Whether your child is a toddler or pre-schooler it is very confronting when they get angry. We really don’t like what we see, we feel it reflects on us poorly and we understand the difficulties ahead of our child if they don’t master this automatic response to things not going their own way.

A few things to remember as we approach this problem:

• There is a reason they are angry – they are hurt, disappointed, frustrated or feeling a sense of injustice.
• The feeling is okay, the way they are behaving is not
• Getting angry at them being angry isn’t helpful
• They won’t hear our instruction while they are angry – they need to be led away to a quiet spot to gain self-control. Don’t talk to them during their anger or tears.

The most helpful thing we can do for a child in helping them gain control over their anger is to teach the issues of ‘self-control’ – give them the words and give them some strategies before they lose it. If self-control is a part of their world when things are going well, then you have some link to them for when things are going sour.

Teach self-control in any situation when they have to wait: in the highchair waiting for food, in the car waiting till other kids get unstrapped, in the shopping trolley while mum goes through the check out, while mum is on the phone.

Self control traffic lights.

Teach your children about the Self Control traffic lights.

Little Miss is three and I think it is time to teach her about the self-control traffic lights. You can download a free lesson and paper craft activity on the Character First website (Self Control) The idea is that when you see a red light you stop, yellow is a caution light and you think, and green is go. I will also add some hand actions:
• Red – stop; hand up in a stop/blocking action.
• Yellow – think; create a flashing light with flicking my fingers.
• Green – go; thumbs up.
I want to help her remember the words – stop – think – act/go.

I will use words and signals like:
Stop when she has made an impulsive, selfish, angry decision.
Think when I’m intercepting, when I can see she’s heading in an impulsive, selfish, angry direction.
Go when I want to confirm that she has shown self-control.


I like this dictionary definition of self-control: Control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will.

Initially a toddler and even a pre-schooler are not going to have the inner convictions and ability to keep their emotions, desires and actions in a way that doesn’t hurt, offend, or disrupt those around them. In a sense the parent becomes the child’s self-control – we build circumstances around our child (aka – life) which will enable them to manage their reactions, or will provoke them to losing it!

At church on Sunday Little Miss was sending off the signals that she was tired and grumpy. At that point I could build circumstances around her that would help her, or leave her in circumstances that would push her over the edge. Removing her from the situation she was finding frustrating – before she completely lost it would have been the best idea. Isn’t this how we practice self-control in our life? We remove ourselves – either physically, or emotionally by counting to 10.

It came to the point that I did remove her, I found a quiet spot, and gave her a vegemite sandwich. Everyone always does better in social situations when you have a full tummy. She gained some equilibrium and went off to play again. She ended up in tears, came back for some reassurance and it was certainly time to go home – past time!

So a few more things we can do to help our children have self-control, before they are really capable of managing themselves:
— Limit their choices – keep them in places and situations where they will make the right choices. This of course limits our choices too – we may not be able to stay out and about for as long as we would like, we may not be able to go to every function we’ve been invited to, we may not be able to finish a conversation! But our first priority is our children, and in this situation we need to be their self-control, so we may need to help them walk away so they don’t lose it!

— Intercept when we see things beginning to spiral. We can either call it a day and go home, or we can intercept, and give our child a breather (time out from the intense situation so they can think and gain some balance not because they are in trouble).

— Give physical touch – our first reaction when someone is angry is to fight, flight or freeze ourselves – keep them at arm distance. But we have to take our child’s anger less personally and help them learn. So they need our love, they need to know that we love them regardless. Remember they are struggling to find the right way to communicate in the midst of their frustration – they don’t need to feel isolated as well.

— Get down to eye level and use a calm voice. Our anger will be misplaced and very unhelpful. They may not hear our words in the middle of their anger outburst, but our body language and tone will communicate that we are there to help them.


This is the key: We must have the attitude that we are there to help them; we are there to help them learn how to have self-control when things don’t go their way.


Even though we may do all the ‘right’ things – there will come a time when our little one gets angry. Once our toddler/pre-schooler has some sense of calm – the storm is over but the issue is not – then we can start to speak to them.

— Reiterate the wrong choice: We don’t hit, speak angry words, yell etc…. and we confirm why we don’t do those things: We don’t speak angry words, because they hurt our friends.

— Ask if they did that behaviour: Did you speak angry words? Generally they nod – if they say they didn’t then you can either give them more time to calm down, or just address the situation as a teaching opportunity anyway. There is nothing to gain by getting into a power play – yes you did – no I didn’t!

— Affirm their feeling: I understand that you didn’t like it when they did that to you. (Or whatever emotion they are reacting with.) Remember you are holding them, or touching them, so an extra squeeze of love shows the empathy and understanding.

— Remind them to make the right choice: Even when we feel angry we need to show kindness. What can you do when you are angry?

— They may or may not have an answer – depending on how much you have worked on this. An appropriate response would be: “Please stop, I don’t like that.” And then walk away.

— Get them to practice the right words

— Praise them for whatever they just practiced (if they said it with self-control)


There are two other issues that need to be addressed: Consequences for getting angry, and the issue of broken relationships.

I find that natural consequences work the best, especially when we are in this teaching/training stage. The consequence of throwing a toy in anger, is the loss of play with that toy, the consequence for speaking mean words, is that you lose a friend to play with (time out from play) – as is the consequence for hitting or biting. When our consequences are related to the choices that our children make it helps them learn to think before they act – or at least it is the foundation for learning this.

Anger hurts our relationships, and we can teach our children this along with the strategies to have control over anger outbursts. Hurt relationships is a consequence of our anger, and we have a responsibility to patch things up, and get them right. A toddler can understand this. After our child has calmed down, recognised they made poor choices and are ready to start afresh – we need to help them say sorry and restore their friendships.

But to be honest, not every situation is an opportunity to teach saying “I’m sorry”. Sometimes the anger happens and the tears and screaming are at such a pitch that you just have to draw the line and say, ‘we are outta-here!’ There will be other times where your child can calm down, understand the consequences of their actions and be ready to say sorry – make the most of these – but don’t stress if this doesn’t happen every time. There will be plenty of time to teach this heart response.

Remember the definition of self-control: Control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will.

We are not just creating a habit of response – though that is a good thing. What we want our children to understand is that their choices, their actions affect other people – and that we need to always show love and respect towards other people. It is as this truth alone gets into their heart that they will start to have a desire to show self-control – of their own will. It is a long journey – I still have selfish reactions at times – but little by little as we lovinginly and patiently show our children the consequences of their choices, and the way to make better choices they will grow in self-control and manage their anger.


Extra Reading:

art-good_and_angry_bookOne of the best books I have read on the issue of anger is “Good and Angry” by Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller.  One of the ‘ouch’ moments of parenting is that we need to address our own heart attitudes and habits as much (or more) than we need to address our kids.  That being said, this book will give good understanding and tips for anger in your kids as well.

Digging around my archives you may also like to read:


Be Intentional

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