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, how to help them develop appropriate coping skills for anger and ways to prevent uncontrollable anger.
Kids With Anger Problems – Should You Be Concerned?
It’s tough to have an angry child at home. It can put serious strain on the family life. You never know what would set them off and turn a normal activity or request into a storm of angry outbursts or physical destruction. It’s frustrating and exhausting for parents and other family members.
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 health1.
School-aged children who cannot master anger management have lower empathy2. They have difficulties interpreting other’s intentions in social situation and interacting using prosocial responses. These children have less social skills and are less popular with peers3,4. They are at risk for peer rejection, poor adjustment to school, and a variety of externalizing problems5.
Children with anger issues are also found to be associated with delinquency, aggression, antisocial personality and conduct problems6. Excessive anger in early childhood can predict later psychopathology7 such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)8.
Development of Anger Issues in Young Children
Scientists have found that anger can appear in infants as young as 4 months of age. Research suggests that many anger issues in a child start developing in toddlerhood when a toddler starts to become mobile and exploratory9.
Human is 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 punishment.
Frustrated toddlers do not have the emotions regulation skills to cope. They also have a hard time expressing themselves or negotiating for their needs. Temper tantrums result 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 feelings intensify, they turn to shouting, screaming, hitting and kicking. If the parent becomes angry and start scolding or punishing, the child’s anger will become increasingly persistent10.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation
Two types of factors can contribute to a child’s struggle with anger regulation and emotional 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.
Genetically, some children can be born with a difficult temperament. They are easily frustrated and more “angry-prone”11. Infants with such temperament display greater physiological reactivity (which they were less able to regulate), poorer attention, and higher activity levels.
A study has also 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 situations12.
Anger issues often accompany other mental health conditions, including ADHD13, Autism14, Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome15.
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 aggressive 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 or health professional immediately. Remember to mention the illness 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.
Ineffective Parenting Style
Parenting style and the attachment formed between parents and children contribute to kids’ ability to regulate themselves.
Kids with warm and responsive parents develop secure attachment and learn self-regulation early on. These infants tend to be less angry when they grow up16.
Children who have parents that have cold or non-responsive parenting style develop insecure attachment. And children with harsh or abusive parents develop disorganized attachment. Insecurely attached or disorganized children are found to be significantly more angry17, and have more aggressive behaviors and conduct problems18.
Parent’s Behavior and Reaction To Child’s Anger
The parent’s reaction to their children’s anger matters. If a parent becomes angry when the child expresses anger, their toddler tends to have persistent anger, noncompliant behavior19.
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 by displacing shame with anger20.
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 aggressive behavior that interferes with their daily life21.
Anger Management for Kids
Anger management for children should consists of two parts: dealing with anger in the moment and anger prevention.
In the Moment Anger Management
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 dysregulated, you cannot reason with them. The amygdala, one of the brain areas that controls emotions, is in charge. Here are a few ways that can calm your child’s nervous system.
1. Slow Deep Breaths
Taking slow deep breaths can calm your child’s aroused nervous system. Teach your kid to slowly breathe in, count to five, and then breathe out. The exhale should be slightly longer than inhale.
Physical touch such as hugging is can help your child calm down because it can directly quiet your child’s nervous system. If your child is raging, they may not want to be hugged. However, if your child is hurting themselves or others, hugging can protect 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.
1. Reduce incidents that can cause frustration
For young children, transition from one activity to another can easily trigger anger and frustration. Give advance warning to prepare your child for changes.
For older kids, it’s easy to assume that anger 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.”1
In fact, a child cannot get angry all by themselves. So an anger problem can be viewed as a relationship problem as the anger only originates in the relationship.
As in any relationship, there are two sides to every story.
As grownups, we 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 toxua
- 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 the source of our children’s anger issues at times. We believe that a lot of things we ask our children to do are good for them and therefore reasonable. We think we’re right 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 what we want. There’s also a difference between what is right and what is preferred.
2. Look out for tiredness and hunger
Children, or anyone, are also more prone to anger when they are tired or hungry. Address those needs, e.g. snacking or napping, first if those are the causes.
3. 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-prone22.
Securely attached children have better self control and self esteem23. They tend to regulate and express emotions in socially constructive ways.
4. 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.
5. 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 aggressive24,25.
6. Teach Emotion Knowledge
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.
Children with more knowledge and understanding of emotions are found to have better emotion regulation skills and social competence with peers26.
7. Teach Signal Recognition
Teach them to recognize triggers 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 signs.
8. Teach Stress Management Skills and Establish Self-Care Routine
Regular meditation and exercising can help reduce stress in your child’s life.
Final Thoughts on Anger Issues in Kids
If a child has frequent, prolonged anger episodes, seek help from a therapist or other mental health professional.
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