When Children Become Angry
Have you ever wished that your kids came with an instruction manual? Wouldn’t it be nice if, at birth, they came with a slip of paper telling you how to do everything, from change their diaper to change their attitude? This “instruction manual” could tell you how to get them to eat green beans, how to tell if a friend is a bad influence, how to give them the drive and determination to succeed and what to do when they get angry.
From babies to adolescents to teens and into adulthood all of us get angry sometimes. But this can be hard for a parent, and sometimes you might not know what to do. While we can’t give you all the answers to deal with your angry kids (because there are as many reasons for anger as there are solutions), we can provide encouragement, and help you make some initial steps toward understanding that can lead to hope and healing.
I Need, I Want: Infant and Toddler Anger
Anger can be a normal, and necessary part of your child’s development. He’s trying to express needs, trying to control his environment, and trying to become independent. He’s also trying your nerves!
Several years ago, one of my girlfriends asked if I would watch her two-month old son, Josiah, while she had a short date with her husband. I happily consented. She assured me, “I’ll be back in time to feed the baby.” I nodded and settled in to rock her sweet bundle.
Josiah and I had a great time together until the clock ticked past feeding time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t equipped to meet the need, so there was absolutely nothing I could do. Instead I gently whispered, “Oh baby, it’s going to be okay. You’re hungry, huh? Your momma will be home soon.” Of course, even my best attempts at consolation weren’t enough because Josiah wanted food, not verbal encouragement.
At first, his cries started out as whimpers that rose from his throat. By the time his mother arrived a short time later, his angry screams originated from somewhere down inside his toes.
Because Josiah, like every infant, was very sensitive to unmet needs, his distress escalated quickly and he responded the way God designed — with strong emotion.
Infants become angry to express needs
In his book, When Kids Are Mad, Not Bad, Henry A. Paul , M.D. describes the kind of anger that Josiah exhibited as developmental anger — anger that aids infants in getting their basic needs met.
Can you imagine what would happen if Josiah couldn’t cry, scream, or become angry? Naturally, his mom would never know when to change his diaper, feed him, or put him to sleep. Anger is critical to help babies communicate with the world.
If your infant expresses developmental anger, remember it’s normal and that you shouldn’t take it personally. Of course, sometimes you might feel like pulling your hair out, but the best thing to do is remain calm, take a deep breath and ask yourself if your baby is hungry, uncomfortable, too hot or cold, over stimulated, feeling isolated, experiencing an upset stomach or dirty diaper or if he just needs to be held.
There are times when I’m exhausted and get cranky, too. No one knows when this happens, because as an adult, I’ve developed the ability to master my moods. Underneath, however, I may be screaming, “I’m mad right now!” It’s no different from infants, only they haven’t developed the necessary skills to monitor how they feel or understand their responses. That’s why when they want something, there’s no question about it.
If you’re frustrated, take heart! Your infant’s anger is a tool to help him learn to master his environment. From the time he’s an infant, you’ll need a positive attitude because he’ll experience anger when he’s a toddler too.
Anger in toddlers can also be developmental
After Joshua turned two, I wonder how many times his mother picked up toys he repeatedly threw on the ground, listened to him tell her “No!” and watched him throw temper tantrums? If you’re the parent of a toddler, you can probably relate.
From 18 months to four years it’s normal for a child to begin to exert his independence so there will be times when he gets angry.
Think back to the last time you really wanted to do something and someone said that you couldn’t. Did you get angry? Imagine how a toddler must feel when he is curious about many things, wants to test drive the world, thinks he can, but is told he can’t. He sees you, his sister and the family dog doing what he wants to do and yet he is told “no.” Add his limited verbal communication skills to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
During college, I watched a video in my psychology class which showed that a toddler can understand hundreds of words before she can speak. Can you imagine living on a planet in which you can understand numerous words and gestures and yet you can’t verbally respond?
Rather than seeing your toddler’s anger as negative, or taking it personally, you can view it as a sign of growth. In his book, Dr.Paul also writes:
“Parents often feel consternation about their child’s anger. They think they have to solve the child’s problem immediately, if not sooner. This kind of unrealistic demand on oneself can cause a parent to panic when confronted with an angry child and to become very angry at oneself as well. He feels the child’s anger is his failure.”
