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My 5-year-old gets angry and frustrated in situations like:

  • losing at a board game
  • being told he is wrong about something
  • being told not to yell 'You are so fat!' at a teacher with the explanation it is not nice and the teacher knows he is fat
  • being told not to use the kind of name-calling (poop, willy) he uses with classmates when talking to our neighbour

These are all completely normal situations and as a grown-up we have the same feelings but we somehow deal with them. How do I help my son deal with them?

I'm reading the Optimistic Child, which stresses to explain failure as temporary and caused by circumstances (i.e. I failed this test because I did not practice) and not as some personal trait (i.e. I failed because I'm stupid).

However, I don't think the explanation is a problem. For example, in the first case he knows that anyone can lose at a game and he also knows he reacts disproportionately. We were reading a story the other day where one person loses a competition and gets nasty, he noted that he is also a sore loser. I quickly replied that he never behaved as nasty as the person in the story.

It's the rush of emotion that my kid has trouble handling. I am not very good at it either, when something stressful happens it throws me off for a few hours, sometimes days.

So what are good strategies to deal with negative emotions?

  • I have the same situation. Me and my son can't regulate negative emotions very well. I'm very interessted in this topic. Thanks for asking. – Korinna May 14 at 6:20
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    Can you clarify if these behaviors are modeled by any family members that are around? To my dismay my kids did things I did not approve of, only to find out me or my wife were doing those same things and we were not fully aware of it. – Adam Heeg May 15 at 16:08
  • @Adam_Heeg These are just some everyday examples of situations that lead to my kid experiencing negative emotions. My question is NOT about the behaviours that led to consequences that led to negative emotions. It is specifically what a child should do once they experience these negative emotions, how they should deal with them. I know from experience that binge-watching SF, long walks in the night and vodka are not very efficient strategies. And also not age-appropriate. – Ivana May 16 at 13:38
  • You say that you have the same problem at times. Dealing with stressful situations that is. I've had similar issues as a parent and found that working on myself was the solution, or rather i found the solution on that path. I found that when i improved myself that my children often emulate the behavior without any need for me to address the issue because they saw me change a behavior and they changed their's voluntarily. – Cody Pace May 22 at 0:30
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(please view the resources at the end)
(feel free to skip the real life examples)

EDIT 3

I do not see any corrective actions taken in your question. What I think I see you saying is that you perceive 'explaining things to him' as correction. That is not correction and it is also not a consequence.

being told not to use the kind of name-calling

being told he is wrong about something

The only other example I see concretely in your example is making excuses for his bad behavior by saying it isn't as bad as a boy in a book.

I quickly replied that he never behaved as nasty as the person in the story.

These are enabling parental behaviors. Mind you, As an adult who has made similar mistakes I understand and out of love I still slip into permissive and enabling parenting traps today with my older children. What I mean is that i'm not blaming you or shaking a finger at you. I'm empathetic to you and your situation and have walked this road.

You realize something isn't connecting with your little boy and that is a good thing. I hope you see that you have a misunderstanding of consequences and corrective actions and that the material in this post can help you adjust your parenting style.

So, to clarify once again the answer to your core question:

So what are good strategies to deal with negative emotions?

You must start using immediate and known consequences which CHANGE HIS WORLD as noted in the linked material below. If his bad behavior does not cause stress on him he will not change.

END EDIT 3

In the most simple terms you have to break in kids. For issues dealing with aggression it is advised to enforce consistent non-physical consequences.

Be Consistent

As a parent you must be consistent, irregardless of the social situation. As an example, there were many times my wife and I alone tried to do grocery shopping and because a child was acting out we had to leave our cart and go home to deal with the behavior immediately. It sucked, but the kids learned rather quickly that we meant business. And what a great lesson when the kid wants their favorite cereal and we don't have it because we couldn't do our shopping!

Be Non-Physical

Aggression issues cannot be solved by aggression. Sure, you can be stronger and meaner than your kid and gain a temporary upper hand until they grow up and leave. But as a parent our goal is to make them better people, not make them pretend to be better. All Pro dad has this list of ideas, I have not gone through and evaluated them all.

Use Consequences

Basically this means that the child must not like what you're doing. There is a balance and art to finding how to put pressure on your kids. First, be steady, don't flip flop around. Most of the time they will pretend your consequence doesn't bother them, but it does. However, if you see that a consequence has stopped being effective, then adjust. I have regularly told my kids to stop a behavior (this is older kids, 7 to 14 at the time of this writing) to have them ask, "Or what?". I calmly reply

I don't know what, but I will figure out something that you won't like, and I'll make sure it works.

Because of things like the Grocery Store and many other examples (I'll add a few below) they know I'm serious - and I know I'm serious. They like to test me and I don't mind that.

Adults know that we could accomplish nothing without self discipline. It is vitally important that we carefully, and at their ability to grow (always slower than we want) help our children learn self discipline. Don't be slack, but also take your time.

Two Real Life Examples(only for those interested)
My middle child almost ruined our family with how demanding, angry, and intense she was. The amount of time and effort she demanded emotional control of our lives was too much to bear. I kid you not. The funny thing is that there is nothing wrong with her, it was just her personality and the difficulty of being a kid.

