An angry child 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 feelings1.
But an older aggressive child throwing an angry tantrum is different.
It is tough to have an angry child at home.
It can put a 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 appropriately 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 others’ intentions in social situations and therefore interact using inappropriate behavior.
These children have fewer 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, pay close 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 starts 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 be possible reasons for 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 anger-prone13.
Infants with such a temperament display greater physiological reactivity (which they were less able to regulate), poorer attention, and higher activity levels.
Genetics might be a cause for anger issues.
A study has found that if a birth mother has high levels of anger, her toddler is more likely also to have high levels of anger when they’re exposed to hostile situations14.
Angry children often have other mental health conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)15, 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 behaviors, 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, 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 a child’s anger and externalizing behavior18.
The child’s noncompliance also predicts an increase in the parent’s controlling behavior, creating a coercive cycle19.
Parent’s Emotional Reaction
The parent’s own emotions and reactions to their child’s anger matter.
If the parent shows their own anger when the toddler is angry, the child tends to have persistent anger, and 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”.
These 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 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 children consists of two parts: dealing with anger in the moment and anger prevention.
Anger Management for Kids – 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, the part of the brain that expresses emotions, is in charge while the prefrontal cortex, the part that can think logically, is offline. Therefore, you cannot and must not reason with an angry child.
Here are a few positive ways that can calm your child’s nervous system.
The first thought you have when you have an angry kid is probably, “Not again!”
You may have a difficult time staying calm, but being a good role model is the best way to help your child.
Taking slow deep breaths is the first step to calming an aroused nervous system.
Slowly breathe in, count to five, and then breathe out.
If your child is willing to, ask them to join you. But this only works if the child has practiced deep breathing before the anger appears. Otherwise, move on to the next step after you calm yourself down.
Distraction may be used when your child can still hear 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.
It’s not good to get angry at your child when they are upset, but it’s also not good to laugh at them or make light of their anger.
When a child is angry, be attuned to their emotions and empathize with them.
Sometimes it can be difficult to empathize with your child when you don’t think they should be upset.
But empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what your child is experiencing from their perspective. It doesn’t mean agreeing with them.
Attune to their anger and put yourself in their shoes, but without getting angry.
Acknowledge their anger and name their strong emotions.
There is no need to agree or approve of their feelings. Simply describe it without adding any judgment or defending yourself.
“I can see that you are very angry. It feels so unfair.”
Children, and we all, want to be heard. Sometimes, acknowledging, naming, and narrating their experience is all it takes to calm a storm.
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 may be necessary to protect them and other people.
Anger Management For Kids – 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 anger 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 every day.
Here are some examples:
- You have to wake up when you’re told to.
- You have to eat whatever breakfast is 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 your 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 must tell them the reasons. When we know we’re not completely right, we must 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 issues.
Warm, sensitive, and responsive parenting
Plenty of research has demonstrated that parents’ sensitive response which creates secure attachment 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 healthier 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 encourage good behavior and correct bad behavior without yelling or using punishment.
Limit exposure to angry situations
Parents can help regulate children’s emotions by limiting their exposure to angry scenes, especially unresolved conflicts between parents.
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 of anger.
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 a mental health provider such as a therapist, clinical psychologist, or adolescent psychiatrist.
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 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.
- 1.POTEGAL M, DAVIDSON RJ. Temper Tantrums in Young Children: 1. Behavioral Composition. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online June 2003:140-147. doi:10.1097/00004703-200306000-00002
- 2.Lemerise EA, Dodge KA. The development of anger and hostile interactions. In: Handbook of Emotions. The Guilford Press; 2008:730–741.