Again, remember that it isn’t your fault and it’s normal. It’s a part of your child learning to master his world. So what can you do to help your toddler manage her angry outbursts?
Always be prepared
During elementary school teacher training I learned that the best defense against discipline problems is preparation. It’s the same way with lessening your toddler’s outbursts.
Create an environment to support your child’s curiosity and energy level. This means running outside, visiting a nearby jungle-gym, keeping toddler toys available, as well as toys for travel, providing a “quiet bag” with crayons, snacks or his favorite cuddly toy. Most of all, be an engaged, not lazy, parent. This means that when he wants to go outside to the sandbox, go with him. Otherwise, you’re asking for disaster.
Okay, so what if you are always prepared and your child still becomes angry? What steps should you take?
Remove your child from immediate physical danger
Naturally, if your child is throwing a tantrum and he is in physical danger or going to hurt someone else, you might need to exert physical control and remove him to a new environment. The younger he is, the more you may need to intervene.
Take a time-out
Create a place for your child to take a time out. Rather than leave him, (unless he is mad at you and needs time away from you) stay with him while he is cooling off. While you stay with him, he’ll get the message that you are being supportive, you’re not going to leave and that his anger doesn’t intimidate you. He’ll also learn that there are other more appropriate ways to manage his anger.
Try to discover your child’s angry emotions
If your child isn’t talking yet, it may take a little detective work for you to understand why he is angry. Begin by observing his environment and reviewing what you know about his personality and small children that may have pushed his “angry button.”
Finally, and most importantly, pray for your child. As you pray, you’ll develop the heart of compassion that you need if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope.
Uncovering the Pain Behind Your Child’s Anger
Learn how to recognize the reasons for anger, and whether it’s appropriate or not.
As an elementary public school teacher, I was appalled when one of my first grade students stood on a chair, threw his arms up and screamed, “I hate you!” followed by numerous expletives describing his feelings about me. Because I’d been a compliant child, I didn’t understand why so many of my students were angry and I didn’t know what to do.
Perhaps you’re at the end of your rope like I was. Not because you’re a teacher with angry students, but because the sweet baby you birthed is now an irritated four-to-seven year old who is pitching fits, screaming, yelling and throwing things.
You’re not alone.
Parents everywhere are wringing their hands in desperation because one — or more — of their elementary-aged children are out of control with anger.
Many people believe that kids are like little rubber people — trouble bounces off and nothing bothers them long term. However, anger is a sign that children feel deeply and are not as resilient as we might think. Why? Because anger is a response to pain. It’s like a blinking light on the dashboard of your car that tells you something is wrong under the hood. For this reason, wise parents will not ignore or minimize their child’s anger.
That said, what can you do to help your child manage his anger and develop into a healthy adult the way God desires? Here are some suggestions:
To begin, try to pinpoint why your child is angry
When children visit Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, to learn how to manage anger, she begins by identifying any biological causes behind the anger, such as allergies, learning disabilities or developmental disorders.
One boy who visited Dr. Maudlin was restless, unfocused in class and often irritable. Because the boy’s outbursts only occurred in the spring months and not during winter, Dr. Maudlin suggested allergy testing. Sure enough, he had severe reactions to mold, pollen, ragweed and grass. After he received allergy treatment, his moods returned to normal. No wonder he was angry. Many adults feel that way when they’re sick too.
Begin by asking yourself if there are biological factors that could be contributing to your child’s anger. For additional help, visit a physician and your school’s diagnostician.
After you’ve ruled out biological factors, move on to other life stressors
I recently heard on the radio that one woman’s fourth grader is learning algebra at school. She was shocked. So was I. I wasn’t learning math like that until 7th grade.
As life stressors, including job expectations, have increased for adults, school performance for kids has, too. If a child is expected to perform beyond his capabilities, either in school or at home, he can become angry. Kids can also become angry due to other life stressors such as moving, divorce or losing a loved one, including a family pet or a close friend.
