Ministry of Education, Guyana

“It’s Okay to Get Mad”: Helping Kids Express Anger Without Hitting or Biting

I remember the first bite. My kids had just entered a blissful stage where they could play together for stretches of time. I was quietly congratulating myself when I heard a 2-year-old’s howl of anger followed by a 4-year-old’s shriek of pain. The older sister ran over to show off the fresh teeth marks on her arm.

The cause? She had thrown her brother’s beloved stuffed tiger across the room.

Kicking, hitting, biting, throwing. It can be upsetting when our kids act out physically. It’s also normal. Little kids may feel angry, afraid or frustrated, but have limited language — so they often use their bodies to express themselves. Sometimes this looks like stomping feet or falling to the floor in the check-out aisle. Sometimes that looks like running away and hiding. And sometimes that looks like biting your sister when she takes away your favorite toy.

A big part of parenting is helping our kids understand their emotions and then respond in a way that does not hurt themselves or others.

It’s Okay To Get Mad
Everyone gets mad, sad and scared sometimes and that’s an important message for kids to hear! It’s absolutely okay to feel what you feel. It is not okay to hurt other people. That language of “okay” and “not okay” is easy for kids to understand. It’s a clear, teaching message that doesn’t shame them or belittle them when they do make mistakes. For example:

  • It’s okay to be mad that your tower fell down; it’s not okay to throw blocks.
  • It’s okay that you are frustrated at your brother; it’s not okay to hit him.
  • It’s okay to be sad that you have to leave the park; it’s not okay to run away from me.

As the Daniel Tiger strategy song goes: “Stop, stop, stop. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s not, not, not ok to hurt someone.”

Offer Healthy Alternatives
A brilliant preschool teacher once told me that instead of saying “Don’t run in the hall,” she tells kids to “Walk with your quiet mouse feet” or “Let’s do our sneaky tip-toe all the way to the lunchroom.” Instead of simply giving them a “don’t,” she gives them an appealing alternative!

If we just tell kids to “stop hitting” it doesn’t give them anything to do with that big uncomfortable feeling in their chest. Instead, we need to equip them with healthy alternatives. With time and practice, we can teach them tools such as:

  • Using their words to share how they feel
  • Asking a grown up for help when they don’t know what to do
  • Using deep breathing exercises to calm down their body
  • Building their “patience” muscles by singing, counting or imagining while they wait their turn

One helpful resource for kids and parents are the Daniel Tiger “strategy songs” which offer short, memorable actions that kids can take when they encounter a challenging situation. Here are a few that we frequently sing at our house (you can quickly pull up all these songs and more in the Daniel Tiger for Parents app):

Feeling Mad: When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.

Calming Down: Give a squeeze, nice and slow. Take a deep breath and let it go.

Feeling Frustrated: When you are feeling frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.

Saying “I’m Sorry”: Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then how can I help.

Use Your Words: Use your words and say how you feel.

Feeling Disappointed: When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.

Waiting: When you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything.

Promote Empathy
When kids do bite, hit or kick someone, it’s a good opportunity to help them build their empathy muscles. Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of another person. We imagine how someone else is feeling and then respond in a caring manner. After feelings have calmed down, an empathy-based conversation might sound something like this:

“Remember this morning when you got mad and kicked your friend. Has anyone ever kicked you? How did it feel? How do you think your friend felt? What can you do next time you get mad?”

As parents, we can practice empathy by paying attention to the factors that play into kids’ aggressive responses: Are they hungry? Tired? Overstimulated? Jealous of a friend’s new toy? Are they responding out of fear? Frustration? A misguided attempt at humor?

When we respond to our kids’ feelings and needs — even as we firmly and clearly stop a hurtful behavior — we remind them that they are seen, that they are loved, and that we care enough to teach them how to care for others.


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