Angry Children: Understanding and Helping Your Child Regain Control

Angry Children: Understanding and Helping Your Child Regain Control

Mike Emlet

Practical Strategies for Change

Focus on proactive relationship building with your child as opposed to problem solving in the moment. To use a medical analogy, a healthy diet and exercise are protective against heart disease. Doing those things may not fully protect a person against a heart attack, but diet and exercise may go a long way in preventing such a problem.

PRACTICAL WAYS TO BUILD YOUR RELATIONSHIP

Look for ways to accentuate your child’s strengths. Don’t focus so much on the weakness and sin that you can’t see the ways God has uniquely gifted your child and is at work in his life.

Look for opportunities to enjoy your difficult child. Too often, the sum total of your interactions with your child can be negative. Or at the very least, the negative tends to swallow up the positive. Can you seek to create times of pure enjoyment? Do you show physical affection? Do you devote quantity time (not simply quality time) to playing with your child, engaging in what she wants to play? One mother I know realized that for years she had been too goal-oriented with her daughter. Their relationship radically improved when she invited her daughter for a walk several times a week with no agenda other than to enjoy time together. If your child does not believe that you love and enjoy her because you don’t express it, you’ve got a strike against you when conflict brews.

Examine the way you speak about your child to others. Does it border on slander? Or do you season your conversation with thankfulness about the good you see God doing with your child? When you practice identifying the good in your child before others, it softens your own heart and positively affects your interactions with him.

Look for ways to say yes to your child’s request. Too often we say no out of our own desire for convenience or comfort. God is a Father who lavishes good gifts on his children. His heart is not stingy. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” As an exercise this week, make a mental note of the balance between the times you say no to your child versus the times you say yes. You may be surprised—and convicted.

Pray! Intensity in prayer is a sign of humble dependence on God and hopefulness that God is and will be at work in the life of your child. Examine the content of your prayers for your angry child. Are they full of your own repentance? Are they more than “Give me some relief here”? Are they full of character-oriented petitions for your child, like praying specifically for the fruit of the Spirit in his life? Are you asking God to give you wisdom to address heart, body, and circumstantial aspects of your child’s struggle?

MODEL CONSISTENCY, SIMPLICITY, AND DEPENDENCY

Model Consistency

  • Model consistency in practicing what you preach. Be careful to treat your child with the same respect and care you want from her. If you habitually express the wrong kind of anger in your tone, words, or actions, your child will resent being held to standards you don’t keep.
  • Model consistency in expectations and rules. Decide on age-appropriate expectations for your child. If you don’t know what they should be, ask a wise friend whose children are older than yours. Then be clear about what you expect from your child. Don’t change your expectations from one day to another.
  • Model consistency in discipline. You should have a plan for how you will respond to your child’s misbehavior. Don’t treat every offense of your child as a “10” on a scale of 1–10. When your child is out of control, it’s easy to simply react and discipline out of frustration. When you do that, discipline is often punitive, not restorative.

Model Simplicity

  • Model simplicity by giving your child simple and clear instructions. Overloading her with instruction or explanation might precipitate a meltdown and will surely make a tantrum in progress worse. “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

Model Dependency

  • Model dependency on God by repenting in front of your child when you haven’t been consistent or simple. When you sin against your child, go to her and explicitly confess your sin (James 5:16). Ask her to pray for you, that God would help you to be a good parent. Let your child know that you are under God’s authority also and want ultimately to please him.
  • Model dependency by reminding your child that she must depend on God to help change her heart and behavior. Make sure that discipline not only involves identifying wrong heart motives and behavior, but also involves asking Jesus for forgiveness and the grace to obey in the future (1 Corinthians 15:10).

DEVELOP STRATEGIES FOR THE CRISIS MOMENT

So far, in developing an approach to the angry child, we have focused on admitting your own need for repentance; aiming to address your child’s heart—his motivational desires and fears; studying the potential physical and situational triggers that provoke the heart; and building relationship constructively and proactively.

But what are the options when the storm clouds of anger are already brewing? What does it look like to address defiance while avoiding the meltdown? What should you do when you ask your child to pick up her toys and she refuses? You need to have a strategy for helping your child when she is tempted to lose control. Most parents only have two options in their response toolbox: sticking to their expectations for obedience no matter what (which usually leads to a tantrum) or dropping or reducing their expectations (which usually keeps the peace).

