Six helpful ways to manage children's emotions

Look out for situations that are likely to make tempers flare, so you can limit the damage before sentiments climb sky-high

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This week I called time on stomping and yelling, tired of trying to ­referee over-raised voices or talking to closed doors. It wasn't always like this. My almost-nine-year-old daughter has never been shy of expressing her opinion, but these days she often skips courtesy and reason, and opts to go directly to rage.

Like most parents, her dad and I are also guilty of ­shouting in anger and ­frustration when our patience suddenly runs short, despite knowing the importance of leading by example. Apologies for emotional outpourings then follow, but it seems heartfelt regret is not enough to change all of our bad behaviour.

Seeking a solution, I threw down the gauntlet of a family challenge: everyone had to try not to shout for the next seven days, taking a timeout whenever their anger began to bubble over before returning to discuss issues more calmly. What could possibly go wrong?

With hindsight, the challenge was overly ambitious – it was a mere 24 hours before tensions boiled over again – but the experience left me all the more determined to find new ways to help us all to control our emotions. Here are some.

Praise, don’t punish

Children who are punished for flying into a rage are not discouraged from feeling angry, but taught to suppress their emotions. According to research, it’s far better to praise instances of good behaviour in pre-teens and ­encourage ­social behaviour, such as being respectful of others’ feelings and making amends, which reduces angry ­confrontations. In the same way that ­teachers let students accrue “­golden time”, ­converting good ­behaviour in class into ­minutes of free time or play at the end of a day, keep a tally of constructive behaviour at home with a rewards jar. Every time your child works a problem out with words rather than anger, add a token to help fill it, then let your kid choose their prize; preferably a fun date with mum or dad, rather than pocket money or a new toy.

Recognise the signs

Look out for situations that are likely to make tempers flare – when toys are borrowed or homework has to be done at the weekend, for example. Then there are the physical signs when anger begins to mount: when my daughters square up in an argument, their jaws clench, nostrils flare and eyes widen. You can limit the damage by spotting fraught situations and reactions before emotions climb sky-high.

Once a child enters what authors Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson call the "red zone", they've lost their capacity to think their actions through, and discipline at this juncture is pointless. In their useful book The Yes Brain Child: Help Your Child Be More Resilient, Independent and Creative, Siegel and Payne Bryson recommend helping kids practise slow breathing or counting to 10 to help them step back from the edge of their red zone.

Get back to the green zone

For Siegel and Payne Bryson, the most effective way to get kids to calm down is to “reconnect” with a child who is out of control. “Just as we would if our child were physically hurt, we want to comfort our child when she is emotionally hurting.” Offer empathy and support, the authors counsel, before talking about better ways to resolve difficult situations. “This is where we set limits that help our children feel safe and hold them accountable for their behaviour, including making things right.”

What goes around comes around

Parents can encourage an ­atmosphere of respect by being careful about how they speak about family, friends and strangers. Avoid put-downs and praise effort as much as success on the sports field, for example, to show that everyone deserves respect. Giving money as a family to charities that help people in difficulty is another positive way to underscore this message.

Little things add up

My two daughters are prone to becoming hangry. Making sure there is enough food in small stomachs in the ­morning and late afternoon to ward off tantrums has become a survival reflex. As for me, much like a toddler, being tired is particularly toxic and I have an alarm to remind me to turn in at a decent hour to give me more patience and ­resilience the following day.

Do they even know the cause?

In kids of all ages, feelings such as anxiety can find ­triggers in everyday ­frustrations, making red mist descend as if out of nowhere. It takes patience and time to unpick the worry that’s ­playing havoc with your child’s emotional control. The answer is to take time listening (as opposed to talking) to kids about their lives and concerns to gain an insight on what’s really going on and provide reassurances. Cuddles at bedtime when your child is feeling warm and safe is often a good moment to let them take the lead and talk it out.