As an author and parenting educator I chat to lots of parents and teachers, and I frequently get messages of concern. In the past few years, I've noticed an ever-increasing theme: our kids seem to be getting angrier — especially after school.
That may be a generalisation and one that is not based on peer-reviewed data. However, how to cope with angry children is a common conversation topic on and offline for parents everywhere. In fact, my most-viewed video blog on YouTube is titled "Angry Kids".
Anger is also something we're seeing in our schools, with reports in recent years of a "soaring" rise in classroom violence among 4- to 6-year-olds! This is something we normally expect during adolescence. And we are not always talking here about kids displaying anger and frustration due to trauma from abuse, deprivation or abandonment, sensory processing challenges, or psychological disorders such as ODD, ADHD and those who have ASD. So what's going on?
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that anger is not the problem. It is a symptom of a deeper problem.
We know children do not have a well-developed pre frontal cortex, or "upstairs brain", which we as adults (well most of us) are able to access to regulate our feelings, see situations from a wider perspective, have a degree of empathy, impulse control and the ability to delay gratification.
As we grow through childhood we grow not just in our ability to pass tests and developmental milestones, but in our emotional and social intelligence to better manage ourselves in lots of different situations.
With consistent, loving care and guidance from grown-ups we can learn ways to express our sadness, frustrations, disappointments and impatience without hurting ourselves, others or the property around us.
In today's world thanks to the pressures of both the National Curriculum and NAPLAN it seems our young children have been reduced to sources of data and 'brains on seats' at school. Apparently the sooner we have them writing sentences, reading and getting busy with formalised learning, the better. I've heard of 4-years-olds getting homework, 7-year-olds with two hours of homework and a big increase in boys being suspended and expelled in the early years because of 'inappropriate behaviour'. No wonder some of these kids are so angry or, rather, frustrated.
We have removed the high-quality, play based learning in much early years education and we have certainly demonised playtime in many primary schools by shortening recess and lunchtimes — in the mistaken belief this will make our kids smarter.
Herein lies a big part of the problem.
Grown-ups are stealing our children's right to play — their right to have a childhood where they have autonomy and freedom to explore, to do, climb, to dig, to make, to pretend and to build all their competences not just their academic ones.
So what can parents do about it?
Fuel the brain
Like us, if children have not had enough sleep, water and good food, they will become irritable. Get them drinking water, avoid too much sugar (especially at breakfast and in lunchboxes) — and ensure a good night's sleep.
Without lots of real play, preferably outside (not virtual), even our smartest kids can struggle with making mistakes, losing and not getting what they want! Even more children struggle with self-regulation of their states of arousal, their ability to pay attention and often they are so physically passive, their nervous system simply builds up tension that can spill over into angry outbursts!
Make sure you prioritise play in your children's day, especially outside play — stop at the park on the way home from school, hit the beach or just hang in the yard and let them have some completely unstructured play. Yes you might have to join in!
Monitor screen use
We tend to focus a lot on how much screen time our kids are having (as well we should). Pay attention also to what your kids are watching. Some cartoons teach our children how to be mean and nasty by using name-calling, put downs and exclusions.
Be present and listen
A huge part of helping kids through anger is listening to them talk about the feelings underneath. We live in a busy, chaotic world where parents often work long hours and children have to compete with technology for their parents' attention. Ensure you spend time with your children, so they feel secure and that you are really there for them.
Celebrate the square peg
Feeling misunderstood is a huge source of frustration. Every child is one of a kind. Treating children the same without respecting individual needs, is really disrespectful and unhelpful. I can remember being compared to my well-behaved calm, quiet sister and it sure made me mad! Square pegs are not meant to fit into round holes — we need some square holes too.
Teach and model calm
Reducing stress makes a huge difference in our children's lives. Take the time to calm your home and show your children how to calm themselves when they feel angry.
Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator, speaker and mother of four sons. She is hosting a one-day conference in Sydney on Saturday 21st March called "From Little Boys to Good Men" featuring Dr Tim Hawkes, Dr Arne Rubinstein and Clark Wight. www.maggiedent.com