I remember from an early age that being mad got me sent to my room. Nose to the corner, trying to “think about what I had done” without even fully understanding what it was that I felt, let alone why I did what I did. I’m not sure that I ever really figured out either, but what I did learn fairly quickly was that being mad, frustrated, or even sad, was not safe. Those big feelings that led to big behaviors got me a big dose of all-by-myself, feeling like I was a bad kid.
I adapted the way our bodies are designed to: for survival. The parts of me that got love and attention, I grew and grew like breathing life into a balloon. The parts of me that got me aloneness, I suppressed, hid, denied, or shamed.
Fast forward thirty years and I am now face to face with my own child, throwing big emotions because he feels mad about the cookie I wouldn’t give him. My alarm system is buzzing and I want to shut his emotions down because everything inside of me is yelling, “This isn’t safe!”
But here’s the really kooky thing. As much as the child parts of me want to run and hide, the adult parts want to stay and be with my son to give him what I needed way back then when I was mad about not having a cookie before dinner.
Every single emotion we feel is useful … valid … informative … powerful. Yep, even the dark, scary, unpleasant ones that I hid from for most of my formative years. I didn’t want my son to feel like he had to hide, and I didn’t want him to feel like he was bad for having a hard time.
Soak in this next part:
It’s not about teaching our children not to be mad, sad, or frustrated. It’s about teaching them how to be mad, sad, and frustrated. Rather than teaching them to suppress or bottle their emotions, we can empower our children to move through them in healthy ways.
This is a pretty tricky thing for those of us who were never taught safe emotional expression and regulation. When I first started, I felt like I was tiptoeing around landmines, scared that doing or saying the “wrong” thing would lead to an explosion … him, me, or both.
The process of wiring feelings and regulation circuits is a daily lived experience, not a one-time checklist or perfect script. In fact, we are going to slip up. Our triggers are going to be bigger than us sometimes. And we are going to pitfall into old patterns. But this parenting gig is an endurance race and we don’t need to do it perfectly and we don’t need to do it alone.
I know what you’re thinking … Where is my list that teaches HOW to be mad?
I am getting there. But know, it won’t happen overnight. In fact, the part of the brain wired for regulation, problem-solving, impulse control, and all those other big skills associated with navigating life isn’t fully developed until our twenties! This means that our children learn through the love and relationship we give them during both the easy, fun moments and the tricky, unpleasant, tough moments. It is in a series of small daily rituals and connection that drowns out aloneness that lets our kids know: Hey I see you having this really unpleasant, scary emotion. Your emotions are not contagious. I can handle your feelings. I am here and we will ride this out together.
5 Steps To Teaching A Child How To Be Mad1. Notice And Validate
When my child’s feelings are turned up to 11, my first stop is validating his experience. This helps your child feel seen and heard, which can increase feelings of safety and connection and help them shift from reactivity to regulation.
I may say something like:
- It seems like something doesn’t feel good to you.
- I see that this feels hard. You are safe. I am here.
- You didn’t want that to happen.
- You really want that cookie, huh?
- What you’re showing/telling me is that you feel mad/frustrated/sad.
It is important to validate all emotions and to set loving limits around some behaviors, especially the ones that are destructive or harmful to your child or others. When you set firm, clear, and respectful boundaries, it creates predictability, structure, and safety, affirming to your child that while all emotions are allowed, there are loving limits around how we express them.
I may say something like:
- It’s okay to be mad. It’s not okay to hit.
- I know you don’t want to hurt me. I will keep us safe.
- I won’t let you throw things at your sister. Let’s find a new way.
- My job is to keep everyone safe. Right now that looks like ...
- helping you to your room so we can work through this together.
- stepping behind this cushion to keep my body protected.
- giving the toy a break until we calm our bodies.
Each child has their own meltdown language - their nervous system’s way of releasing emotional tension from their body. Some kids may withdraw and tell you to go away, and others may hit, kick, scream, or destroy. Instead of making these needs wrong, we can redirect the behaviors, helping our kids channel their feelings in healthy ways.
This table illustrates some redirection ideas:
Behavior to Adjust
Chewelry jewelry, wooden toys, frozen carrots
Offer physical contact with pillows or stuffed animals, crashing in a crash pad, smacking a stick against an outdoor wall
Spitting games into the toilet, tub, or cup (use cereal as a spitting target)
Tear paper, pop bubble wrap with their feet, snap dry noodles
The point is to notice your child’s meltdown patterns and find new outlets for them. Introduce these strategies and practice them during regulated moments so that they can better access them during dysregulated experiences.4. Affirm Your Love
It is important that children know that while they are feeling bad, they are not bad.
I may say something like:
- You’re a good kid having a hard time and I’m here with you.
- I can handle your big emotions. It is safe to let them out.
- This won’t last forever, and I will stay with you while it’s hard.
There are also times when saying less is more, especially when our kids are deeply in their reactive brainstem. During these moments, I communicate safety with my body by getting low or creating a safe distance, letting them know I see them and am here with them.
5. Process What Happened
Once my child is through the heat of the moment and is receptive, I revisit what happened via a Time-In. This may happen directly after the meltdown or maybe later in the day or before bed.
I know, I know … Why in the world would I want to rehash a hard moment with my child? This is how they will process and integrate their lived experience and create circuits from their lower survival brain to their higher learning brain. As the circuits are formed and are reinforced, it becomes easier for our children to access them when they need them.
During a Time-In, I may focus on:
- What happened
- How they felt
- How the other person involved felt/How I felt
- Calming strategies for next time they feel mad, frustrated, jealous, overwhelmed, disappointed, etc.
- Repair/make amends if applicable
To help me with this process, I use feelings posters and SnuggleBuddies plush toys.
Being mad is an important human emotion. When it is suppressed, our kids grow into adults who don’t know how to feel, are scared to feel, suppress, or explode. When we teach skills for all emotion states, our children grow into adults who feel and regulate. Every emotion is part of the human experience. And they are all sacred.
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