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Dealing with angry outbursts in children

Holding and containing are two strategies parents can use to manage a child's escalating anger.
By Dr. Roy Chan, Clinical Psychologist
It’s a common scenario. You tell your child video game time is over and to turn off the console or screen. Your child protests and refuses, wanting to finish his session. You insist, the child gets angry, and suddenly things escalate into a full-scale fight over gaming. Again.

As the situation escalates, you are tempted to to turn to one of two options to bring a quick end to it all: rewards/punishment or disengaging.

But there are other strategies available that will help you better understand your child’s anger and reduce the intensity of future outbursts. Holding and containing are both such strategies. Let’s explore them here.

The Holding Strategy
Holding involves creating a safe, secure environment for your child as they begin to build awareness of the passage of time, develop autonomy and emerge as their true selves. A concept that applies especially well to young children, holding acknowledges the inherent self-centredness of children, and their difficulty in understanding other viewpoints.

Applied to our gaming scenario, holding would involve staying calm, being present with the child, and understanding his concerns by asking questions. Not “fighting back” with punishment and/or disengagement is key, rather, parents must seek to understand why the child is reacting in this angry manner.

Children have reasons for being angry
In my own experience as a psychologist, I have uncovered specific reasons that drove children to furious outbursts when they were asked to stop gaming. One child attributed their anger to the feeling of pressure they felt to redeem enough coins in a game to obtain a converted item, only to be dismayed when they did not get the item. Another was focused on getting the equal amount of game time as their sibling, who they perceived as unfairly having more than them.

Through the process of holding, we discover the underlying cause of the anger and understand that children have reasons for their outbursts. These reasons, whatever they may be and how juvenile they may seem to us, are very real to the child. As your child matures and develops a wider awareness of the world, holding helps them understand, articulate, and manage their anger.

The Containing Strategy
Containing begins with the notion that children project overpowering, distressing emotions on to their parents. If the parent can manage and then reflect that difficult emotion in a more manageable form back to the child, the child can contain the emotion and develop a sense of wellbeing.

A very simple example of containing is with a child who has fallen down. The child begins to cry, scared by the fall and perhaps feeling a little bumped up. Their parent picks them up, dusts them off, and asks calmly, “Did you fall down? Was it scary? It was a little scary. Here we go, up again!”. The parent has taken on the experience, reframed it and reflected it back in a much more manageable form.

It is not help or advice
Guiding your child to experience instances where their emotions are contained and returned in a safe manner will increase their capacity to think, use their emotions as a source of reflection, and better cope with experiencing fury in the future. Containment does not involve providing aid in the form of help or advice, or making the situation go away.

Coming back to our gaming scenario, you could say, “You are angry because you feel that the time spent playing the game has been wasted as you did not get the item you want. You feel angry at your lack of control against the person who developed the game. I understand that you are getting angry at me because at least I am here, and I can react to your anger, unlike the person who created the game.”

Having been introduced to the ideas of holding and containing, try using them the next time your child has an angry outburst. Learn more about why they are angry, and then help them reframe and understand their own feelings.

If you need help learning more about how to handle your child’s anger, contact the BFDC. We can help.