Why do so many children get angry so often? Kids are getting furious even about little things like having to pick up their toys or not getting a popsicle. These blowups are coming from kids who are ages 3, 4, 5, and older. These are children who we expected to have outgrown tantrums. Although some deeply angry children may need professional counseling, that’s not the case with the majority of now-common anger. It’s a side effect of today’s most popular parenting practice.
What is this method, and is it one that you’re using? It’s the self-esteem-building philosophy that encourages you to give your child a lot of say and a lot of choice. You let your 2 1/2 year old choose the restaurant where your family will have dinner. You tell him he has two more minutes to play before bedtime. He demands five, and you give in again. The thinking behind this philosophy was that when children got as much choice and say as possible, they would learn that what they said mattered, which would be to build self-esteem. Under this philosophy, never again would a parent squelch a child’s viewpoint with, “Because I said so.”But now the downside is revealing itself. When a young child is given too much say before she has the life experience to know what’s best for her or anyone else, she wants all that and more, say, tomorrow and more the day after that. When she learns she has the right to make the choices such as the route you’ll drive to school and what you’ll serve for dinner, then you have to make a decision. Thus she doesn’t have the say, and she gets furious. The anger erupts when she experiences the unexpected frustration of not being in charge.If this sounds like what’s going on in your family, here are seven strategies to consider:1. Notice how often you give your children choices. If it’s more than one-third of the time, you’ve probably been endowing them with the privileges of being the parent in the family. You may be justifying this to yourself by saying it doesn’t matter to you whether it’s two minutes or five, but you’re still inadvertently teaching your child that he knows better than you do. This means that when you assert your parental authority, you can expect fireworks.2. Try to limit the choices you give your child to areas that affect only her life, and not those that impact yours. (For example, children shouldn’t decide on the restaurant, but they can choose between the two or three menu items you offer them.)3. Don’t phrase your requests as questions when you don’t mean to give a choice. When parents say “How about picking up your toys now?” young children — being very literal — are likely to say no, and you’re off to a bad start with getting cooperation.4. Get cooperation by giving advance notice, then make the request fun and/or interesting. This helps turn preschoolers’ natural negative response into a yes and makes it easy for them to cooperate.5. When you have to say no to your child, expect frustration and anger. Speak to him in a way that lets him know he has been heard and understood: “It’s hard when you can’t do what you want, but it’s a mom and dad’s job to teach you everything four year olds need to know. Tomorrow you’ll be able to play with your puzzles again.” Try not to keep giving in to avoid your child’s outbursts. It’s important for a child to have some frustration in his daily life so he develops ways of coping.6. Encourage empathy. Your child needs to understand that his words and actions affect you and others, and that he needs to consider whether he’s inconveniencing or angering you or other people. When your child is shouting, “I don’t like your idea! I want to do it my way! Your way is stupid!” tell him, “When anyone tells me my ideas are stupid, it hurts my feelings and makes me mad. You’ll need to say that a different way.” 7. Remember it needs to be clear that the parent has the authority. Try not to aim at being buddies with your child — not at this age. Young kids need their parents to be respectfully in charge. (This also helps youngsters accept the authority of teachers and other adults.)We don’t want our children to feel so entitled that they lash out when they don’t get their way. When children’s defiance annoys us, our natural negative reaction makes it hard for them to truly feel good about themselves. And isn’t our desire to build their self-esteem the reason we started using this “lots of say” approach in the first place?