Explosive kids can blow up over anything and everything. It can be frustrating for parents who need to deal with anger issues in kids. Let’s explore what causes anger issues in a child, how to help them develop appropriate coping skills and healthy ways to prevent uncontrollable anger.
Kids With Anger Issues – Should You Be Concerned?
In younger children, intense emotions and temper tantrums are common as they start learning how to regulate their big feelings and temper tantrums1.
But an older aggressive child throwing an angry tantrum is different.
It is tough to have an angry child at home. It can put serious strain on the family. You never know what little thing would set them off and turn a normal activity into a storm of angry outbursts or physical destruction. It’s frustrating and exhausting for parents and family members to deal with.
Kids with anger issues are not simply unpleasant. Failure to regulate and express anger in appropriate ways can impact their social functioning and development. It can also hurt the parent’s physical and mental health2.
School-aged children who cannot control their intense feelings have lower empathy3. They have difficulties interpreting other’s intentions in social situations and therefore interact using inappropriate behavior. These children have less social skills and are less popular with peers4,5. They are at risk for peer rejection, poor adjustment to school, and a variety of externalizing problems6.
Older children with anger issues are found to be associated with delinquency, aggression, antisocial personality and conduct problems7. Excessive anger in early childhood can predict later psychopathology8 such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)9 and conduct disorders.
If an older child has persistent anger issues, parents should pay attention to their emotional health.
Development of Anger Issues in Young Children
How did a sweet little baby turn into a ball of rage?
Scientists have found that anger can appear in infants as young as 4 months old.
Anger reactivity increases over time and peaks at around 18-21 months of age10. This period in toddlerhood is commonly known as the “terrible twos”. Many anger issues start developing during this period when the small child starts to become mobile and exploratory11.
Humans are wired to be curious. Toddlers are motivated learners. They like to explore novelty and master new skills. When young children start walking and becoming mobile, they want to explore the world around them.
However, their exploratory actions are often met with prohibition, scolding or even harsh punishment.
Frustrated toddlers do not have the emotion regulation skills to cope. They also have a hard time expressing themselves or negotiating for their needs. Temper tantrum results as the child escalates their display of anger but still cannot have their needs met.
An angry child may start with grunting and growling but as their angry feelings intensify, they turn to shouting, screaming, hitting and kicking. If the parent becomes angry and start scolding or punishing, the child’s intense anger will become increasingly persistent12 leading to anger issues.
What Causes Anger Issues In a Child
Two types of factors can contribute to a child’s struggle with anger regulation – biological factors such as genetics or illnesses, and environmental factors in early childhood. Both can give rise to a child’s emotion regulating deficiency.
Biological Causes of Anger In Children
Genetically, some children can be born with a more difficult temperament. They are easily frustrated and more “angry-prone”13. Infants with such a temperament display greater physiological reactivity (which they were less able to regulate), poorer attention, and higher activity levels.
A study has found that if a birth mother has high levels of anger, her toddler is more likely to also have high levels of anger when they’re exposed to hostility situations14.
Anger issues often accompany other mental health conditions, including ADHD15, Autism16, Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome17.
Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections
PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) can cause a child to have angry and violent behavior all of a sudden and out of the blue.
If your child has recently been infected with strep or had a sore throat and subsequently displayed excessive angry behavior, seek help from your child’s pediatrician immediately. Remember to mention the medical issues before the anger issue appeared even if it was only a mild episode of sore throat.
Because there are no lab tests to diagnose PANDAS and because the diagnosis is clinically determined, you may need to find a doctor who is knowledgeable about PANDAS for help. Check out this guide for more information.
Environmental Causes of Anger In Children
In toddlers, researchers have found that parents’ controlling behavior is related to the child’s anger and externalizing behavior18.
The child’s noncompliance also predicts an increase in the parent’s controlling behavior, creating an a coercive cycle19.
Parent’s Emotional Reaction
The parent’s reaction to their child’s anger matters. If the parent shows their own anger when the toddler is angry, the child tends to have persistent anger, noncompliant behavior20.
Child Maltreatment, Abuse and Shame
Children who are maltreated with physical abuse or shame are more likely to have anger issues during conflicts.
If children are severely punished, criticized, treated with hostile rejection, or ignored by their primary caregiver, they may believe that they are unwanted, unlovable, and “bad”. This negative self-beliefs magnify the shame experienced in the day-to-day negative interactions. When shamed, children may try to avoid this highly negative, painful emotion by displacing shame with feelings of anger21.
Family dynamics is another environmental factor that can impact a child’s ability to self-regulate. Parents’ interactions among themselves and with other adults serve as relationship role models.
Angry exchanges between parents, even when they’re not directed at the child, influence how children interpret relationships and their future interactions with others. Kids with angry or aggressive parents are more likely to exhibit anger and aggressive behavior that interferes with their daily life22.
Anger Management for Kids
Anger management for children should consists of two parts: dealing with anger in the moment and anger prevention.
