If your child has explosive behavior, you may find yourself walking around the house on tip-toes, afraid of what might set him off next. This can create a viscous cycle. Break out of the cycle with information and insights on how to handle an out of control child.
Identify and address your own feelings
One element of this process is to examine your feelings about these episodes. What feelings bubble up in you when your child rages with anger? Do you feel intense rage yourself? Do you feel panic? Shame? Fear? This might take some time for you to figure out and it is likely linked to past experiences. Parents who grew up in an explosive environment can have those memories activated by rage in their child.
How you feel about your child’s rage and anger matters. It will impact how you respond and the underlying dynamics. If you need help getting to the root of this issue, parent counseling might be helpful for you.
Observe and record
The first step is to know the full picture of what you are dealing with. It may feel like your child’s rage and explosions come out of no where, but there are likely signs or situations that trigger it.
It is important to do this step first even though it doesn’t immediately address the problem. Below is a printable you can use to examine the behavior, possible triggers and how the incident resolved. This information will be important for the next step.
Look under the out-of-control behavior
With the help of the behavior log, you should start to see a pattern to the outbursts emerge over the course of several days. This information will help you examine the feelings and heart issues underneath.
Many of the triggers listed on the log are feeling states. Our children, just like us, cannot choose their feelings. Feelings simply are. We cannot control if they come, but we can control what we do with them. This is an area that requires training and one that is facilitated by the natural course of maturation (ie: most children get better at managing their emotions as they age and the part of their brain that helps with it comes online).
Parents don’t have to wait it out though. You can equip your child now with the information and language they need to identify and articulate their feelings.
As Christian parents, we also need to look at the heart issues and beliefs that are under the feelings. Sometimes an anger outburst comes from a place of greed (“I want that toy!”) or a place of jealousy (“Why does he get all the attention?”). It takes discernment to know what is underneath. These hard heart responses were not included on the worksheet as it can be easy as parents to label all misbehavior as as a heart issue which does not leave us with the incentive to see the situation more fully.
1 John 2:16 says, “For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.” Kids, just like grown-ups, will have worldly lusts- things that they want but cannot get. This can lead to rage and anger in an immature emotional regulation system.
Address the heart
At this point, you have used the behavior log, determined underlying feelings states, and helped your child label and express their feelings – all during times of calm.
You may have also discovered, after all your investigation, that your child is struggling with a heart issue as well. Helping our children see the condition of their heart as a precursor to unwanted behavior is delicate work. We are sinners too. We struggle as well. So let’s approach the issue from the position of shared struggle. When your child is calm, you can review the incident together. Try to help your child uncover the heart issue himself with a series of questions. You can ask: “What did you want?” or “What was your desire in that moment?” This post has a sample dialogue at the end that may help you flesh out this process a bit more.
Use this as an opportunity to share the hope of the gospel and the forgiveness of God for even the darkest parts of our hearts. Lay the groundwork for your child to seek forgiveness and make things right.
What to do when your child is out of control
This is what every parent wants to know. What do I do while it is actually happening? All of the above information and suggestions are great for long-term planning, but most parents just want the behavior to stop in the present.
Here are some things you can do in the moment. Just remember that this type of issue requires a “long view.” If you just squash the behavior you see in the moment, it will simply pop up somewhere else, like a very loud and triggering game of whack-a-mole.
Tip#1: Regulate your body
This means that you stop and release tension in your body. Your body and brain are wired to respond to an anger outburst as a threat response. This is normal and actually how God made us. The racing heart, tight fists, shallow breathing is how a body responds to threat. Your job is to tell it there is no threat and you are safe. You do that with a quick body scan (look for where there is tension and release it) and with some deep breaths (inhale, hold, exhale for longer than inhale).
Tip #2: Back up or come close
I realize these are opposites but it really depends on your child and what he is experiencing. Approaching with a calm face and some calming words might help. Or it could make things worse. You will only discover this with trial and error. If you getting close helps, ask, “Would a hug help?” If backing up helps, say, “I am giving you space to calm down. I will keep everyone safe.”
Tip #3: Keep everyone safe
If you have other children, these outbursts can activate their threat response as well. Some children will be very scared. Remove your other children to a safe place. You may have to make a choice at this point since you can’t be in two places at once. You will have to decide who needs your support more, the raging child or the scared child. You can assure your scared child that his sibling is having a hard time and it will end. Assure them they are safe.
Tip #4: Try a different response
The behavior log has a list of responses that may lead to resolution. Try something you haven’t tried before. You may even try doing something completely unexpected like jumping jacks (which will have the added benefit of helping your calm) or being silly. This may shift the dynamic of the situation enough to help your child de-escalate. Again, this will be trial and error and what works one time may not work the next.
Tip #5: Move your child to a safer place
If your child is becoming destructive to self or others and is not calming down with any of the tips above, you may need to physically restrain or move him. This is an option of last resort. It is not an option for children who are bigger than you and it could escalate the behavior for children with an abuse history or sensory integration disorder. Before you use restraint, you should speak to your pediatrician or a trusted counselor to determine if your child has any struggle that would deem restrain inappropriate. Click here for information on how to safely restrain a child. Please note: if you are enraged yourself, WALK AWAY. An angry parent cannot safely restrain an angry child.
This type of situation will push even the calmest, most patient parent to the edge. It is okay if you can’t do any of the above steps in the moment. You have permission to walk away and calm yourself. You can always work on the foundational elements of feelings expression, emotional regulation practice and making amends once the storm has passed. God is with you in the hard places.