Dealing with an angry child can feel like waiting for a volcano to erupt. When anger in children is left untreated, it often finds a way of spilling out of control, even in adulthood. Untreated anger in childhood can lead to angry adolescents and angry adults:
Many people who remembered Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, spoke of someone unable to manage his anger. He was known for engaging in fights in adolescence and he would grow up to become a violent and abusive partner, and a co-worker others remembered for his violent speech. A former co-worker who told the Los Angeles Times that he had complained multiple times that Mateen was dangerous also said that he (Mateen) “was always angry…just angry at the world.”
Chris Brown is as famous for his music as he is for his serious anger management issues. His fits of rage have often resulted in physical and domestic violence, property damage and threats. It is said that he was even kicked out of an anger management program because of a violent rage while undergoing treatment, and restraining orders have been filed against him because of his behavior.
Some people nurse their anger for years before they finally act out. They feel that their anger is legitimate because they have “been wronged against”, and they are capable of dwelling on the past and “planning their revenge” for years. In 2001, Anthony Garcia was fired from a residency program in Nebraska. Almost ten years later, driven by rage, he would stab and kill several people he associated with his firing, including the 11-year-old son of one of the doctors who had fired him.
The good news is that relatively few people go around stabbing or shooting others just because of their angry feelings. They express their anger in different but equally destructive ways – road rage, violence, office rage, fights, use of abusive language, and so one. These “common expressions” of unresolved childhood anger are quite difficult for those around such people:
- Jen can go from “normal” to “raving lunatic” in two minutes flat. She’ll spew obscenities and try to destroy everyone in her path.
- Nothing Dylan does is ever his fault. He rages, screams and blames everyone else for everything that goes on in his life.
- Piper can lose her actual mind over things you wouldn’t believe.
- David will scream and abuse everyone around when something doesn’t go his way.
Several studies that have tried to understand anger-provoked behavior in adolescents and adults have found that angry people do not just wake up one day and start acting violent. Angry behavior often starts early, in childhood, and when a child does not learn to manage that anger in an appropriate manner, their rage often boils over into violence. So, what does an angry child look like?
What does anger in children look like?
- An angry child has a short fuse. They will overreact to the slightest thing.
- Angry children are frequently out of control.
- A child who is unable to deal appropriately with their anger thinks that everything is everyone else’s fault. All their troubles have nothing to do with them.
- A child struggling with anger issues is also likely to display antisocial conduct. This may include behavior such as bullying, aggressive behavior toward others, kicking or breaking things, saying cruel things and so on.
- Angry children have frequent fits of rage.
Why is your child so angry and aggressive? Understanding where children’s anger comes from
Everyone feels anger. Anger in children is a natural response when they feel like they are under threat, irrespective of whether that threat is real or imagined. To protect themselves, many angry people react aggressively. In other words, they attempt to calm their frustration, embarrassment or even humiliation by verbally or physically aggressing others.
Everyone feels anger, but everyone has a choice in how they express that anger. Gandhi and Mandela chose to transform their anger into action, but others choose to transform that anger into acts of violence and terror.
Anger is a common emotion in childhood. Anger, and anger-related behavior such as meltdowns and tantrums may reflect your child’s quest for independence, their desire to make themselves heard. But when one of the first things that comes to your mind when asked to describe your child is “angry”, then there may be a cause for concern. If your child’s anger-related behaviors occur too frequently, or are too intense, it is important to give them the support they need to help them learn to manage their behavior.
Anger is a primary emotion, meaning that it occurs as a direct consequence when your child encounters a specific cue. They need to know that anger is normal, but they can choose how they react to it. But for your child to know how to react to anger appropriately, they need you to give them the tools to help them understand difficult emotions better. Here are four easy things you can do if you are dealing with an angry child.
Four easy tips to help a child with anger issues
1) Strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence
Emotions are difficult to manage even for adults. When people who haven’t yet learned to deal with strong emotions come across emotion-provoking situations, they often react inappropriately.
Anger is one of the most common “problematic emotions”, and that is because it is a “visible” or “physical” emotion. What I mean by this is that your child’s anger is simply the “visible part” of the concealed emotions that no one sees. That is why their frustration at “always being last to finish their tasks at school” may be reflected in angry behavior. Or they will display angry behavior on Tuesdays, because it is on that day that they have swimming classes (which actually make them anxious).
