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Ask the Experts

My Preschooler Can't Control His Anger

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My 5-year-old has impulse issues. He gets mad and lashes out then feels bad and true remorse after it is all said and done. I have talked to him and told him to try counting before making choices and he has not been able to control his emotions. He has been in daycare/preschool for several years and this has always been his number one problem. He gets angry and yells. If outside he throws gravel and stomps off. He will take a time out, calm down and then will talk about his choice, but can't seem to regulate himself before making the bad choice. Can you give me some ideas as to how to help him?

Answer:

Before the age of five, it can be difficult for children to control or manage strong feelings. They squeal noisily and jump up and down with glee when excited; they cry loudly when hurt; they bite, stomp their feet, yell, or even throw things when angry. As a preschooler, your son is just starting to learn the skills involved in emotional regulation, which is a complex process.

Yet, having good emotional control is essential to healthy adjustment as children grow older. In fact, research tells us that emotional regulation is a big factor in children's peer relations; those children who are moody or negative experience more rejection from others, and children who are emotionally positive tend to have more healthy friendships. As a parent, you play an important role in helping your son learn to control his emotions. Researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. has discovered strong benefits when parents follow the five steps below when their children are experiencing a strong emotion. He calls this approach "Emotion Coaching." Here is a link to Dr. Gottman's Web site: Research on Parenting.

Be aware of your son's emotions. When he's upset or angry, recognize what's happening. Don't ignore it, shame him, or tell him he shouldn't feel that way.

Recognize his emotional expression as a teachable moment. Don't wait to address the incident; talk to him right away about what happened and his feelings about it.

Listen empathetically and validate his feelings. Let him tell you in his own words; don't challenge him and don't interrupt.

Help him verbally label his emotions. "You're angry that you can't have a cookie," or "You're frustrated because it's time to turn off the TV," or "You feel sad when it's time for Grandma to go home."

Set limits while helping your son problem-solve. "Since we can't have a cookie, let's think of a different snack that would be good for you. Do you have any ideas?" or "I wonder what else we can do since it's not TV time right now. What about a story?"

Finally, remember that impulsive behavior is just that, behavior. Difficulty with impulse control is normal and expected in preschoolers, but as they move closer to kindergarten there should be improvement. If your son's difficulties persist, then work closely with his teacher and pediatrician to assess problem behaviors and come up with a behavior modification or treatment program. Working as a team with these professionals may benefit your son as he enters kindergarten next year.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/2/2012:
"MY 4 yr old is so unpredictable he had be lovely one minute then just turn the next . He attends pre school and is the same there hitting other children scratching because they look at him the wrong way . It's as though he can't control hip emotions. He kicks throws things and is very moody. I try to stay calm and talk about how he feels but he just can't stop himself in his words my brain won't let me stop. I really can't describe him fully but when he is good he is lovely kind and caring. He is very clever and on target developmentally please give me some advise. We have just started to try giving him a safe place to feel angry but It's the things he does before hand . THe slightest thing can set him off and sometimes there is no obvious reason. I can turn up to pre school and he goes off on one, when I take him he does the same taking him any where is becoming a real problem being so scared he is going to lash out at me or other around us. "
11/28/2011:
"i find this information very informative, i will start helping my child at home with this tips, i have had two bad experience with two schools, and both have taken my son out of school as they claim behaviour, and that he is a smart child. I just don't understand how now a days daycare's/preschools just jump into the conclution of taking a kid out of child care due to behaviour instead of working with them as they are still in the process of learning and developing good behaviour..My son is 3 1/2 and the first time they took him out of his child care was when he was 2 1/2 and i was taking him to counseling as i had a newborn and he started developing these paterns on the arrival of his lil brother and new almost retiering teacher. on the other school he only developed that behaviour at one given time of the day and there was no help or assistance when asked to speak to the principal...is sad to see how our future society is being put to a side when helping into teaching them! together with us the parents to grow into a well educated society, and instead we just decide to take small kids who are just learning and need guidance into comprehending everything that is going on, out of school and send them home..its a shame..but i will be that one parent that will work with my son into making him one of well, behaviour, and educated as possible..Thank you Dr. Stacie Bunning for providing parents like me this great information. I just wish there were Directors/principals of school that will also assist parents when they encounter an issue of this matter. "
01/24/2011:
"Wow my son has just been kicked out of KIPP DC Discovery Academy in Washington,DC. He started exhibiting the same behaviors only since attending this school and the very you reccomendations suggest were reccomended to the school since and they felt it wat too time consuming and decided since he is not considered Special education and does not qualify for Special Education. KIPP DC does not have to work with kids like him and he is not school ready, despite the fact he has been attending school based program and was in Headstart full day since he wa 6months old. KIPP DC still kicked him out and stating because of his behavior he is not school ready. They did not referr to another, did not attempt to identify what his needs are or care that becuase he has a late birthday he will have to sit home until August 2011 when he is old enough according the age guideline for DC and then he will be able to go to Kindergarten. Woow they really showed how much they care about children."
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