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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.