Question: I have a question about how to help my 5-year old daughter express and process her anger. (Submitted by the author of the blog goodfountain, who writes beautifully about parenting her two young daughters, one of whom has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder)
Here’s an example of what happened today. My daughter Charlotte was wearing her Belle dress. As I usually do, I gave her a plan: we’re going to eat breakfast, play with toys, watch show, get dressed, go to Target. However, when we got to the ‘get dressed’ part of our morning, she said, “Not now, I’m still playing.” This went on all morning. I even rearranged the plan to give her more time and wrote the plan down; we read it together and she agreed to it. Still no deal. Charlotte would not get dressed. Not arguing with me, just ignoring me. She told me she didn’t want to go to Target because she didn’t want to get dressed; I knew it was because she didn’t want to take off the Belle dress.
While going to Target was not a life-or-death situation, I don’t feel I should let Charlotte dictate what we do, and I don’t want her wearing her princess dresses in public all the time. Finally, out of frustration, I suggested that her sister and I were ready to leave and it was up to her whether to join us. At that point she had a major tantrum (she even tried to bite me!) but when she saw I meant it, she got ready to go.
This kind of anger and expression of anger is popping up more often. It’s not that I want to STOP her from being angry, but that I want her to not lose control when she IS angry.
Any tips are appreciated!!
Answer: First of all, you did such a great job of writing out the plan for your day, I love that you use that strategy with her. You were also very flexible with Charlotte in making adjustments to the plan along the way, which was fantastic. Your statement “It’s not that I want to STOP her from being angry, but that I want her to not lose control when she IS angry” is so well-said. That’s always my goal, too.
I have some strategies in mind that may help you and your daughter prepare for and cope with making transitions and handle challenging emotions in the future. In this post I’ll share ideas about some things you can do that might help; in my next post I’ll provide suggestions that can help Charlotte more directly.
In terms of that particular situation, I would recommend sitting down with Charlotte later on (when you’re both relaxed) and making a list together: in one column, list places/times she can wear a princess dress, in the other column, write down the types of places/times she cannot. Make it really concrete and put it in writing so it’s “official”. (Kids tend to respect almost anything you put in writing, especially a good reader like your daughter!) I’d also make a point of suggesting the dress to Charlotte when you see a time coming up when it would be okay to wear one (“Hey, this would be a great time for a princess dress! Do you want me to help you put one on?”), so that she feels extra supported in her desire to wear one, but you are reinforcing the concept of an appropriate time. Obviously, this strategy is situation-specific but is applicable to transitions from all sorts of preferred activities.
Also regarding the dress (or any preferred activity she is involved in that you think will be hard to transition away from when it’s time for something else) — I would be open about discussing it with her before the actual transition and I’d also try giving her some sense of control in the situation. I always recommend the Time Timers that so many therapists and teachers use. They’ve worked wonders for me (at home and school) because kids can see how much time they have left – it’s very concrete. I would say something like this: “I see that you’re wearing your beautiful Belle dress! You really love that dress and it makes you feel so good to wear it. I know you remember that ‘going to the store’ is one of those times when we wear our regular clothes, and so pretty soon you’ll need to get changed. You can decide how many minutes are left before you change, as long as it’s in the next half hour – let’s set the timer so we can see how much time you have left to wear it, and when the red is all gone I’ll help you change.” Or: “I’m sure you remember that we can’t wear a Belle dress to Target but I don’t mind if you wear one piece of your princess jewelry to the store as long as you take really good care of it.”
A strategy that works well for my own 5-year old is to let him take something in the car that he doesn’t want to part with – he’s been surprisingly good about leaving an object in the car so it won’t get lost as long as he knows he can hold it when we get back to the car after our errand or visit. I’d also consider letting a child wear a backpack that contains a favorite dress or toy if it’s small enough. At work I have a Polaroid camera and when a child doesn’t want to leave something behind when it’s time to go home, I take an instant photo of it for them to carry out with them.
It really comes down to finding a way to show your respect for what they are feeling while making your limits really clear: we don’t wear the dress in Target.
[Stay tuned! The next post will focus on strategies Charlotte’s mom can employ to help her daughter learn to regulate her emotions better when she does become upset.]