When Joshua, one of my third grade students, started arguing and fighting with classmates, I was surprised because he’d always been exceptionally courteous. The afternoon he stole several pocketfuls of crayons from my classroom and clogged up the school plumbing by flushing them down the toilet, I knew something was seriously wrong. One day, his father visited after school and explained, “Joshua’s mother and I are getting a divorce.” A light went on. Of course! No wonder he’s angry. He’s hurting.
To identify life stressors, ask yourself when your child seems to exhibit anger. Is it during playtime? After he wakes up? When confronted with a particular person? During a particular time of day? Or since a specific family event took place?
Once you’ve identified why your child is becoming angry, there are several other things to keep in mind.
Don’t try to keep your child from getting angry
Anger is a natural human emotion, but many Christians are under the false belief that anger is wrong. However, God never told us not to become angry — He said to be angry and not sin (Ephesians 4:26). This Scripture shows that God knows we’ll get angry because sometimes life hurts. Therefore, the best thing you can do is to let your child know it’s okay to get mad.
Telling a child she is not allowed to become angry will create an emotionally unhealthy adult who suffers from guilt and who does not know how to accept her feelings, or how to work through what’s hurt her.
However, just because it’s okay to get angry, it’s not okay to handle anger inappropriately, and your child needs to know that.
Help your child find alternative ways to handle anger
One of my students who hurt others in moments of rage was given strict boundaries for handling his anger. He was disciplined when he acted inappropriately, but was also taught through counseling how to put himself in time-out when he felt himself getting mad. At these times, he would come to me and say, “Miss Schutte, I’m getting angry. Can I go out into the hallway until I cool off?” Once he felt he was ready, he came back into class calmed down. Sometimes he chose to speak with me about what bothered him.
There are other, healthy ways to deal with anger. One woman I know has placed a punching bag and soft toys in a room for her son to hit. This has proven effective for him to manage his frustrations. Of course, his mother also makes time to talk and pray with him about what he feels without shaming him.
The most important thing to remember while helping your child deal with anger is that he is a person with real emotions — just like you.
If your efforts to help your child seem ineffective and he is still angry, seek out professional intervention from a school or professional counselor.
Managing Tween Anger
Help your tween grow into a thoughtful, discriminating adult who rules his own emotions.
When I was a teacher I could never understand what happened to the 2nd graders during summer vacation. When I walked out the school doors in May and returned three months later, they were noticeably more grounded and grown up. It was part of a dramatic shift from being a child to preparing to be an adolescent.
The word “adolescent” might scare you because you’re anything but ready for your third grader to grow up. However, because your eight-year-old is more emotionally aware and and intellectually advanced, you can help him understand more about himself — including how he handles his anger. In fact, these anger strategies apply to kids in the Tween years between the ages of 8 to 12.
When your child is angry, let him exercise more authority
My mother always says that sometimes you have to pick your battles and some aren’t worth fighting. This couldn’t be more true as your child progresses from being a child to an adolescent.
As your child grows intellectually and emotionally between the ages of eight and twelve, you will naturally want to grant him more responsibility so that he can grow into a responsible adult. This means that when he gets mad or rants and raves because he wants to buy a cheap toy with his hard-earned lawn mowing money, and you know it’s a bad idea, you can give up your ground and let the consequences of his choice speak for themselves. This way, you can spare yourself a battle and he can grow into a calm, thoughtful and discriminating adult who doesn’t allow his emotions to rule him.
Dr. Kevin Leman calls this “reality discipline” because reality serves up the discipline, not you. For some kids, especially those who are strong-willed and often demand that they get their way, it’s a great way to go. Of course, you can’t say yes to everything, but you can make it a practice not to say no just for the sake of saying it — and you can try to say yes often.
Don’t only speak to your child about his anger when he’s angry
With life pressures, it can be difficult to squeeze in teachable moments with your child. However, it’s imperative that if you want your child to learn how to handle his anger in a constructive way, you’ll need to speak with him when he’s not angry.
Think back to the last time when you were really angry. Could anyone reason with you? Did your breathing accelerate? Were you talking in circles? Did you forgot what the other person said (if you were locked in battle)? Obviously, it’s tough to reason with someone who is out of control with anger. That’s why you’ll need to speak with your child to make a constructive plan to handle anger when he’s not angry.
