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When children get angry, it can help if you really listen and acknowledge their feelings.

Let your child express negative feelings without judging them. Imagine if every time you were upset, some bigger, taller, frowning person looked down at you and said, ‘Don’t feel that way’ or ‘Don't tell me that’. Would you feel like shutting up or shouting back?

Ask yourself, ‘Am I really listening to my child?’ Or are you waiting to tell your child what you think? Children often start to have a tantrum because they don’t feel heard. ‘If you are thinking of what you will say while your child is talking, then you know you are not really listening’, advises Michael Thompson, PhD.

Reflect your child’s feelings. For example, you might say, ‘Wow. You’re really cranky’ to a younger child. To a school-age child, you might try, ‘I can see how frustrated you are. Can you tell me what made you feel that way?’ (‘What’ is always more important than ‘why’ – it asks for specifics.)

Slow down the process. For example, you could say, ‘I need a moment to think about this’. If your child is being rude, or getting ready to have a tantrum, you can slow things down by giving feedback. You might say, ‘Ouch! That comment hurts my feelings’ or ‘I can see you’re upset. Let’s talk’.

Use this opportunity to problem-solve. If kids are fighting, you might say, ‘In this family (or house) we don’t hurt people's feelings. Let’s try to solve this problem another way’. Then ask the kids for their ideas of what would be fair. You might say, ‘You don’t think it’s fair that you have to go to bed before your sister. I understand. What do you think should happen?’

Ask your child to explain it again. Even if you disagree, you might say, ‘Explain to me again why it feels so unfair’. This requires a child to settle down and articulate feelings.

Acknowledge your child’s effect on you. Many children will calm down if you acknowledge their impact – and get angrier if you don’t. You might stop and say something like, ‘I've stopped the car ... (or ‘I am off the phone’) and you have my full attention’. Then ask questions like, ‘What don’t I understand?’

Focus on your child's behaviour, not your child’s character. You might say, ‘Yelling in the kitchen is not OK right now’, instead of, ‘How many times do I have to tell you to stop yelling?’
Discuss the consequences of your child’s behaviour. You might say, ‘Running inside can be dangerous. You might slip or knock something over’. This can be more effective than saying, ‘Get out of the kitchen’.

Set limits that your child will find comforting. A limit is not a punishment. Limits can help children learn how to calm themselves down. ‘Kids find the setting of limits comforting and soothing’, comments John Gottman. ‘They need to know that you (the parent) are in control.’

Make consequences relevant – and explain them. ‘Make the punishment fit the crime. If a kid spills milk (on purpose), the child has to help clean it up, not get a time out’, says Gillian McNamee, PhD.

Give everyone a turn to complain
If your kids are fussing and whining, instead of saying ‘Don’t whine’, set a formal time for complaining (but put a time limit on it). This way, you can all share, vent and get it out. Give everyone in the family a turn. Be empathetic and try to listen beyond the whining.’
– John Gottman, PhD, author of Raising an emotionally intelligent child
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  • Last updated or reviewed 25-07-2012
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