Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Coping with Young Kids Who Rage July 3, 2017

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors,Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 3:11 pm

Yep, I used the word ‘rage.’ You know exactly what I mean if you have a young child who has trouble handling their strong emotions and ends up screaming, melting down, and hitting you, your partner, your nanny or caregiver, or, most mortifying of all, grandma. Children who explode with anger can be aggressive and very difficult to manage, which is often distressing and scary for parents. Once the anger dissipates and children calm down, they might be remorseful, snuggly, sad, or just go back to playing as if nothing happened. It’s often this wild roller coaster of emotions that can drain and exhaust us as parents.

Before we talk strategies, let’s look at what’s underneath the explosions. First, a child is trying to communicate that something isn’t right in their world. Being a young child can be quite frustrating. The brain is growing faster than the body and they firmly believe they should be able to do anything and everything that crosses their mind. In addition, some children try to perfectly control the world around them, and when they can’t, rage might result. Parents and teachers of young children may prefer that a child communicate these frustrations in a calm and rational way, but that’s a higher order skill that comes with later brain development. In fact, even though a child may learn the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at a young age, they will still not be able to fully control their impulses, nor self-regulate without help, before the age of 6 or 7 years.

So, what can we do to help our young children learn to manage their rage? First of all, stay calm. It’s no use fighting anger with anger. At least one of you needs to manage your strong emotions and unfortunately, that responsibility falls on the adult in the room.

Try stepping back and looking at your child from an anthropological point of view. Hmm. Interesting. The child is experiencing rage. Then, ask yourself a very useful question: do I approach or withdraw? If you have a hitter or biter, don’t get too close. Imagine a cat backed into a corner. If you approach, you will be scratched. Back up, but stay nearby in case you are needed for safety reasons.

Reflect on whether or not your child has access to a coping skills toolbox. Have you taught them how to express anger productively? If you haven’t explicitly taught them how to manage these strong emotions, they will just mimic whatever you do when you get upset. If you raise your voice, they will raise their voice. If you slam doors, they will slam doors. What do you want them to do when they get angry? (And I know you’d prefer that they not get angry, but unfortunately, that’s not a choice!)

Teach them some alternative ways of communicating their rage, usually involving some sort of physical response. Some examples include: stomping, pounding the floor, clenching and unclenching fists, pounding fist into other hand, or hurling soft balls at the wall. Look around at your environment. Do you have a velcro dart board? Some squeeze balls? Silly putty? A gym mat in the corner? A mini trampoline with holding bar? Do you have a cozy, regrouping spot in the corner of your living room or play area with large pillows or a bean bag chair where your child can retreat and recover? Since children are limited in their ability to control impulses or strong emotions, it’s up to us to create environments that help them cope.

When you have a child who rages, it’s critically important that you find ways to take breaks from parenting them. Intense children (and adults) can be driven, creative, and brilliant, but they can also drain and exhaust you. Make sure you’re taking care of your own needs for social interactions, exercise, date night, and sleep. If you’re not well-rested, you won’t be able to successfully manage the highs and lows of parenting an emotional child. And remember, if you need help, reach out to us here at Parents Place. We get it and we’re ready to support you on this bumpy, wonderful, exhausting yet joyful parenting journey.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Parent Educator, Child Development Specialist


Negotiators and Worriers June 16, 2011

Filed under: Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 9:47 pm

“Five more minutes!, “I don’t want to!”, “I’d rather stay home (than go to the park, on a playdate, to the store),” “One more hug (drink of water, potty visit, story) before bedtime,” “If you give me this, then I’ll do what you’re asking…”

If any of these sound familiar, you may be dealing with an experienced negotiator/worrier.  Young children who constantly negotiate may be worried about losing “control” over the conversation, the argument, or the transition to a new place or activity.  When you as their parent or caregiver make a decision that affects their daily life (which, of course, we do constantly), they may learn that through negotiation they can regain some semblance of control over the situation or request.