As a part of helping your child, let him know that since he’s getting older, he can take more responsibility in helping himself, since you won’t always be there for him. Express sympathy by letting him know that it’s normal to get angry sometimes. But also tell him that how he reacts to his anger is his choice and how he chooses will either make him more miserable or help him.
During one of your non-anger teachable moments, you can use a technique I used as a teacher. It’s important that you use this technique shortly after the event because he may not remember what happened later. Ask him how he felt (in his emotions and his body), what happened that made him angry, how he responded, what the outcome was and how he could respond next time. Over time, he may begin to see the connection between his actions and the result.
In the beginning, it’s reasonable to assume that he may not see how he contributed to the argument or blow-up with his siblings. However, I’ve seen this technique work with kids over a period of time. It gives them the opportunity to reflect inwardly and process the situation without you telling him how he should act. In short, it helps him see that his response is his responsibility.
Help your child create his own discipline plan
Once your child begins to see that his anger can be a problem, and that it’s making his life difficult, you can calmly consult with him about the consequences if he responds inappropriately. First, you’ll need to determine what “inappropriate” means. By discussing with him, ask him if it involves hitting someone, calling them names or spitting. Let him decide. I’ve found that most kids are amazingly honest about what is right and wrong when they’re not threatened.
After you have created a list of what is not an acceptable response to anger, you can create another list of what he will do when he acts inappropriately. For example, will he put himself in time-out? Spend the afternoon in his room? Or give a prized toy to a friend?
You can also offer healthy alternatives to express his anger, such as scream outside until he feels better, punch a soft toy in the privacy of his room, or draw a picture about his feelings when he’s angry.
Once your plan is complete and you’ve both agreed, both of you can sign it and post it somewhere obvious for future reference. This way, he can’t say he was never part of the decision-making process, and it puts him in charge of his response.
Above all, whenever your Tween is angry, remain calm. This will let him know that you are on his side and working with him to help him master anger.
Is My Teen Just Angry or Is She an Angry Teen?
How to recognize the causes of teenage anger, and whether it’s just pushback and a desire for respect, or perhaps a more serious discipline issue.
In my late teens I felt trapped between my childhood and ever-growing adult opportunities. Like a toddler, I explored many new things: opposite sex relationships, driving, and college and career choices. Even though I still needed my parents’ guidance, I sometimes found it unpleasant.
During one isolated and rebellious encounter with my father, I screamed, “I hate you!” Because I was generally a compliant kid and it never happened again, Mom and Dad weren’t overly concerned; they just chalked it up as teenage frustration.
It’s a different story for some parents who experience regular confrontation with their adolescent. If this describes your situation, perhaps you’re asking, How can I tell if my teen is just angry or is an angry teen?
In his book, The Angry Child: Regaining Control When Your Child is Out of Control, Tim Murphy Ph.D. says if you feel caught in a vicious cycle of shouting and using threats to get what you want from your children and to achieve peace in your home, anger is a problem you’ll want to resolve.
Dr. Murphy also writes, “When parents feel overwhelmed by their child’s anger, when that anger seems a way of life, the child has crossed the line from feeling angry to being an angry child.”
If this sounds like your relationship with your son or daughter, you might feel like tossing up your hands. That’s understandable. But before you give up, here are some suggestions to help you tame the anger monster in your household.
Ask yourself, “What have I been modeling?”
As a public school teacher I learned a valuable lesson: If my students were too loud, it was generally ineffective to yell or use anger to get them to quiet down. In fact, the louder I became, the less they listened.
However, if I quietly said, “If you can hear me, raise your hand” my students would freeze, shoot their hands in the air, and become silent so I could calmly give instructions. My quiet but firm demeanor showed I was in control and demanded respect; whereas anger never demanded respect and always showed I was out of control. For the mother who yells increasingly louder and louder to get her daughter’s attention, her daughter learns that her mommy doesn’t mean business until she screams.
Not only are kids less likely to listen when parents are angry, but anger is also contagious. Think about the last time someone verbally attacked you. Did you find yourself fuming? Did you want to yell back? Did you feel frustrated? It stands to reason that teens whose parents use anger as a regular way to communicate may find that their teen is angry, too.
