This post contains affiliate links for your convenience
Many people believe that anger in children “erupts suddenly”. It never does. It comes gradually, like a wave growing stronger and stronger until it completely washes over them.
That’s what many specialists have referred to as “Zone 3” or the final zone of anger; the point of no return; the point where your child goes into meltdown or throws a tantrum in an attempt to release emotions too big for them to handle alone just yet.
Zone three is every parents’ worst nightmare. It is a moment that can leave you feeling baffled, frustrated, angry, and not quite sure what to do. Few parents escape the famous zone three, and the worst thing is that children’s expression of anger often occur at the worst place possible or “when you least expect them”.
If you have an anger-prone child, you know by now that “Zone three” can feel like being on a wild roller coaster ride. You also know that getting a child whose anger has erupted to calm down often requires a Herculean effort.
“Damage control” is the only thing you can do in “Zone three”. Not much else works once the anger wave takes over. Zone three is the zone to avoid at all costs.
Understanding how anger erupts to help children calm down
In one of Hemingway’s books, a character explains that he went bankrupt “gradually, then suddenly”. That’s exactly how your child’s anger works.
Anger in children never erupts suddenly; it starts slowly then builds up, much like a tornado, until it becomes powerful enough to destroy whatever it finds in its path.
To successfully help your child calm down, it is important to understand the steps that lead to their anger and to prevent them from getting to Zone three. Anger in children doesn’t just happen. It always has a source and it is often associated with feelings such as frustration.
Anger is your child’s way of showing that they have not yet learned acceptable ways to express their emotions.
Identifying what triggers your child’s anger is an important step to help them calm down. But it is not always easy to uncover the reasons behind their anger, and sometimes they themselves do not know why they are so angry all the time.
That said, all children have more or less similar “anger behavior” and identifying this behavior can make it easier for you to intervene and prevent an anger crisis.
Here are several displays of anger to look out for in your child.
Teaching your child to calm down: The signs to pay attention to
It’s incredibly difficult to help a child calm down when they are completely overwhelmed by difficult emotions. There are many effective calm-down ideas, but these work best before your child gets into Zone 3.
The good news is that several signs can help you determine your child’s state and allow a timely intervention. Here are some of the behavior traits that show that a child is getting angry:
- Crying “for no apparent reason”
- Complaining and whining
- Facial expressions and body language (frowning, tense jaw, clenched teeth, clenched fist, changes in skin color/tone, furrowed brow, etc.)
- Spiteful or hateful behavior
- Seeking out arguments
- Using curse words
- Kicking and stomping
- Pulling or shoving
- Throwing or breaking things
Taking action before your child’s frustration or annoyance turns into full-blown rage can help reduce the occurrence of anger episodes. The good news is that it is possible to distract your child from their anger by getting them to focus on something else.
Here are fifty things you can do to help your child calm down
- Deep breathing. Breathing exercises can help your angry child calm down. Visual breathing exercises work particularly well with young kids. For example, you can put a feather on a flat surface and ask them to move it across the surface with their breath.
2) Ask your child to count backwards from 20 (or to count to 20).
3) Mentally prepare your child. Most kids have a hard time changing from one activity to another which is one of the reasons they go into meltdown. Mentally preparing them can help prevent such behavior.
For example, if you want your child to set the table, start asking them at least 15 minutes before the time they are require to do so: “Tom, you need to set the table in a bit so please start winding up your game”.
Five minutes later, say something like “you’ve got two minutes left”. Mentally preparing your child reduces the chances of anger episodes.
4) Try the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness strategy. Mindfulness is a powerful and effective tool that can help angry or anxious children calm down. It works by helping them focus on something other than their emotions.
The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is one of the best known mindfulness strategies. It involves asking your child to name:
- 5 things they can see around them
- 4 things they can touch around them
- 3 things they can hear around them
- 2 things they can smell around them
- 1 thing they can taste around them
Here is a free visual copy you can download and use with your child.
5) Give your child a choice. Anger in children often arises when they feel like they have no choice. Simply asking them if they “prefer taking their shower now or immediately after your snack” can mean the difference between calm and chaos.
6) Talk about the situation. If your child always has tantrums in the same environment – for example when they visit a strict family member – talking about the situation as soon as you see the first signs of distress can help calm them down. For instance, you can say something like “I know this is difficult for you… why don’t you sit over there and color your book.”
7) Ask your child to paint or to finger paint.
8) Give your child a chore. Many kids have angry outbursts in places such as the supermarket. Giving them a chore – for example making them responsible for reading the shopping list or even making them pick out certain products – will help them focus on something else and calm them down.
