Anger and emotional outbursts during childhood are normal, and if met with appropriate boundaries and expectations from the caregiver, the child will eventually learn to manage these difficult emotions.
This article covers some of the key questions to ask if you have a child who struggles with anger: What triggers the feeling of anger (what types of things happen before the outburst)? What things can be done to help you calm down? What could you do instead of acting out?
Anger is an emotion that we all feel from time to time, and our children are no different. There are many ways that anger can be expressed, and during the toddler and early childhood years (age 2 – 7), the feeling commonly results in the child expressing aggression (hitting or throwing toys) or emotional outbursts (yelling). This is normal behaviour, and if met with appropriate boundaries and expectations from the caregiver, the child will begin to learn to manage these difficult emotions.
At times, the emotional outbursts and aggression may continue beyond 7 years of age. When this occurs, it can be very distressing for parents. In fact, one of the most common calls that the Parent Helpline receives is from parents overwhelmed by how to deal with the anger and defiance displayed by their 7-year-old. The caller normally reports that their child is challenging parental instructions, being defiant and uncooperative, and having angry outbursts. They want to know whether this is normal behaviour and what they can do about it?
Testing out boundaries and rules is normal behaviour during middle childhood. By this age, children are often becoming better at controlling some of their emotions and outbursts, but they may still need help with the more difficult emotions like anger.
For more information on what to expect at this age see the Ages and Stages section.
When anger and aggression occur in older children, it needs to be considered a sign of distress (not naughtiness). Something in their world is causing them to feel this way (perhaps they are experiencing fear, disappointment, rejection or anxiety) and this is leading to pent up frustration.
Without the necessary skills to process and react to these negative feelings, the child will instead misbehave and act out. In these times of distress, it is important to see your child as “needing help” – rather than being “naughty”.
It’s important to not punish or shame the child for having these feelings or believe that you have done something wrong as a parent because you have a child with anger problems. Rather, focus on the following questions and make an action plan with your child that includes these three things:
- What triggers the feeling of anger (what types of things happen before the outburst)?
- What things can be done to help you calm down?
- What could you do instead of acting out?
Parent Help is happy to help you with this process – our telephone support workers receive many calls about this topic every week on our free Helpline 0800 568 856.
Below are some general strategies that we recommend for dealing with defiance, anger and aggression in children:
Set clear age-appropriate boundaries: To begin it’s important that the child understands what the family rules are and that parents are consistent when enforcing these rules. Start by discussing the situation with your child when you are both calm; tell them about the behaviour that you are unhappy with (e.g. hitting) and explain that it’s ok to feel anger, but that you will not let them hurt anyone.
What to do when they break the rules: If you want to use consequences for not following the rules (e.g. taking away TV time), it is important that you wait until the child has calmed down before discussing this with them. The reason for this is that when someone is experiencing an emotion, such as anger, the brain is unable to think rationally, and memory is compromised. This means it’s necessary to wait until everyone is feeling calm before communicating about what went wrong.
It’s a good idea to have a conversation that makes it clear that the behaviour is the problem (e.g. the hitting) not the emotion (anger). It is not necessary to have a “consequence” for misbehaviour, but it is important to talk the problem through and come up with a plan for what to do next time.
Teach them anger management tools: Brainstorm what will happen next time they feel angry and come up with alternative ways to handle the emotion (e.g. ask them to tell you how they are feeling or write down their feelings, use breathing or mindfulness exercises, get them to make a joke to break the tension, engage in a physical activity or sport to release the pent-up energy and lift their mood).
Talk to your local library about resources for teaching anger-management to children.
Focus on praise rather than punishment: In order to turn the tide on a problem behaviour, it may be necessary to ignore minor instances of the behaviour. Say for example, if your child gets angry and yells “I hate you”, rather than telling them off you could just look unphased and say, “You must be feeling really angry to say something like that”.
As well as ignoring misbehaviour, try and look for opportunities to praise your child and give constructive feedback; instead of saying “Don’t talk to me like that!” you could say “I really appreciate it when you talk kindly to me!”
Model appropriate ways to deal with anger/frustration: The next time you experience a frustration (like spilling the milk or someone talking rudely to you), show your child how to deal with these feelings by modelling appropriate responses. Show them that it’s no big deal to make mistakes or experience problems and that when you are feeling frustrated you have strategies to deal those feelings (maybe walking away or taking some deep breaths).
If you feel that you are unable to remain calm when under stress, consider seeing a counsellor – many parents find it extremely helpful.
DO NOT use physical punishment: When a child has anger management problems and acts out aggressively, the parent may feel justified using similar force to restrain and punish them for the behaviour. However, this will backfire and lead to even more anger and aggression. The best way to respond to an angry child is with empathy, warmth and kindness; “You seem very frustrated right now, how can I help? Would you like me to sit with you until you feel calmer?”
If you are unable to respond as such (maybe because your child feeling angry is making you feel angry), then the next best thing is to ignore the behaviour all together and take yourself away from them until you feel calmer.
Parent Help Line
If you have found this information useful and would like to talk with one of our trained telephone support workers, give our free Parent Helpline a call on 0800 568 856. We are here to talk about any of your parenting concerns. We receive calls about all age groups – from babies to adolescents – and no issue is too big or small.