If anger has been a regular way to communicate with your teen since he or she was small, keep in mind that your son or daughter probably won’t immediately respond respectfully once you make a concerted effort to tone it down. Be persistent. It takes time to undo bad habits and for all family members to adjust to new relational rules.
Take a personal inventory
During Sharon’s growing up years, her father was emotionally absent. As a result, when she became a teen, her frustration about being ignored came boiling to the surface. Not surprisingly her dad had no idea why his once-respectful daughter was suddenly filled with rage.
Although most parents mean well and have the best intentions toward their kids, there may still be times when they don’t treat their children with the respect they deserve as human beings, or are unknowingly unfair. The result can be an angry teen.
Have you unintentionally caused your teen to feel unwanted, controlled, manipulated or ignored? Have you kept your promises, been realistic in your expectations and avoided intimidation, bullying or comparing your kids? Have you tried to listen and avoided using your children to meet your own needs?
If you think you may have contributed to your teen’s frustration, remember no one is a perfect parent. With humility, hope and God’s guidance, there is always the opportunity for change. Because God created family, His desire is that you grow in your love relationship with your teen. This may mean journeying through some unfamiliar and perhaps frightening new relational territory by learning to communicate in a fresh way. The main thing to remember is to keep the communication lines with your teenager open.
Sometimes you may need to show tough love
If your teen is often disrespectful and angry and refuses to change in spite of your kind and patient efforts, you may need to show tough love.
In her book, Don’t Give Me That Attitude, Michele Borba, Ed.D. says that parents need to clearly convey that expressing anger inappropriately through yelling, screaming, raging or verbally attacking others will not be tolerated. Then it’s necessary to establish and explain clear consequences that will be enforced when your teen violates your anger policy. This may involve removing a privilege such as driving or participating in a special function. No matter what, remain consistent in your message that displaying anger in hurtful ways is not okay. The result will be a teen who can control himself and love others, laying for him a great foundation for a lifetime of healthy, rewarding relationships.
Anger Busters for Kids
Here are some ideas to calm your child.
Your child is yelling, slamming doors and having an all-out tantrum … but can he trust you with his anger? Punishing the behaviors associated with anger might be a quick fix, but without instruction your child will lose out. National anger management trainer Bob Bowen warns that children who never learn proper ways to express their frustration will eventually find their own, often inappropriate, methods.
“At 7 years old she may be yelling or pulling someone’s hair, but by age 16 she will have developed 15 other incorrect ways to say ‘I’m frustrated.’ She has to find her own path because, as parents, we haven’t given her the correct one.”
The road to teaching proper “anger behavior” can be extremely bumpy when parents are sucked into the heat of the moment. Parents need first to handle their own emotions.
“When a child sees a parent managing his own frustration and anger, he will learn by example,” Bowen says. “How a parent responds to his child’s anger is how the parent teaches.”
Teaching discipline instead of punishing the child equips him with anger management tools that can be used the rest of his life. Here are eight things you can do to help your child learn how to express his anger positively.
Eight Great Anger Busters
- Model anger management. “Mommy is feeling very angry right now, so I’m going to take time to be alone and get some self-control.
- Show respect. Don’t participate by calling names or getting physical.
- Give them words to express their anger. “I know you are disappointed, or sad or frustrated.”
- Identify with their pain. “I remember when I didn’t get to go to a party…”
- Set positive limits. Instead of saying, “Don’t you throw that doll,” say, “After you put the doll on the table, we can go have snack.”
- Redirect energy bursts that often come with anger. Encourage positive outlets like running, jumping, blowing into a horn or painting.
- Avoid power struggles with your child. They’re always lose-lose situations. If your goal is to control, you will teach him to control others.
- Provide a cooling-off period by reading a book together or going on a walk. Then calmly discuss what happened and make a plan for next time.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources for dealing with your child’s anger
Popular questions on this topic:
- Our toddler throws uncontrollable tantrums. How do we handle these?
- My child wets her pants whenever she gets angry. How do we get her to stop?
- Our child is moody and defiant. How do I handle this behavior?
- Helping Kids Deal With Anger
- The Angry Child
- Creative Ideas For Child Discipline I-II
- Navigating Your Teen’s Emotional Storms I-II
- “Mom, I Hate My Life!” (Paperback)