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Anger Issues In Kids

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 the anger in kids and how to help them develop appropriate coping skills.

Kids With Anger Problems – Should You Be Concerned?

It’s tough to have an angry child at home.

You never know what would set them off and turn a normal activity or request into a storm of emotional outbursts or physical destruction.

It’s frustrating and exhausting for parents.

To deal with kids’ anger issue, most parenting resources or counseling professionals would quickly direct the conversation to teaching emotional skills or creating a behavioral management plan.

If you have tried any of these, you probably know that they are hit-or-miss.

child screams with anger issues in kids

Kids with anger problems are not simply unpleasant. Problems in regulating and appropriately expressing anger can impact the child’s social functioning and development, as well as the parent’s physical and mental health​1​.

School-aged children who cannot master anger management have lower empathy, a quality associated with prosocial behavior​2​.

Being able to interpret other’s intentions in social situations is another important prosocial quality.

Children with anger issues tend to lack the ability to interpret others’ intentions, especially prosocial and benign intentions, accurately and therefore, are unlikely to be socially popular with peers​3,4​. These children are at risk for peer rejection, poor adjustment to school, and a variety of externalizing problems​5​.

Anger in children is also found to be correlated delinquent, aggressive behavior and conduct problems​6​.

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What causes anger in children

Two things are needed to cause anger in a child:

  1. an event that upsets the child, and 
  2. the child’s inability to regulate their emotions.

It’s easy to assume that anger is the result of a child 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.”​1​

A child cannot get angry all by themselves. So an anger problem is actually a relationship problem as the anger only exists in the relationship.

As in any relationship, there are two sides to every story. The two sides here are the upsetting event and the child’s emotional dysregulation.

Anger Issues In Kids

Scientists have found that anger issues in a child start developing in toddlerhood when a toddler starts to become mobile and exploratory​7​.

Humans are wired to be curious. We like to explore novelty and master new skills.

When 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 punishment. 

Frustrated toddlers do not have the emotions regulation skills to cope nor the communication skills to negotiate. Toddler tantrums result and parents refer to this stage as the terrible twos.

Many parents believe that the terrible twos is a phase in toddlerhood that will eventually pass. However, if the upsetting event or emotional dysregulation persist, the child’s tantrum or anger will not disappear by itself​8​.

Sources of Upsetting events

As grownups, we often envy how carefree children are and reminisce about the days when we didn’t have to worry about work, bills or responsibilities.

But if you’re given the opportunity to be a child again, would you take it?

Keep in mind that the experience will include the following:

  • You have to wake up when you’re woken up
  • You have to dress “appropriately” or the way 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 cannot delay doing homework once you get home
  • You cannot go out without your parents’ permission, which is often a “no”
  • You cannot engage in any entertainment activities, such as movie, video game, facebook, etc., without permission
  • 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 to others
  • The list goes on…

Will you be able to do all of these 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 issues. We believe that things we ask our children to do are good for them and therefore reasonable. We think we’re doing the right thing because those are the “right things”.

But there’s a difference between teaching our kids to do the right thing and forcing our kids to do the right thing. There’s also a difference between what is right and what is preferred.

For example, wanting a waffle instead of cereal for breakfast is not wrong. It may be inconvenient or non-preferable for the parent, but it’s not wrong. 

Besides curiosity, autonomy is another innate human desire. When parents take away their children’s opportunities to explore and their freedom to choose, anger is inevitable​9​.

Sources of Emotional Dysregulation

Two types of factors can contribute to a child’s struggles with emotional regulation – biological factors such as genetics, and the environment in early childhood. Both can give rise to a child’s emotion regulating deficiency.

Genetics and Biological Factors

Genetically, some children can be born with a difficult temperament. They are easily frustrated and more “angry-prone”. Infants with such temperament display greater physiological reactivity (which they were less able to regulate), poorer attention, and higher activity levels.

Researchers have also found that anger issues often accompany other mental health conditions, including ADHD​10​, Autism​11​, Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome​12​.

Environment in Early Childhood

Environmentally, parents and their parenting play a big role in the child’s development of emotional regulation.

First, the parent-child attachment contributes to the child’s ability to learn self-regulation.

Researchers have found that infants with warm and responsive parents develop secure attachment. These infants tend to be less angry when they grow up​13​.

Children who have parents that are cold or non-responsive develop insecure attachment. And children with harsh or abusive parents develop disorganized attachment. Insecurely attached or disorganized children are found to be significantly more angry​14​.

Harsh parenting also contributes to anger perception bias and to later aggression and conduct problems​15​.

Second, the parent’s reaction to their children’s anger matters. If a mother becomes angry or punishes the child when the child expresses anger, this toddler tends to have persistent anger, noncompliant behavior and a lower likelihood of empathic responding to others​16​.

Third, 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/or aggression that interferes with their daily life​17​.

How to Manage Your Child’s Anger Issues

Parent in a warm, sensitive and responsive way

Plenty of research has demonstrated that parental sensitive responding which creates secure attachment in the child is protective for children who are anger-prone​18​.

Securely attached children tend to regulate and express emotions 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 behavior without yelling or using punishment.

Limit exposure to angry situations

Parents can help children regulate their emotions by limiting their exposure to angry situations, 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 aggressive​19,20​.

Teach Emotion Knowledge

Children with more knowledge and understanding of emotions are found to have better emotion regulation skills and social competence with peers​21​

Positive reaction to negative emotions

Teaching children emotional knowledge involves acknowledging and naming the child’s 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.


References

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    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
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