Story One, one time she was sleeping over at a family members house and didn't get her way and refused to go back to bed. My wife and I were supposed to be leaving at 3am for a surgery i believe. So, at 11 pm we drove to the family members house since they were unable to handle the situation and we went in like marine commando's. Nearly no talking to her, no discussion. We did say, you're coming home, and she refused. We took her by force and left the home. While she screamed at us one parent held her to keep her safe in the backseat while the other drove. She screamed bloody murder as we went into our home from the car - it is a miracle the cops were not called. In the home she tried to bite and had to be restrained. At some point I sensed she had some control and finally I yelled at her - "go ahead, bite your dad and make him bleed! Make your dad bleed and bite him" and I shoved my arm in her mouth. Boy was I worried, but I was at my wits end. Luckily I was right, the moment broke through her freak out and she did not bite me as she was trying to do for 20 min prior. It took about 15 more minutes to actually get her to breathe normal and speak to me.

We never punished her over this - the experience was punishment enough and natural consequences ensued, like not being allowed to spend the night anywhere for a couple years since we simply couldn't trust her. That was probably 4 years ago and she is truly an amazing child and I truly believe she will be the most successful of my kids from a work/social impact standpoint.

Story Two - Same kid was talking back about something no one can remember (it was something she was fixated on that really didn't matter, you know how kids are). It was Halloween and she had her candy. I think my wife (i thought ill advised) threatened if she didn't stop her behavior her candy would be thrown out. Well, after that the scene was set. The child kept on, and sure enough on the spot she had her candy dumped into the trash in front of her eyes. She didn't take it well, and had to go to timeout.

Multiple times a year she (sometimes even smiling) asks us if we remember the time we had to throw out her candy because of how she was acting. She knows she was wrong, and in some way she wears that incident as a badge of honor today. I don't fully understand the badge of honor part, but I think it is because she knows she matured and she became a better person.

Doxology - Over comer
You see, most of the time kids know we are right, but they simply cannot summon the self-discipline to handle situations. It is our job to lovingly discipline them so as they grow up they can achieve their life dreams. Nothing is possible without discipline. Jails are full of people who have no control over their fear and anger. However, almost all of us are born with the ability to overcome difficulty in life. A parent can best serve their children by guiding them forward into a tough world of struggles that they learn to emotionally and psychologically over come.

EDIT More On Consequences

A quick addendum on consequences, this professional resource says a lot of what I think is important.

What are consequences? Consequences are the positive or negative results of behavior. Everything you do in reaction to your children’s behavior is a consequence. However, consequences are more than imposing consequences on children when they do something wrong; for example, turning the television off when siblings fight about which program to watch.

Consequences have a larger purpose, which is helping children realize that their behavior has an impact, and they should allow children the opportunity to think about what they did. Ultimately, you want to help your children realize that their behavior has consequences and that they need to consider possible consequences before they act.

Consequences don't have a primary focus on 'conversation' or 'understanding' as perhaps an adult at work might have to speak to HR about something. Consequences do require conversation and understanding over time, but don't confuse the two. Consequences are natural or imposed and have a direct impact on the child. After the consequence plays out, then a conversation and understanding can happen and be useful and successful.

From the same resource

Your imposing consequences just stops the activity so you can point out the impact of the behavior and what better options your child can pursue.

The conversation doesn't stop the activity, the consequence stops the activity and then enables the ensuing conversation which creates an opportunity for growth.

  1. Undesired Behavior
  2. Consequence
  3. Cool down
  4. Conversation

Further Resources
As an experienced parent at least some if not all of the material below is field tested and approved.

2 minute video well worth every parents time
Creative Consequences (linked above also)
5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Children
Teach your kids they are tougher than they think
College level psychology discussion on temper tantrums Consequences for Preschoolers (linked above)

  • This is really some great advice in general, but what i'm looking for with this question is really how to help him deal with anger when i see he is trying to. So i see he is trying to not misbehave but it is also bothering him a lot. – Ivana May 14 at 20:26
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    @Ivana your post contains "he reacts disproportionately." and "calling a teacher fat". In both this circumstances you need immediate and known consequences. One of many ideas in my post is that he actually can control himself if you push him too. Consequences are how you help him to control himself. That skill then grows and he learns to do it himself, which is obviously required for adulthood. If he doesn't learn he can, or doesn't exercise that skill, then he won't ever learn to 'deal with it' because he never had to. – Adam Heeg May 14 at 21:38
  • @Adam_Heeg My question starts with everyday examples of a kid being corrected so he has many opportunities to deal with it. What he lacks is help in dealing with it. That is the question: how specifically to deal with it and control his emotions. – Ivana May 16 at 9:31
  • @Ivana please see my edit 3 in the post. I write it in love with hope it helps make a better home life and relationship with your boy. – Adam Heeg May 16 at 12:05
  • Your edit contains great advice but it does not address the question. – Ivana May 16 at 13:32
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I can't remember who wrote it, but there is a book called something like 'the chimp inside me', by a professor in neuroscience. It has helped my autistic son understand his behaviour. The idea is we have 3 methods of reasoning: 1.the inner chimp. This is the first to react, and does so emotionally without any thought of the consequences. 2 the computer. This is the second stage, where we compare what is going on now with similar situations in the past. 3 the logical stage. This is the last stage where we can set emotions aside and look at an issue dispassionately. If you explain the chimp stage yo your child, you can then ask them why the naughty chimp made them act that way, and it sort of takes the blame away from them personally, and helps them understand that an emotional response is normal, but not aways appropriate. It's important that they understand everyone has an inner chimp (even Mummy and Daddy), that will react emotionally, but it's important that they try to think before they let their inner chimp out. Y ou can use the chimp analogy to ask them why their naughty chmp made them act that way, and if they think that was the best way to act. It isn't easy when your child knows exactly what buttons to press to bring out your own inner chimp!

