It was the deer in headlights expression on my daughter’s face that I noticed first. Next, it was the angry finger pointing of a girl I did not know that made me think, “I better go see what park mishap is occurring.” By the time I stood next to the two girls, the other girl had put her finger away but explained to me with great feeling that my daughter had climbed up on the tire swing, even though she had been saving it for her little brother.

While her defense of her little brother was admirable (boy, do I wish my big brother would have stood up for me like that when we were kids!), it was also obvious that her toddler brother—sliding down the kiddie slide with his mother at the other end of the playground—had not been maliciously excluded by my daughter.

The conflict ended moments after I approached. The other girl said her peace, then ran off to find her own mother, who was blissfully unaware of the entire incident. My daughter, on the other hand, was still standing there in the state of bewilderment I first witnessed from 20 feet away.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t mean to take her brother’s place on the swing. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” Then, in the comfort of my arms, she let her guard down and began to cry. Her tears were a mixture of fear at the display of anger, embarrassment at having been scolded by a peer, and sadness at thinking she was not allowed on her favorite tire swing. Most of all, though, her tears were about her confusion over how to respond to someone who was expressing so much anger toward her.

Does your child know what to do when it comes to receiving anger from others? While I purposefully put a lot of time and focus into teaching my daughter how to accept and assertively express her own angry feelings, it hit me during that tire swing aftermath that I really had never taught her much about being the recipient of another person’s anger. When her tears were dried and her shock wore off, I figured it was about time to teach her these three basic rules of responding to anger:

1. Listen first

  •  For some kids, their first instinct is to fight back; to match a peer’s angry words with raised voices and fierce accusations of their own. Aggressive behaviors are natural instincts, but they are also barriers to effective communication and most often cause others to escalate their anger.
  • I encouraged my daughter to avoid a war of words, but rather to start off by being a good listener. Kids who can tolerate listening to angry words keep the door open for calming, healing communication. Further, non-defensive listening is the first step toward figuring out what the problem is from the other person’s point of view.
  •  I also let my daughter know that it is helpful to listen respectfully to what a person is saying regardless of whether or not she agrees with them.
  •  The last thing I want is for my daughter to think that being a good listener means accepting someone else’s verbal abuse, however. We talked about the difference between listening openly when someone is expressing angry feelings vs. tolerating verbal aggression. No child deserves to be exposed to abusive words from anyone.

2. Avoid passive behaviors

  •  While some kids might take the “fight back” route as mentioned above, I worry that my daughter’s instincts are more toward running away from someone’s anger. Unfortunately, passive kids and confrontation-avoiders make great targets for bullies who enjoy finding victims who won’t fight back. It is important to me that I teach my daughter not to show fear or let others walk all over her in a conflict situation.
  •  In language she could understand, I explained to her that most people care more about being understood than they do about getting their own way. We talked about ways that she could verbally acknowledge that she understands someone else’s angry feelings, even without necessarily giving in or agreeing to their demands.

3. Practice Coping Skills

  • In our situation, my daughter clearly felt scared by the other girl’s expression of anger. I compared angry words to thunder, assuring her that on their own, words are nothing to be afraid of.
  •  We also talked about specific skills she needs to use in order to effectively cope the next time (and there will be a next time) a peer—or a parent—expresses angry feelings towards her. Together, we role-played self-soothing statements she can repeat in her head, such as:
    • It’s okay
    • Stay calm
    • I can deal with this
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