For example, a child coping with separation anxiety may use multiple delay tactics at bedtime or upon arriving or leaving preschool.  These tactics give the child a feeling of control over the actual bedtime or separation.  Or you may have a child who is very routine-oriented.  When there is a change in the routine, even a “fun” activity can set off another round of negotiation or, at worst, a severe tantrum.  Or, you may have a child who is very rule-bound and when they see another child behaving in an “inappropriate” way, they may elicit help from a trusted adult to “fix” the out-of-bounds behavior of their peer.

Children crave predictability.  When faced with unpredictable situations, such as another child grabbing their toy or a parent setting an unwelcome limit, some children experience a loss of control and react by becoming “bigger.”  They may demonstrate a strong emotional reaction or tantrum, or resort to an oppositional response, even to an activity they typically enjoy.

One of the least helpful things we do as parents and caregivers with this type of personality is to give ultimatums.  “I said, ‘Get in the bath!”, “We’re leaving preschool right now,” “We’re not going to the park today,” “Go to sleep!”  These statements invite oppositional battles because they take all control away from the child.

Children who are experienced negotiators have a strong internal need to participate in the decisions that affect their daily routines.  Even if they cannot control the outcome (for example, “It’s bath time!”), they will feel calmer if given some power in the decision-making process.  “Do you want bubbles or not?,” “Do you want to hop like a bunny or fly like a bird to the bathroom?,” or “Do you want to bring your doll or your bath book with you to the tub?”   The outcome of taking a bath is not in question.  How you get there is negotiable.

If we want children to “listen” to us, we need to make sure we are speaking their language.  Negotiator or worrier children must feel in control of their own destiny.  We, as their parents and caregivers, must figure out how to give them that control, while still encouraging compliance with our requests.  Again, the outcome is not in question.  We will be taking a bath this evening.  However, the child can participate in the transition by making meaningful decisions in partnership with the parent or caregiver.  In this way, there is a shared power dynamic, which addresses the control need of both parent and child.


High Emotion Children June 15, 2011

Filed under: Emotional Intelligence — Heidi Emberling @ 12:15 am

I just returned from a preschool behavioral observation of a high emotion three-year old girl.  When I say high emotion, I mean that she responds intensely to all stimuli.  When she’s happy, she’s squealing, and when she’s angry or frustrated, she’s screaming or crying.  These high emotion children can trigger equally strong reactions in the parents and teachers who care for them.

High emotion children need predictable, calm caregiving techniques; exactly the opposite reaction they often elicit.  When emotions in an adult/child conversation escalate, adults are the only ones capable of calming the level of intensity.  Unfortunately, we often choose to enter the battle, instead of retreat.  It’s extremely hard for us as parents and teachers to “lose” to a three-year old.

Strategies for dealing with a young child’s emotional intensity are multifaceted.

-Environments: Where are your calming spaces?  Do you have a soothing corner with bean bag chairs, tumbling mats, or pop-up tents?  Are there physical outlets for frustration such as mini-trampolines, sit-and-spins, hanging bars in doorways, empty wading pools filled with mini-balls (for your own makeshift ball pit)?

-Routines: How are transitions handled?  Are there predictable routines throughout the day and particularly when emotions run high for this child?  Some children go with the flow and others need a lot of preparation for any changes in the daily schedule.

-Attitude: Do you speak to the high emotion child in a calm, authoritative voice?  Have you validated the child’s internal struggle?  Can you leave the room if you feel yourself getting pulled into the emotion of the moment?  How does it feel to “lose” the argument?  Is there a way for both of you to “win?”

Remember that the adult is the only one who will be able to find a creative solution in the heat of the moment.  If you’re out of ideas, you may need to leave the room, clear your head, and think of a viable solution the child might appreciate.  Sometimes, we simply cannot bend the rules.  When safety is the issue, there is no discussion.  That’s not to say the child won’t react in a high emotion way—of course they will.  And when they do, we can reassure them by validating their feelings, even when we can’t grant their immediate request.

High emotion children need predictable, steady caregiving.  It’s important to remember that intensity is a temperament trait, set by our genes.  Although intensity of emotion will be controlled with later development, young children do not yet know how to self-regulate without help.  Creating environments and routines that allow for expression of strong emotion and opportunities for self-soothing, coupled with adults who validate and accept the emotions of their child are the best strategies for surviving and thriving during those intense interactions.