Emotional Angry Child

Little Kids Big Feelings – Helping Young Children Manage Anger

The past few months have had a tremendous impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of most people, and young children have not escaped the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdowns in this regard. Parents may have seen a change in their children, including increased instances of anger outbursts, sometimes of the explosive kind.

“There has definitely been an increase worldwide and in South Africa of children struggling to manage anger and anxiety – outbursts that are quite distinct from run of the mill so-called tantrums which some children exhibit under normal circumstances,” says Educational Psychologist Dr Greg Pienaar, Principal at The Bridge Assisted Learning School, a brand of ADvTECH, Africa’s leading private education provider.

The Bridge, which opened its doors in January 2018, has filled a niche demand in education, catering to students of average to above average ability who face certain learning barriers and social or emotional challenges.

Pienaar says that parents whose children exhibited out-of-character anger outbursts, with an increase in frequency or intensity, may have been left baffled by these incidents.

“The first thing to note is that, given the unusual circumstances of this year, this behaviour is relatively normal. However, having said that, parents definitely need to address the situation to ensure it is resolved, and seek help should they struggle to do so,” he says.

A September report by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), noted that Covid-19 affected children directly and indirectly beyond getting sick or the threat of them or their loved ones falling ill.

“Many children’s social, emotional, and mental well-being have been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan,” the report said.

Listed as contributing factors to this impact were:

  1. Changed routines
  2. Breaks in continuity of learning
  3. Breaks in continuity of healthcare
  4. Significant life events that were missed
  5. Loss of safety and security

“All the above factors, and many others, mean that children have had to deal with a major and historical life event at a very young age, when they are still learning to process feelings and emotions. Unusual behaviour may have arisen as a result,” Pienaar says.

“This includes anger outbursts, simply because children often don’t know, or don’t have the tools, to express their feelings effectively when they are young. Anger is their way of communication, their way of telling you there is a problem.”

Essentially, the misbehaviour is the language the child has available to express themselves.

So, parents and teachers need to respond appropriately to meltdowns and not immediately react with harsh punishment, arising from their own anger. It is important to model calm and considered behaviour at this point, Pienaar says.

“The most important first step is to understand that there is a reason for the meltdown, and then to determine what that reason is. This involves spending time with the child, and communicating as effectively as possible,” he says.

“Remember we as adults have the ability to understand what is going on, even in our uncertainty. But our children were faced with a tremendous amount of unexpected and immediate changes, ranging from wearing masks, having to social distance, giving no hugs or not seeing important people in their lives. Children had to learn to grow up and face fear of death, uncertainty and the fallout from their parents’ fears and anxieties before they were mature enough to handle these big changes and big feelings. So it is not reasonable to expect all children to just have absorbed these changes and coped forthwith.”

Dr Greg Pienaar
Dr Greg Pienaar
Principal at The Bridge Assisted Learning School

Pienaar says to bring the situation back to normal, parents should ensure they:

  1. Get all routines back to normal as soon as possible

Try to get life at home back to a predictable routine, explain why it is necessary and why everyone is going to stick to it. Children need predictable routines, boundaries and restrictions to give them the parameters in which they can explore and thrive.

  1. Harness “in the moment” situations

Under normal circumstances, an anger tantrum may call for a timeout. However instead of timeouts, try time-ins. Sending children away and into isolation may sometimes worsen the situation. Rather take the child for a walk, or sit in a park, and be there for them. Discuss the feelings the child is having, and discuss how the child can manage those feelings in an alternative way. Listen and learn.

“Remember that there is a difference between a tantrum and an outburst of anger, although they may seem similar on the surface,” Pienaar says.

“A tantrum occurs when a child doesn’t get his way. The way to address this is to consistently not indulge the demands of the child, which ultimately allows the child to learn that the parent will be consistently enforcing rules and boundaries, and that tantrums are pointless.”

Anger issues however point to larger problems outside of the child’s control.

“Developing a close connection with the child, spending quality time and developing language around emotions, is the best way to empower a child to manage their anger effectively. If this does not help, and the outbursts continue or escalate, it is advisable that parents seek additional intervention to address the matter early and before greater emotional trauma develops.”

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About Dr Greg Pienaar 

Dr Pienaar holds a doctorate in Psychology. His work has focused mainly on the school-going child over the years, in terms of therapy or play therapy in private practice. He continues to make a significant contribution to the field of assisted and special needs learning through his articles in Educational and Psychological Journals and papers at International Conferences.
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The ADvTECH Group, a JSE-listed company, is Africa’s largest private education provider and a continental leader in quality education, training, skills development and placement services. The Group reports its performance in a segmental structure reflecting the Schools and Tertiary as two separate education divisions, and Resourcing as the third division. ADvTECH’s Schools division comprises 10 brands with more than 100 schools across South Africa, including Gaborone International School in Botswana and Crawford International in Nairobi, Kenya.

It owns 9 tertiary brands, across 30 campuses across South Africa and the rest of Africa, and its higher education division, The Independent Institute of Education, is SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education provider. ADvTECH’s 9 resourcing brands places thousands of candidates annually, assisting graduates to make the transition from the world of study to the world of work.

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About The Bridge School

The Bridge caters for students with average to above average abilities. The school follows a neurodiverse approach, ensuring that all students are included, catered for and receive the additional support they need. With our increased knowledge around educational development, we see that more people are affected by Neurodevelopmental conditions than ever before. Neurodiversity follows the view that brain differences are normal, rather than deficiencies. When following a Neurodiverse approach, students with learning and thinking differences benefit greatly.
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  1. This was really helpful to understand thank you

  2. Helpful advice. What a lovely read on my first visit to this site since birthing my third last week.
    I have missed these informative reads and have some catching up to do.

  3. Bianca von Meyer

    During this pandemic my child’s development actually digressed. It’s been quite a struggle to get him back to “normal”.

    • And I think that is perfectly normal for your son to have regressed during a time like this. My kids also struggled and it was heartbreaking to see. Here’s hoping 2021 is easier.

  4. LOVE THIS ARTICLE! we know the difference between a tantrum and a melt down and we have definitely seen with our eldest daughter – 8 years old – how frustrated this year has made her due to a change in her routine.
    However, we have a “quiet / alone time” thing whereby when she feels frustrated and annoyed she has box of arts n crafts in her room – her own desk – and she tells us she needs alone time and she goes and writes and draws and after a while she comes out and then says she is ready to talk to us. Our eldest daughter has been such an inspiration to me as a mommy as she has overcome so much in her short life and yet behaves so maturely and knows exactly what to do to calm herself down.

    • I totally agree with you Karin, this year has been tough as can be on our kids. My kids have had plenty of melt downs and to be completely honest, I have had my fair share too. My children have also been absolute stars and I am so proud of the way that they have adapted.

  5. Natalie Grobbelaar

    Thank you so much for this. We don’t always realize how much our children are affected by this. It’s so upsetting and frustrating.

  6. Meagan Van Der Merwe

    Love this article honestly my little one and his anger got the better of me, as he use to throw crazy tantrums but I found a little technique very helpful by holding him and talking to him instead of screaming as I’ve done in the past . Do I’ve learned alot even though I have three kids I have come to experience so many different things with this little one.

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