Anger Management – In The Moment
When your child is raging, they are in a fight-or-flight mode and cannot regulate themselves. It is up to you to help your child calm down.
When a kid is emotionally dysregulated, the amygdala, part of their brain that expresses emotions, is in charge while prefrontal cortex, part that can think logically is offline. Therefore, you cannot and should not reason with an angry child.
Here are a few ways that can calm your child’s nervous system.
Acknowledge their anger and name their emotions. You don’t need to agree with or approve their feelings. Simply describe it without adding any judgement or defending yourself.
“I can see that you are very angry. It feels so unfair.”
They, and we all, want to be heard. Sometimes, acknowledging is all it takes to calm a storm.
Slow Deep Breaths – both of you
Taking slow deep breaths can calm an aroused nervous system. Teach your kid to slowly breathe in, count to five, and then breathe out, and do it with them to calm your own body.
Physical touches such as hugging can help your child calm down quickly because it directly quiets your child’s nervous system. If your child is raging, they may not want to be hugged. In that case, stay with your child and use closeness to help them regulate. However, if your child is hurting themselves or others, hugging can protect them in addition to calming them.
Distraction may be used when your child can still listen to you. Guide them to think about something fun or happy, e.g. last trip to the beach, when they built a Lego airplane, hugging a puppy, etc.
Anger Management – Prevention
Reduce incidents that can cause frustration
For young children, transitioning from one activity to another can easily trigger anger and frustration. Give advance warning to prepare your toddler or preschooler for changes.
It’s easy to assume that anger in older kids is the result of them not getting what they want. But it’s actually more than that.
“Anger is always directed toward someone in particular, … not toward all of humanity.”2
A child doesn’t get angry all by themselves. So anger problems can be viewed as a relationship problem as the anger only originates in the interaction between parties.
As in any relationship, there are two sides to every story.
Grownups often assume that children are carefree and upset feelings are inappropriate. But think about what children experience everyday. Here are some examples:
- You have to wake up when you’re told to.
- You have to eat whatever breakfast made for you.
- You have your activities throughout the day chosen for you.
- You have to sit in class for hours a day.
- You have to ask for permission to use the bathroom.
- You have to do homework when you get home.
- You cannot go out without your parents’ permission.
- You have to stop playing your favorite video game when the screen time is up.
- You cannot stay up late.
- You cannot reason with your parents because that’s considered talking back
- You’re given orders by grownups all the time.
- You are not always talked to respectfully but you cannot show any disrespect in return.
- The list goes on…
Will you be able to do all of the above day after day, and if you refuse, you’ll be nagged, scolded or punished, without getting angry?
The truth is, we, the parents, are often the source of our children’s anger. We believe that a lot of things we ask our children to do are good for them and therefore reasonable. And we think we’re always right.
No one is always right.
To prevent anger created by us, treat your child reasonably and with respect.
There’s a difference between teaching our kids to do the right thing and forcing our kids to do what we want. There’s also a difference between what is right and what is preferred.
When we think we’re right, we need to tell them the reasons. When we know we’re not completely right, we need to be open to change.
Look out for tiredness and hunger
Children, or anyone, are more prone to anger when they are tired or hungry. Address those needs, e.g. snacking or napping, getting enough sleep if those are the underlying causes of anger.
Parent in a warm, sensitive and responsive way
Plenty of research has demonstrated that parents’ sensitive responding which creates secure attachment in the child is protective for children who are anger-prone23.
Securely attached children have better self control and self esteem24. They tend to regulate and express anger in socially constructive ways.
Discipline, not punishment
Discipline to teach, not to punish. Positive discipline is a disciplinary method based on mutual respect. Using positive discipline, you can teach and correct a child’s bad behavior without yelling or using punishment.
Limit exposure to angry situations
Parents can help children regulate their emotions by limiting their exposure to angry scene, especially unresolved conflicts. Children of all ages find adults’ anger stressful; exposure to anger exchanges between adults may sensitize children toward anger, making them more likely to become aggressive25,26.
Teach Emotion Knowledge
Teaching children emotional knowledge involves acknowledging and naming the child’s big emotions when they’re upset. Accepting and attending to the child’s negative emotions positively can teach them how to monitor, recognize and modulate the emotions.
Children with more knowledge and understanding of normal emotion are found to have better emotion regulation skills and social competence with peers27.
Teach Signal Recognition
Teach them to recognize the common trigger and signals from their body when they’re about to get angry. For example, some kids will feel that their bodies are getting hot, shaking or clenching fists. Teach them to take slow deep breaths or use distractions when they recognize those warning signs.
Teach Stress Management Skills and Establish Self-Care Routine
Regular exercise or meditation can help reduce stress in your child’s life and promote regulation development.
Final Thoughts on Anger Issues in Kids
A child with anger issues needs help with regulation. If a child has frequent, prolonged anger episodes, seek professional help from therapists, psychologists, adolescent psychiatrists or mental health professionals.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
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