Every day, in child-care centers all over America, caregivers invoke this hallowed phrase when 3- and 4-year-olds are about to clobber one another.

To some adults, the phrase is the centerpiece of “emotional literacy” — teaching a child to identify his feelings and talk about them rather than resort to physical aggression. To other adults, the concept of verbalizing anger is unrealistic with small children.

What could “use your words” possibly mean to children of this age? The phrase is, in fact, shorthand for a fairly complex sequence of steps to learn.

1. A child must stop mid-conflict and hold back on action.

2. He must analyze the situation: “What’s going on? What am I doing or about to do?”

3. He must ask himself: “What do I want? What am I feeling?”

4. He must then express his feelings.

5. He must become calm enough to listen.

6. Finally, he must be ready to negotiate and find solutions.

Examples, or short lists of possibilities, may help coach children younger than 3 who are still mastering the ability to express themselves with words.

Questions to ask a child who is angry:

1. What’s going on?

Are you angry with someone?

Are you having trouble sharing or taking turns?

Is it that you don’t want to do something?

2. How does the situation feel to you?

Unfair?

Sad?

Unbearable, as though you’re about to explode?

3. What can you do?

If you hit or kick your friend, how will she feel?

If you tell her what you want, will she let you have it?

If she won’t, could you offer to share it or trade for something she wants?

PREVENTION

Anger can’t always be prevented, nor should it be. Anger is an inevitable emotion, even a protective one when it helps us recognize a problem that we need to try to solve. Anger is sometimes assumed to be dangerous and to be suppressed at all costs. This attitude can make children more frightened of such feelings, and more alone when they feel angry. They’re bound to feel that their anger makes them “bad,” which may make it even harder for them to manage such feelings.

Destructive ways of handling anger can be prevented. Children need help understanding their angry feelings — and accepting that these feelings must not be acted upon. They also need help to learn to experience such feelings without hurting others or themselves.

Children will learn from watching others handle strong emotions.

PARENTS’ ANGER

Parents can acknowledge when they’re angry, explain why and model ways of expressing anger that aren’t destructive. This isn’t always easy. We can’t hide our own emotions — but we might hope they’ll go unnoticed by our children. They won’t. Instead, without our explanations, children are bound to feel caught up in our angry feelings, and they may even feel responsible for them.

When our children make us angry, we should let them know — the more directly the better. Sometimes, of course, children can be so infuriating that we may try to silence ourselves to protect them from our anger. And our own anger needs to be reined in before we can figure out how to tell our children what we’re feeling and why.

Parents may feel guilty when they react to their children in anger. But children need to learn from the consequences of their actions. If we don’t raise our voices, and instead speak in sickly sweet tones, the children may continue their misbehavior — just to see what happens when we really get angry.

A child is far less likely to be damaged by a raised voice than by dishonesty or silent withdrawal. Let the child understand why you’re angry and what the limits are.

Parents sometimes say to me, “I feel so guilty when I yell at my kids. I can’t imagine you ever raised your voice at a child.” I must reassure them that of course I do. I explain that a child knows that if he behaves in infuriating ways, anger is what he’ll get.

When he’s irritating, of course my voice will sound irritated — because I am. He’ll also learn that my anger or irritation isn’t the end of the world, and that sooner or later I’ll succeed in getting myself calmed down, too.

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

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