Kasia doesn’t want to sit down at the table at lunchtime. First, she screams loudly: No, no!
She moves away from the group. The caregiver tries to encourage her to come back. Kasia screams louder and louder, finally pushes the chair and throws herself on the floor, kicks, and swings her arms… When the caregiver squats next to Kasia and asks her why she doesn’t want to sit down at the table, the tantrum only gets worse…
What has happened? What is it about Kasia…? What to do?
Most of the youngest children have anger attacks from time to time. They sometimes shout, throw themselves on the floor or cry, especially if asked to do something they don’t want to do or have to face a refusal. Children’s outbursts of anger, which educators have to deal with,often drive them at the brink of their own stamina.
The science of screaming…
Scientists are trying to establish the pattern and rhythm of young children’s anger attacks. It is considered that capturing the pattern behind the child’s anger can help parents, educators and caregivers to react more effectively to such attacks. Research results can also be useful for psychologists to help them distinguish between anger attacks, which are a normal part of a child’s development, and those that can be a warning signal underlying developing disorders.
The focus point of the current research into children’s anger attacks is a detailed analysis of the sounds produced by young children during an attack of rage. In the article published in Emotion, scientists discovered that children make different sounds or vocalisations to a certain rhythm during an anger attack. High quality sound recordings used in the study allowed to capture the acoustic characteristics of these vocalisations. The results showed that categorized shouts, screams, crying, whining and other vocal disturbances have different acoustic characteristics related to different emotional states. Moreover, scientists discovered that different sounds appeared and disappeared in a particular configuration. Consequently, the common belief that anger attacks have two stages, a stage of anger followed by a stage of sadness, was challenged as the findings indicated that anger and sadness occur more or less simultaneously during an anger attack.
How not to make things worse?
The quickest way to overcome a child’s anger is… to do nothing. Of course it is not easy for parents or caregivers, but researchers stress that even if you support a child, asking questions or expressing a desire to hug a child may prolong his/her tantrum attack. For a child experiencing strong emotions information processing is extremely difficult. For instance, when a child tries to answer the questions asked by an adult, his brain and nervous system have to cope with an even greater portion of information and stimuli. This leads to an overload, which may intensify the attack. The child then screams louder and louder, hits us or hurts himself/herself. Importantly, regardless of the severity of the anger attack, it is a signal for an adult that the child is bothered by something. We need to find out what it is and help him. But how do we do it?
How to help a child who experiences a tantrum?
The first thing to do is to take the right attitude. It’s not worth seeing the child’s anger as a search for attention, manipulation or extortion. A child who has a tantrum simply does not have the ability to control their own emotions in a more adaptive way. Dealing with frustration requires skills. If one does not have those skills and frustration is unbearable … – the person will scream, hit, kick, curse, throw, bite, spit…
In order to deal with the child’s rage (whether in a crèche, at home, on a walk or… in a shop…), you may adopt the following five-step strategy (Green, Whitney, Potegal 2011):
- Make sure the area around the child is safe
Make sure that the location of the child is safe and that no one (including the child) is in danger. Do not approach the child closely. If possible, minimise the intensity of the stimuli in the child’s environment.
- Even if the emotions are high, try to calm down
Even if the emotions are high, you should try to calm down. When you think you’re in control, talk to the child, saying that his behaviour doesn’t help to make you or him/her feel better. Assure the child that you are ready to talk as soon as he/she calms down. Remember that children learn by observing the behaviour of their carers, so try to stay calm at all times. This way you show the children that it is ‘doable’ to cope with stressful situations..
- Do not react to provocations or verbal insults
When a child yells at you, challenges you, says you are “the worst in the world” – try not to react. Do not shout (even if you try to make contact with the child who is screaming), do not try to explain or negotiate with a child, because it will most probably intensify your own frustration and anger and then make you become … the focal point of the child’s anger. You should not try to talk to the child during a tantrum. Any attempt … will most probably strengthen his/her anger.
- Give the child time to calm down
Time to talk is when the child calms down. Tell him/her that there are better ways to deal with anger than for example biting or insults. Moreover,provide the child with some practical examples how to deal with strong negative emotions adequate to his/her developmental stage.
- Give consequences for behaviour, not for experiencing anger
Never discipline the child because (s)he has experienced anger. Focus on the child’s behaviour. It is important to let the child know that he/she is allowed to get angry. If the child only screamed, but did not destroy anything or hurt anyone physically or verbally, there is no reason to take the consequences of his/her behaviour.
So what did Kasia want?
She wanted to sit at the corner of the table.
The problem was that the table had no corners – it was round.
When she calmed down and was told by the caregiver there were no other tables … she chose her place herself and … ate lunch.
How do you deal with anger of your pupils?
Share with us your professional tips!
Green, J. A., Whitney, P. G., & Potegal, M. (2011). Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children’s tantrums. Emotion, 11(5), 1124–1133.
This blog post was contributed by Marta Kotarba (Maria Grzegorzewska University).