A Playful Way to Teach Kids to Control their Anger

A friend recently sent me a link to THIS STORY by NPR about a researcher in the 1970s who noticed that the Inuit community where she was staying had very strong cultural expectations about people controlling their negative emotions (especially anger and disappointment). Although they never raised their voices to reprimand their children, all of the children grew up to have this iron self-control. With further observation, Ms. Briggs saw that the people she was staying with helped form their children’s behavior through storytelling, and helped them learn to control their own emotions through play-acting and humor.

Self-Control is a Skill!

What We Can Learn

Those of you who have read my book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love, might be noticing some similarities right around now. I also talk about using imagination, humor, and playfulness to help children learn to control their actions and their level of arousal (recovering from disappointment and being mad).

In addition to just saying “this works,” it can be helpful to look at why it works. First, we know from extensive research (that I share in my book) that children do best when the adults in their lives have high expectations paired with high warmth. The people that Ms. Briggs was with seem to be experts at this! Emotional self-regulation (calming down when we’re angry or upset) and Behavioral self-regulation (not yelling even when we feel like it) are hugely important skills that are learned in early childhood, and serve us for the rest of our lives. I can only imagine that when a person grows up in a sod hut in the Tundra as described in the article, that self-control is even more important than it is in today’s mainstream culture. But while it may not mean life-and-death for today’s kids, research shows that children’s impulse control at age four is highly correlated with future success in school, in their careers, and in their marriages.

How Self-Control Has Fallen Out of Fashion

While self-regulation is one of the most important skills learned in early childhood, our mainstream culture seems to have forgotten that. Instead, we are encouraged to raise opinionated kids who are encouraged to be “in charge” and feel free to express their feelings at all times. This is known as Permissive parenting. Unfortunately however, raising kids who able to do whatever they want while they’re young tends to lead NOT to strong, self-directed adults who will follow their dreams. Instead, it leads to adults who are used to doing what feels good, and have a hard time when things don’t go their way. Manifesting dreams requires not only vision, but the ability to stick with it and put in the work even when it’s not enjoyable. It requires self control.

How Do We Teach Self Control?

However, how do we teach children to do things they don’t feel like doing? Aggression towards children, whether physical (hitting/spanking) or emotional (yelling/punishing), damage kids and don’t tend to lead to good outcomes anyhow. Not to mention that hitting and yelling are not great ways to teach children not to hit or yell. So, how do we maintain those high expectations? Many of today’s parents who don’t want to yell or hit end up sliding into Permissive parenting because they have nothing to take the place of aggression.

This is where the Inuit culture highlighted in the NPR story can teach us some lessons. Using stories, humor, and practicing through play are such great tools to help children learn this important skill. Their stories were appropriate to their culture and their times, and people in the article laughingly shared stories from their childhoods about sea monsters stealing children to give them to other families. My book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers, offers many suggestions for today’s families to use in order to weave imagination, humor, and playfulness into their high expectations, helping children grow into their own self-control. And with self-control, those kids will grow up into adults who will know that they have what it takes to transform their dreams into reality.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. I read the article today and thought of you and how your work has shown us the way to having such fun and joy with three littles. I also thought of two stories that I believe are a reflection of this type of parenting. At the playground, a woman pulled my husband aside to tell him how KINDLY my kids had been to her 2 year old, adjusting the play so the child could participate (my kids are 4, 4 and 7). Giving the 2 year old time to adjust when needed. This kindness and responsiveness to younger children has been an unexpected gift of this type of parenting – they received it and now live it with others. And, another story of the pre-school director on my first actual meeting with her telling me what a good parent I am. Having had such limited interaction with her, I was so shocked I asked her why she thought that. She hadn’t even SEEN me interact with my children (my Mom did drop off and pick off). And her response was that because my children were calm. After 30 years, she knew. It was interesting, as they are NOT particularly calm at home. There are big emotions, and there are tantrums (at times), and their are strong wills. However, we do navigate it with respect and love. It makes a difference. And, thank you! I am cognizant that your focus is the toddler years. And, even though the basics are universal (I use some of these techniques in working with grown-ups, and they work just as well), I also realize that the next few years will have less Ms. Faith guidance. I will miss it – if you ever explore the older kids ages, please let me know! And, in the meantime, thank you for the guidance and the joy that you have given us with our toddlers and beyond.

    • Karen, thanks so much for these kind words, and for sharing your experiences. What heart warming stories! I’m so glad that my work has been a resource for you.

      As for working with older children, I don’t have any plans at the moment, but my daughter recently turned five…so in a few years I just might be moving into that area in a natural way. You never know!


  2. Alexandra K says

    I want to agree with Karen! As my kids approach the school age I am feeling lost without your guidance! Please explore the older age group as well!

    But back to the article: what made me concerned though is the story telling brings up an imaginary monster that can be frightening to children. I don’t feel very comfortable with that. Is that something you would do as well? Or is there another way you can handle that exact same situation with the water?

    • Alexandra, no, I personally would not tell stories about monsters stealing kids away if they do something dangerous! However, just like the Grimm’s fairy tales, the way children take in a tale has EVERYTHING to do with how it is delivered. In the piece, the woman was cracking up with laughter as she remembered the tale; this tells me that it wasn’t too scary and was culturally appropriate for them. That’s why I suggested that I can share some stories that are more culturally appropriate for today’s (American) culture. My stories tend to involve little woodland creatures (bunnies, chipmunks, Robins) and the worst thing that usually happens is a night alone, or a friend who won’t play with them. With an individual child, I’ll tailor it more to their interests and questions. For example, my five-year-old recently asked me what a grave is, and other questions about death. I told her a real-life story about my beloved grandmother dying, and how I sang to her as she got ready to go. It was a story of safety, and continuity, and being there for family…while also being “real” in a new way about death since she was asking probing questions. When she was three, I talked about it differently.

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