  • Would that be 'My Hidden Chimp' by Steve Peters? Looks very promising, thank you! – Ivana May 25 at 19:13
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You’ve said your son knows that anyone can lose a game and he also knows he reacts disproportionately. This indeed is a sign of good maturity at the age of five! To deal with the negative emotions, what you can do now is whenever he experiences negative emotions regarding anything or anyone, get him to immediately set positive thinking internally.

To do that you may become like a child of just five. And like two friends share their problems and experiences with each other, you, in a very casual and informal tone can let him know, “I have noticed that whenever I am having positive emotions, I experience a lot of happiness and when I am negative, I feel so miserable. I don’t want to feel miserable at all. So what do you think I should do?”

Encourage him to give you some tips and suggestions, which you can listen to carefully. And after some time, you can share with him the following 4 steps, which is the best way to deal with and overcome any mistake.

To beat one’s negative emotions through the positive, the 4 steps are:

  1. Decide within that these negative emotions are wrong. The negative emotions of anger, frustration, etc. are a weakness. But they are often mistaken as a strength. If your child grows with such mistaken belief, he could become even more miserable, which we don’t want. Hence, changing the opinion is very important. His current actions are an outcome of his past opinions. But now, inspire him to make this simple new decision and remind him to reiterate the decision every day. When the opinion gets changed in favour of positive, his emotions too will start moving in that direction.

  2. Analyze the benefits of positive emotions vis-a-vis the disadvantages of negative emotions. Keep feeding into your child what are the disadvantages of negative reactions and advantages of the positive. For example: When the negative emotions arise inside us, • We waste a lot of time. • We never feel peace of mind. • It stops us from being happy. • We always remain angry and frustrated. • We hurt people. • We cause great damage to our relationships • Over time, we become very lonely. And on the other hand, when we cultivate positivity • It makes us a confident person. • People respect such a person. • We experience peace within. • Our relationships with people harmonize. • We feel happy. • We remain healthy, etc.

  3. Seek forgiveness from God for whatever negative emotions arise Every day before going to sleep, make your son recall where all negative emotions arose within him. And teach him to confess them before God by saying, “Oh God. This was my mistake. Please forgive me. And give me strength to not do this mistake again.” Encourage your son to do this prayer daily, before going to bed.

  4. Never protect your mistake. One often gets defensive of his actions or negative emotions to people outside, even when internally he knows that it is his mistake. Such protection of mistake will only extend the mistake further. Therefore, help your son maintain his virtue of realizing his mistake that ‘he reacts disproportionately’ and at the same time acknowledging it too, until he overcomes it.

These 4 steps are very effective to overcome any mistake. Thus, inspire your son to gradually follow these 4 steps, the best way being, you start following the 4 steps yourself. Children learn by watching their parents. Since you say you too are having a similar problem, it will only help you! And it will let him see through his own eyes how reacting positively can change even bad things to good whereas by reacting negatively, we ruin our things, our relationships, our happiness and our peace of mind too.

We all have lot of inner strength. If we choose to react positively, it will happen in course of time. Until then, pray to God to give your child the correct understanding and steer him onto the right path. And you daily resolve, “May I never hurt anyone through my mind, body or speech.”

An effort in this direction will certainly help your child overcome all negativity. And it is best done at this age!

  • I completely thoroughly disagree that (negative) emotions are “wrong.” Everyone has emotions, it’s how we behave under the influence of them that might not be appropriate or, “wrong,” but not the emotions themselves. To tell a child he is wrong to feel anger, sadness, fear, or frustration, causes him to be ashamed of them, and of himself for feeling these feelings that are entirely involuntary. Shame is so damaging. I DO agree that working to resolve these emotions is the way to go but please don’t tell a kid it’s wrong to feel. – Jax Jun 24 at 20:39
  • Here, we are very well accepting the kid's emotions and feelings and acknowledging them very well. Only after that we can show the kid a way to come out of it in the 4 steps mentioned above. Kindly note that before explaining the 4 steps to the kid, we are discussing with him as a friend the pros and cons of positive v/s negative emotions and its effects in the first 2 paras.We are not just saying it is wrong to have negative emotions but explaining how it impacts his growth along with the way to come out of it. – Neil Dey Jun 25 at 7:40

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