I recently went to a seminar in Mountain View on Children’s Anger by early childhood specialist Sue Dinwiddie who helps parents understand their child’s anger and how to constructively respond to their child. I learned a lot from this seminar about not only why my three-year old son gets angry, but also about myself as a parent and how I respond to his anger.
For this seminar, the basic gist was that children should be able to show their emotions in a safe place and parents should help their children recognize and be aware of the range of emotions that they may feel. From my own experiences growing up, I know that talking about “emotions” is not a common topic of conversation in many Asian households. However, if Asian parents want children that are emotionally and socially competent, they will have to engage in these types of conversations. Emotional regulation needs to be taught.
Why Children Have Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums occur when children are not aware of their feelings. Children often show anger when they are really feeling another emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion that is based on a primary emotion. What this means is that if a child is sad about mom or dad traveling for work, this may show up with aggression rather than sadness. However, as children begin to get a better understanding of their emotions, they will more likely be able to use their words and express the emotion they are actually feeling. It’s important for parents to teach their children about the range of primary emotions that they can have such as feeling, frustrated, sad, jealous, embarrassed, anxious, ashamed, etc.
What is a “Cool-Off”?
Another big take-away from this seminar was that children should be allowed to cry, have tantrums, and/or show their emotions in an area that is safe. They should not be punished for showing anger or be sent to a “time out” area. She explained how as adults we know that it is unrealistic to expect every person to be in a happy, chirpy mood all the time. So why do we expect this of our children or punish them for showing it?
She recommended a “cool-off” area with a beanbag and books for children to go to and release their emotions. For children who cannot sit still, she also noted that the “cool-off” area could be painting on an easel or throwing balls outside—whatever helps the child release their energy and calm down. Once they are calm, parents can have a conversation with their child about how they were feeling (by helping them name the emotion) and by acknowledging their emotion. From there, parents can talk about their child’s reaction and what to do for next time the child feels that way, possible solutions, etc.
In-between “Time-Outs” and “Cool-Offs”
After going to this seminar, I tried to stay away from the “time outs” and attempted to create a calming, soothing “cool-off” area. However, what I found was happening was a little bit of both: an initial “time out” that slowly, but surely, turned into a “cool off”! When my three-year old son was really upset, he did not just want to merrily walk over to cool-off area. Because he was being sent somewhere for crying or having a tantrum, he still associated any area of our home (where he was being sent) as a time out area. So I found myself having to close the door to get him to stay in the “cool-off” area. So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t a very comforting or soothing place at all! He eventually realized that he had to stay in the room until he got a book out to read. It was interesting because he only got the book out after he stopped crying. So as soon as he had finished releasing his energy, he would sit down and start browsing through his books, page by page. Sometimes, he even forgot why he was crying and would ask me to come read a story to him. Other times, he just called out to me to say that he was “ok now” and that we could have our talk.
I’m hoping that as he gets older he will go into the room without the “time-out that turns into a cool-off” routine…but at the same time I know that parenting is never really about doing things one way all the time. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Parenting is about looking out for your child, meeting their developmental needs, providing them with the structure and nurture they need to be independent, and helping them figure out the world around them. Hats off to all the parents out there—it is a difficult but rewarding job!