With the right parental motives (including an awareness of the primacy of the child’s heart), either option may be a wise and godly choice. As mentioned earlier, dropping an expectation for a hungry child may well be the wisest option. But what other strategies might you use? Here are some you can add to your response toolbox:

Pause. Give your child time alone so she can regain self-control. This is not the same as a “time out,” where you isolate a child for a set period of time as an act of discipline. Instead, this is a time for your child to calm down and reconsider her defiant attitude. The pause can also help you to cool down, and keep you from disciplining impulsively. This can be your time to think through your interaction with your child and pray to God for wisdom. When your child regains control, remember to affirm her. In the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28–32), notice how Jesus affirms the son who initially refused to obey but later did what his father asked.

Use humor or laughter. Sometimes a smile, a hug, or a tickle disarms your child, deescalates a brewing battle, and allows you and your child to regroup to address the issue at hand. Consider this a gentle response that turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1).

Cooperate creatively. Work with your child to come up with a solution that takes both of your concerns seriously and is God-honoring and mutually acceptable (Philippians 2:4). Although this can work in the heat of the moment, it is better to do this proactively during a calm time, particularly if there are typical situations that set off your child’s anger. What might this look like in practice?

Let’s say a typical flash point for you and your son occurs about thirty minutes before dinner when he complains of hunger and asks for a snack. You don’t permit a snack that close to dinner because you’re afraid he will spoil his appetite. Creative cooperation begins with you and your child understanding each other’s desires and concerns (Philippians 2:4). Your son’s concern is hunger. Your concern is that he might spoil his appetite for the good meal you’re making. Notice that neither desire is sinful. The next step is to work together to find a solution that addresses both concerns. This is critical because your typical solution (“You may not eat anything now”) and your son’s typical solution (“I want something to eat now”) are completely at odds. What does a conversation that moves toward creative cooperation sound like?

Parent (earlier in the day): “I’ve noticed that thirty minutes or so before dinner you usually want something to eat. What’s up with that?”
Child: “I’m getting really hungry by then.”
Parent: “So, because you’re hungry, it’s hard for you to wait the additional time until dinner?” (This is an acknowledgement of your child’s concern.)
Child: “Yes.”
Parent: “I’m concerned that if you eat something only thirty minutes before dinner, you won’t have room for a good meal. How could we work together to solve this problem in a way that honors God?” (This is critical moment. Here you are encouraging your child to be part of a mutual solution, rather than simply imposing a solution on him. This cooperative process is really designed to help your child grow in wisdom.)
Child: “I don’t know. Maybe if I just had a small handful of peanuts or something, instead of something bigger, I wouldn’t spoil my appetite.”
Parent: “Okay, that sounds reasonable. Let’s see how it goes over the next week.”

There are other ways to unite two concerns into one mutually acceptable solution that will avoid a typical battle. Some of them might be:

  1. The child eats a snack as soon as he gets home from school.
  2. Dinner is served earlier.
  3. The child eats a bigger lunch.

And there could be many more!

Of course, this is an easy case. Many other times it won’t be that simple, and you will also have to proactively address the underlying heart issues that motivate defiance and anger. Even if your son is hungry, that doesn’t give him license to fly into a rage. At the same time, working toward a mutually satisfying, God-honoring solution will go a long way to prevent future outbursts!

HANG ONTO HOPE

In conclusion, let me remind you of Paul’s words in Romans 5:20: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” This is true for your child and for you. Failures will continue to occur, both in your child and in you. But when you are experiencing the renewing grace and forgiveness of Jesus in the midst of your parenting failures, you are emboldened to press on in ministry to your struggling son or daughter. And be assured of this: God will continue to pour out his grace, mercy, and wisdom as you seek him (Hebrews 4:15–16) so that you might be an instrument of redemption in the life of your angry child.


1 I am indebted to David Powlison for this way of describing the relationship between the heart and physical/situational factors in the life of a child.

2 List adapted from Ross Green and J. Stuart Ablon, Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach (New York: Guilford Press, 2006), 18.

3 See Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, Good and Angry: Exchanging Frustration for Character…In You and Your Kids (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2002), pp. 67–69.

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