Helping young children manage anger

The past few months have had a tremendous impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of most people. Young children have not escaped the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdowns in this regard. Parents may have seen a change in their children, including increased instances of anger outbursts, sometimes of the explosive kind.

“There has been an increase worldwide and in South Africa of children struggling to manage anger and anxiety. Outbursts that are quite distinct from run of the mill so-called tantrums which some children exhibit under normal circumstances,” says Educational Psychologist Dr. Greg Pienaar, Principal at The Bridge Assisted Learning School, a brand of ADvTECH, Africa’s leading private education provider.

The Bridge, which opened its doors in January 2018 and has filled a niche demand in education. It caters to students of average to above-average ability who face certain learning barriers and social or emotional challenges.

Out of character behaviour

Pienaar says that parents whose children exhibited out-of-character anger outbursts, with an increase in frequency or intensity, may have been left baffled by these incidents.

“The first thing to note is that, given the unusual circumstances of this year, this behaviour is relatively normal. However, having said that, parents need to address the situation to ensure it is resolved, and seek help should they struggle to do so,” he says.

A September report by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), noted that Covid-19 affected children directly and indirectly beyond getting sick or the threat of them or their loved ones falling ill.

“Many children’s social, emotional, and mental well-being have been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan,” the report said.

Listed as contributing factors to this impact were:

  • Changed routines
  • Breaks in continuity of learning
  • Breaks in continuity of healthcare
  • Significant life events that were missed
  • Loss of safety and security

“All the above factors, and many others, mean that children have had to deal with a major and historical life event at a very young age, when they are still learning to process feelings and emotions. Unusual behaviour may have arisen as a result,” Pienaar says.

“This includes anger outbursts, simply because children often don’t know, or don’t have the tools, to express their feelings effectively when they are young. Anger is their way of communication, their way of telling you there is a problem.”

Essentially, the misbehaviour is the language the child has available to express themselves.

ALSO SEE: Stop lockdown tantrums in their tracks with these discipline tips

So, parents and teachers need to respond appropriately to meltdowns and not immediately react with harsh punishment, arising from their anger. It is important to model calm and considered behaviour at this point, Pienaar says.

“The most important first step is to understand that there is a reason for the meltdown, and then to determine what that reason is. This involves spending time with the child, and communicating as effectively as possible,” he says.

“Remember we as adults can understand what is going on, even in our uncertainty. But our children were faced with a tremendous amount of unexpected and immediate changes, ranging from wearing masks, having to social distance, giving no hugs or not seeing important people in their lives. 

ALSO SEE: Kids under 5 shouldn’t have to wear face masks, say new WHO guidelines

Children had to learn to grow up and face fear of death, uncertainty and the fallout from their parents’ fears and anxieties before they were mature enough to handle these big changes and big feelings. So it is not reasonable to expect all children to just have absorbed these changes and coped forthwith.”

Pienaar says to bring the situation back to normal, parents should ensure they:

Get all routines back to normal 

Try to get life at home back to a predictable routine. Explain why it is necessary and why everyone is going to stick to it. Children need predictable routines, boundaries and restrictions to give them the parameters in which they can explore and thrive.

ALSO SEE: The lowdown on lockdown’s impact on the social development skills of babies

Harness ‘in the moment’ situations 

Under normal circumstances, an anger tantrum may call for a timeout. However, instead of timeouts, try time-ins. Sending children away and into isolation may sometimes worsen the situation. Rather take the child for a walk, or sit in a park, and be there for them. Discuss the feelings the child is having, and discuss how the child can manage those feelings in an alternative way. Listen and learn.

“Developing a close connection with the child, spending quality time, and developing language around emotions, is the best way to empower a child to manage their anger effectively. If this does not help, and the outbursts continue or escalate, it is advisable that parents seek additional intervention to address the matter early and before greater emotional trauma develops.”

ABOUT Dr. Greg Pienaar: Dr. Pienaar holds a doctorate in Psychology. His work has focused mainly on the school-going child through therapy or play therapy in private practice. He continues to make a significant contribution to the field of assisted and special needs learning through his articles in Educational and Psychological Journals and papers at International Conferences.

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