9) Propose a “cut and paste” activity or a sticker activity
10) Give your child chewing gum. Chewing gum has been found to be one of the most effective oral sensory activities for releasing stress, anxiety and anger in children.
That said, it is best to avoid overusing such activities because they can lead to dental issues in future. If you try this option, remember to privilege sugar-free chewing gum. You can also try chewy jewelry.
11) Try essential oils. Some essential oils are thought to be highly effective in calming big emotions such as anger and anxiety. Having your child breathe them in when they start acting out can help calm them.
That said, many essential oils are dangerous for children. Please read this article first to determine the kinds of oil that you can use with your child, how to best use essential oils with children to calm their anger, and several recipes you can try.
12) Ask your child to color.
13) Do something together. Doing an activity with your frustrated child when you notice that they are starting to get angry is a powerful calm-down tool. Even something like reading a book for 10 minutes can help diffuse your child’s frustration.
Here is a free printable with 30 quick activities you can do. Print it out, hang it somewhere you can see, and have your child pick an activity that they would like to do when they start acting out.
14) Ask them to go play on the trampoline.
15) Have your child crumple paper and toss it into the trashcan (like basketball).
16) Propose a scavenger hunt. Or ask your child to find five things that have different textures or five different types of leaves.
17) Give your child a hug. Research has proven that hugs can help release “happy hormones” which promote positive feelings.
18) Play the silence game. The silence game is an effective mindfulness strategy that can help your angry child calm down relatively quickly. In this game participants are expected to say and do nothing. Sit close to your child (you can take them into your arms) and give them the opportunity to calm down by themselves.
19) A mandala is a great calm-down activity for an angry child
20) Ask your child to sort objects according to their color or shape. Lego are great for this activity which is often effective in distracting children from their frustration.
21) Many kids enjoy blowing bubbles, and this activity is also a great calm down activity for anxious or angry children. It works because it helps them focus on something other than their emotions. You can ask them to imagine that the bubbles are their worries or frustrations disappearing as they blow.
22) Ask your child to run around the house twice. Make it more fun by telling them that you’ll time them.
23) Try a body-scan meditation routine. Ask your child to lie down, close their eyes, and focus on their toes, then on their feet, then on their legs, etc.
24) Try Goleman’s “Breathing buddy” exercise. Tell your child that they are going to breathe with their favorite teddy. Ask them to place the teddy on their belly. Tell them that when they breath in, the teddy should rise and when they breath out, it should fall.
25) Have your child breath with a pinwheel. Tell them that when they breath out, the pinwheel should turn. You can also have your child blow on the pinwheel to make it move.
26) Have your child play with kinetic sand. This is a great sensory activity that will encourage them to focus on their sense of touch and help them release their frustration and anxiety.
27) Take your child outdoors and tell them to count all the red (or blue or black) things that they can see.
28) If you have an aquarium, ask your child to go watch the fish. You can also ask them to go feed them.
29) Propose skipping.
30) Propose a threading activity. Activities such as making a bracelet require repetitive threading motions that can help calm your child down.
31) Play a boardgame.
32) Ask your child to ride their bike. Any type of exercise will help them calm down.
33) Give your child a squishy. Squishes are great for calming kids down because they send certain input directly to your child’s brain. They can also squeeze a stuffed animal.
34) Have your child help you knead dough (they can also play with play doh).
35) The ThinkFun Yoga Spinner Yoga Game is a great tool that can help your angry child calm down before they go into meltdown. They are expected to spin the spinner and perform the pose on the corresponding Yoga Pose Card, then to hold steady for 10 seconds to keep that card.
36) Blindfold your child or ask them to close their eyes then ask them to identify the different things that you give them to taste.
37) Kids love climbing activities, and these activities are very effective in helping them calm down.
Anything that involves monkey bars or pikler triangles and encourages your child to twist, practice balancing themselves on one or both arms, support their weight, practice swinging and so on is great both the development of their gross motor skills and for helping to distract them from their frustration.
Take advantage of the monkey bars in playgrounds near you or get your child a climbing triangle that they can use both indoors and outdoors. If you are looking for an outdoor climbing toy that is weather- and rust-resistant, you won’t regret getting this one.
38) Let your child play a videogame. Remember to set the rules regarding how long they can play to avoid a tantrum when it’s time to stop.
39) Ask your child to look around then ask them to close their eyes and visualize the things that they saw. How many things do they remember seeing?
40) Give your child a magazine and have them cut out all the blue things, or all the fruits, or all the rectangle shapes – you get the point.