If you want to help your child address anger more effectively, you must teach them first about the different emotions that lie beneath the surface – their ability to identify those emotions appropriately plays a major role in whether or not they learn to express their anger appropriately.
Strengthening your child’s emotional intelligence is about accustoming them to different emotions and helping them to identify their cues. It is also about helping them to understand how those emotions feel in their bodies.
Feelings of anger in children are accompanied with biological changes and with a surge of adrenaline. We now know that different children experience anger in different ways. When asked to draw their anger, some children highlight their faces, others their ears and others their heads or fingers. None of this matters; what does is your child’s ability to learn to recognize how anger feels in their bodies. This is particularly important because it gives them a “warning signal” when they are in anger-provoking situations. In other words, signals send a message to your child, telling them that it is “time to take action” before things spin out of control.
There are many easy and efficient ways to cultivate your child’s emotional intelligence, but you must be careful to use language that they will understand. Games and role playing are especially powerful in teaching your child about emotions and ultimately helping them learn to better express their anger. Modelling positive ways of expressing anger is also a powerful strategy to help your child cope with their anger. The good news is that there are numerous practical age-appropriate resources designed to give you the tools you need to communicate with your child about emotions using easy-to-understand language.
2) Anger and angry behavior are not the same thing
Anger is a normal human reaction, aggressive behavior and other forms of inappropriate reactions as a response to anger, are not. Everyone has a right to feel angry. But everyone is responsible for how they react to that anger.
When dealing with a child who has a hard time controlling their anger, it is important to create healthy boundaries and to be clear about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. If you accept disrespect and violence, your child will learn that disrespect and violence are acceptable outlets for expressing anger. It is important for them to know that it is okay to feel angry, but that certain behavior is not okay.
Creating healthy boundaries also means identifying your non-negotiables regarding your child’s anger-provoked behavior, letting them know about what you will not accept, and then finding appropriate consequences and consistently enforcing them if set expectations are not met.
If your child’s anger is disrupting your entire family, it may be a good idea to write “family rules” and hang them up where each family member can see them. It is important to be specific about the behavior that will not be tolerated – hurting oneself and others in any way, breaking or kicking things, etc.
Having clear expectations also means finding a discipline strategy that works for you and your child. Not all children will respond to positive time-outs, natural consequences do not work for all kids, and negative reinforcement generally does more harm than good.
3) Show your child that they are capable of dealing with their anger appropriately
The more your child feels like their anger-provoked behavior defines them, the higher the chances that they will feel like they are unable to break away from that behavior. The labels you use to describe them have a major impact on their perception of themselves.
A child who is always described as aggressive, or violent, or short-tempered comes to believe that that behavior is innate, rather than learned, and is therefore likely to continue behaving in the same way when they encounter the same anger-provoking cues. That is why it is important to mind the words you use to describe your child and to help them understand that anger is something that is separate from them, something that they can dissociate themselves from.
Positive reinforcement is one of the easiest and most effective strategies that can help an angry child learn to adopt positive reactions to anger. Praising and rewarding appropriate behavior increases the chances that that behavior will be repeated. But positive reinforcement is not about “bribing your child for good behavior”. For it to work, you must be aware of the exact steps you need to take, the pitfalls you need to avoid, how to wean your child from rewards, and what you need to do to avoid short-lived changes. This kit has all you need if you want to use positive reinforcement in a way that actually works.
4) You need your own toolbox to smoothly navigate your child’s anger zones
Dealing with an angry child is hard work. And the problem is, changing your child’s anger patterns is a long and tasking process that can leave you feeling bewildered and overwhelmed. It is not uncommon for parents who constantly have to deal with their children’s anger issues to yell frequently, use ineffective discipline techniques, and generally become as angry as their children.
What we know today about anger is that there are three major zones of anger. Dr. Mary Kurcinka likens anger in children to the traffic lights system. She says that there is a green zone of anger, an orange zone of anger and a red zone of anger. Knowing what to do, and knowing exactly what to do to help your child process their anger more appropriately, can be a life saver! The Anger Expression Management Course is filled with practical tips to help you understand and react more effectively to each of your child’s zones of anger. It will help you reflect on the right questions to understand your child’s patterns of anger and, more importantly, it walk you through the development of a personal strategy to reduce the frequency of explosive outbursts of anger in your child.