- 3.Strayer J, Roberts W. Empathy and Observed Anger and Aggression in Five-Year-Olds. Social Development. Published online February 2004:1-13. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2004.00254.x
- 4.Dodge KA, Murphy RR, Buchsbaum K. The Assessment of Intention-Cue Detection Skills in Children: Implications for Developmental Psychopathology. Child Development. Published online February 1984:163. doi:10.2307/1129842
- 5.SCHULTZ D, IZARD CE, BEAR G. Children’s emotion processing: Relations to emotionality and aggression. Develop Psychopathol. Published online June 2004. doi:10.1017/s0954579404044566
- 6.Lemerise EA, Harper BD. The Development of Anger from Preschool to Middle Childhood: Expressing, Understanding, and Regulating Anger. In: International Handbook of Anger. Springer New York; 2009:219-229. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_13
- 7.Rydell AM, Berlin L, Bohlin G. Emotionality, emotion regulation, and adaptation among 5- to 8-year-old children. Emotion. Published online 2003:30-47. doi:10.1037/1528-35220.127.116.11
- 8.Potegal M, Qiu P. Anger in Children’s Tantrums: A New, Quantitative, Behaviorally Based Model. In: International Handbook of Anger. Springer New York; 2009:193-217. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_12
- 9.Steiner H, Remsing L. Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online January 2007:126-141. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000246060.62706.af
- 10.Braungart-Rieker JM, Hill-Soderlund AL, Karrass J. Fear and anger reactivity trajectories from 4 to 16 months: The roles of temperament, regulation, and maternal sensitivity. Developmental Psychology. Published online July 2010:791-804. doi:10.1037/a0019673
- 11.Campos JJ, Frankel CB, Camras L. On the Nature of Emotion Regulation. Child Development. Published online March 2004:377-394. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00681.x
- 12.Crockenberg S. Predictors and Correlates of Anger toward and Punitive Control of Toddlers by Adolescent Mothers. Child Development. Published online August 1987:964. doi:10.2307/1130537
- 13.Kochanska G, Aksan N, Carlson JJ. Temperament, Relationships, and Young Children’s Receptive Cooperation With Their Parents. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2005:648-660. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1688
- 14.Rhoades KA, Leve LD, Harold GT, Neiderhiser JM, Shaw DS, Reiss D. Longitudinal pathways from marital hostility to child anger during toddlerhood: Genetic susceptibility and indirect effects via harsh parenting. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2011:282-291. doi:10.1037/a0022886
- 15.Harty SC, Miller CJ, Newcorn JH, Halperin JM. Adolescents with Childhood ADHD and Comorbid Disruptive Behavior Disorders: Aggression, Anger, and Hostility. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. Published online July 3, 2008:85-97. doi:10.1007/s10578-008-0110-0
- 16.Sofronoff K, Attwood T, Hinton S, Levin I. A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Cognitive Behavioural Intervention for Anger Management in Children Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. J Autism Dev Disord. Published online November 3, 2006:1203-1214. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0262-3
- 17.Jankovic J. Tourette’s Syndrome. N Engl J Med. Published online October 18, 2001:1184-1192. doi:10.1056/nejmra010032
- 18.Smith CL, Calkins SD, Keane SP, Anastopoulos AD, Shelton TL. Predicting Stability and Change in Toddler Behavior Problems: Contributions of Maternal Behavior and Child Gender. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2004:29-42. doi:10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.124
- 19.Patterson GR. The early development of coercive family process. Antisocial behavior in children and adolescents: A developmental analysis and model for intervention.:25-44. doi:10.1037/10468-002
- 20.Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad T. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychol Inq. 1998;9(4):241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
- 21.Bennett DS, Sullivan MW, Lewis M. Young Children’s Adjustment as a Function of Maltreatment, Shame, and Anger. Child Maltreat. Published online November 2005:311-323. doi:10.1177/1077559505278619
- 22.Schwartz D, Dodge KA, Pettit GS, Bates JE. The Early Socialization of Aggressive Victims of Bullying. Child Development. Published online August 1997:665. doi:10.2307/1132117
- 23.Kochanska G. Emotional Development in Children with Different Attachment Histories: The First Three Years. Child Development. Published online March 2001:474-490. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00291
- 24.Murray SL, Holmes JG, Griffin DW. Self-esteem and the quest for felt security: How perceived regard regulates attachment processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2000:478-498. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1998
- 25.Schudlich TDDR, Shamir H, Cummings EM. Marital Conflict, Children’s Representations of Family Relationships, and Children’s Dispositions Towards Peer Conflict Strategies. Social Development. Published online May 2004:171-192. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2004.000262.x
- 26.Shifflett-Simpson K, Cummings EM. Mixed Message Resolution and Children’s Responses to Interadult Conflict. Child Development. Published online April 1996:437. doi:10.2307/1131825
- 27.Denham SA, Bassett HH, Brown C, Way E, Steed J. “I Know How You Feel”: Preschoolers’ emotion knowledge contributes to early school success. Journal of Early Childhood Research. Published online October 24, 2013:252-262. doi:10.1177/1476718×13497354