41) Promote your child’s positive emotions by asking them to name their favorite people or five of their favorite things.
42) Put on your child’s favorite music and dance along.
43) Read together.
44) Have your child look at a calm-down jar.
45) Try animal yoga poses. Ask your child to stretch like a cat, hop like a kangaroo or crawl like a snake.
46) The repetitive act of cutting fabric can help angry children calm down. Fabric is more resistant than paper and therefore requires more concentration – this will help your child focus on something else.
47) Try walking meditation. Walking meditation is a common activity in several Montessori schools. Here is an easy way to get started
a) Give your child a bell
b) If you would like to participate alongside your child, take a bell as well (every participant should have a bell)
c) Walk around the room in circles while ensuring that no bell makes a sound.
d) Repeat the exercise for as long as is necessary
48) Give your child a chewy snack. Like chewing gum, crunchy or chewy snacks have been found to help reduce anxiety and anger. Other good options include dried fruit, dates, celery and cheese.
As I mentioned earlier, it is best to avoid food-based calm-down strategies to prevent serious health problems later in life.
49) Propose a pop and catch game. These games are not only great for developing your child’s gross motor skills, they can also help them improve their focus and concentration skills. Your child is expected to focus on a specific object, usually a ball, and to catch it before it touches the ground.
50) Ask your child to listen to the sounds around them and pick out only one sound that they hear repeatedly.
51) Your child will enjoy wheelbarrow walking – let someone hold their legs and ask them to walk on their hands. To make the activity more interesting, set up a specific route through which they must pass and include obstacles to make them burn up even more energy!
I hope some of the activities proposed here will help your child calm down when they start acting out. I have prepared several visual calm-down activities that you can download for free at the end of this article. Print them out and pin them up where everyone can see them.
Coping ahead as a strategy to teach your child to calm-down
Trying to teach a child calm-down strategies in the middle of an outburst is rarely effective. Hold your child or stay close to them until they calm down. Once they have calmed down, talk about the situation and about how they can react the next time they find themselves in a similar situation.
If your child’s outbursts always happen in the same location or context, help them to come up with effective strategies that they can use in that particular context.
Coping ahead is about problem solving. It is not about “admonishing your child for their inappropriate behavior at their grandparent’s house.” It is about using that example to help them identify appropriate ways of behaving when faced with similar situations in the future.
Any activities that distract your child from their frustration and anxiety can help prevent anger outbursts, but these simply camouflage the real issue. If your child is struggling with anger issues, this is a sign that they are yet to learn to deal with difficult emotions and that you need to identify an appropriate approach to teach them to manage difficult emotions by themselves.
How to develop a lasting approach to your child’s anger issues
Different kids react to different calm-down strategies, so if one strategy isn’t effective with your child, let it go and try something else.
While all the activities mentioned above can help your child calm down and prevent them from having an outburst, they need to be able to use these strategies by themselves – without your intervention – when they are faced with emotionally challenging situations.
It is important to help your child better understand their emotions and those of others. A child who knows exactly what they are feeling – anger, anxiety – will find it easier to deal with their emotions.
It is also important to encourage them to develop their own toolkit to deal with difficult emotions because this is the most effective way to help them learn to express difficult emotions such as anger appropriately.
The Anger Expression Management Bundle has all the resources you need to teach your child about emotions, help them identify their triggers, and determine appropriate coping mechanisms they can use when faced with difficult emotion-provoking situations.
More importantly, it has practical resources to help you understand how anger works and how you can effectively and confidently deal with each zone of your child’s anger.
My child won’t calm down: should I worry about their anger?
While anger in young children is normal, behavior such as meltdowns, outbursts and tantrums are often a sign of your child’s difficulty expressing their emotions in a socially appropriate manner.
Such behavior is common in young children, but from around age four, the episodes of inappropriate expressions of anger are fewer and further apart. However, anger in children can be the sign of a more serious issue requiring the intervention of a professional.
By age 7/8, most children have learned to express their anger in an appropriate manner. If your child is still throwing tantrums on a regular basis at this age, please see a professional for an assessment.
Although anger is a normal emotion that everyone experiences, it is considered “problematic” in children if your child has:
- Violent anger behavior
- Repeated tantrums per day
- Intense tantrums
- Disproportionate behavior
- Out of control behavior at school
- Difficulty recovering from tantrums
- Aggressive behavior toward inanimate objects
- Self-harmful tantrum behaviors
Please read this article to identify the behavior traits to watch out for and to get a free printable to assess your child’s behavior.
As promised, here are your free calm-down cards. I hope some of the activities proposed will help your angry child calm down faster.