Toddlers and unbridled rage. All of them are naturals together. Just ask Kate Steinberg of Brooklyn, NY, about her 2-year-old son, Jack: "One evening he refused to get ready for bed and curled up like a hedgehog. Then I started to pull off his slippers and he became totally hysterical."

    Though it sure feels like it, your little darling isn't doing this on purpose (really). Toddlers want things the way they want them when they want them, and they have zero inhibition when expressing their fury. They're also profoundly frustrated by all the skills they haven't yet mastered. (How would you feel if you couldn't put on your own socks?)

  • Be firm It's fine to empathize, but draw your line in the sand now. When something's totally unacceptable, such as biting or hitting, the response should be a clear statement: "No biting or hitting." If the behavior continues, just remove your child from the situation.

    Steinberg's solution was to give her son a choice. "I said, 'I'm going to count to three, and if you don't get up, you won't get a bedtime story.' I had to get to three, but then he held out his arms so I could put on his pajamas."

    And if you're on the receiving end of a pint-size punch, it's not a bad idea to show your displeasure by speaking sternly or making a face. "When a child finds out that certain things make you mad, it's a good lesson for her," says Henry Shapiro, M.D., medical director of the developmental pediatrics department of All Children's Hospital, in St. Petersburg, FL. Just make sure that you respond immediately to the specific behavior and not to the fact that your child is having a fit. For example, you can say that it's okay to be angry but it's not okay to bite you.

  • Give her words At 2, a child can start to learn about using language to express feelings, but you'll probably still need to show her how. Saying "You're angry because I won't buy you a lollipop" helps her make sense of how she feels. Then you can explain briefly why she can't have that lollipop and try to soothe her  -- by holding or rocking her or distracting her with something else.

  • Keep your expectations real No matter how verbal your child is, remember that she's still little. Expecting a toddler to always chew with her mouth closed or to want to share her toys during every playdate is unfair. It can get to the point where the only reaction she has left is anger, because she just can't do what you're asking. And avoid lengthy rehashing of outbursts or tantrums. Your toddler doesn't have the skills to recall what she did, much less why she did it. Once her rage has passed, let it go.
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