Helping your child deal with anger is about teaching them about their emotions and those of others, helping them see themselves as people who can succeed in reacting more appropriately to negative emotions, and identifying coping tools that you can both use to more easily deal with their anger. In other words, teaching your child to “curb their anger” is not the solution, they need specific age-appropriate strategies to change their entire perception of anger and to learn how to “feel angry BUT express those feelings effectively. The Anger Management Expression Bundle has all the resources you need to deal with the different aspects of your child’s anger-provoked behavior.
If your child is constantly angry, you are probably wondering whether their anger is something you should worry about. Although anger in children is normal, it may also point to something more serious and requiring professional intervention.
Here are a some of the warning signals you need to keep an eye out for to determine whether there is need for concern when dealing with angry children.
Is your child’s anger a sign of something more serious?
Tantrums and inappropriate behavior such as hitting, biting or aggression are common in children under age six and often occur because your child is yet to cultivate their emotional intelligence. But it is not always easy to know where to draw the line between “normal” and “not normal” expressions of anger in your child. In other words, it is not uncommon to wonder whether your child’s anger is “normal”, and why they are so angry and aggressive all the time.
That said, anger is a core emotion, which means that it is one of the most common emotions that children are likely to experience. It also means that you are not alone. We now know that quite a few children struggle with anger issues, but most of these issues are related to their inability to express their emotions in an appropriate manner.
A study led by Professor Wakschlag found that while anger and inappropriate expressions of anger were common in children under age six, some expressions of anger were the sign of a problem requiring professional intervention. The researchers analyzed the behavior of 1, 490 preschoolers. They found that there is cause for concern if your child displays certain types of behavior several times a week.
According to several scientific studies, here are a few things you should pay attention to if you are worried about how your child manages anger:
- Duration of your child’s anger-provoked behavior: Short-lived expressions of anger are normal, but when your child continues to act angry about events that happened hours or even days ago, then that could mean that they need help to process their emotions. Also, if they always seem to react in the same way (angry) to most situations, then they need help to learn to express their anger more effectively.
2) Intensity of your child’s anger-related behavior: If your child reactions are often disproportionate to most situations, then they need help to cope with anger. Disproportionate reactions may look like: panic attacks despite the absence of threatening situations, intense clinginess, intense reactions, violent outbursts “out of nowhere”, and so on.
3) Harmful behavior: Your child’s harmful anger-provoked behavior toward themselves or others is always cause for concern. This may include behavior such as head banging, bruising, scratching the skin, biting, hitting, kicking, breaking things, and general aggressive behavior.
4) Developmentally inappropriate behavior may be a sign that your child needs help managing anger: Anger issues and angry outbursts are common in children, but they decrease in frequency and intensity as your child grows older and learns to better understand and cope with difficult emotions.
As children develop new skills as they grow older, they tend to better manage difficult situations that sparked their anger in the past. If your child is still expressing their anger as they did ever since they were little, this may be a sign that they are lacking the skills to help them deal with anger. Anger issues are also common among children struggling with conditions such as ADHD, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
5) The context in which your child’s anger-provoked behavior occurs may be a sign of the existence of anger issues. Many teachers would be surprised to learn that the “calm kids” they have in school are actually “angry tornados” at home. The thing is, children behave worse in the places where they feel safest. This means that your child may need help managing anger if they are angry all the time and everywhere (school, extracurricular activities, with friends, with siblings, etc.) and if their behavior is disruptive to your family life.
6) Regression. A child’s regression often sparks worry, and while it is a relatively common occurrence, intense and frequent expressions of anger coupled with regression may be a sign that your child needs support to overcome their anger issues. Some of the habits you may notice may include disrupted eating and sleeping habits, taking up habits that had been abandoned in the past (bed wetting, thumb sucking, etc.), the onset of new behavior such as separation anxiety and so on.
Professor Wakschlag and colleagues developed a list that can help you determine, based on the frequency of certain behavior, whether you should worry about your child. Here is a FREE PRINTABLE COPY based on the study to help you better analyze your child’s anger-provoked behavior.
There is no need to panic if you have noticed any of these behavioral traits in your child. If they are struggling with anger issues, age-appropriate resources can give you the tools you need to change the behavior of even the most “difficult” kids.