When is your child’s anger a problem?

How does your child express their emotions? Do they react angrily to almost any situation that upsets them? Do their reactions seem out of proportion to what made them angry?

If your child has angry outbursts on a regular basis after they should have grown out of that type of behaviour, they may have difficulties expressing their emotions or managing their anger.

Getting angry and showing how you feel in some way is a natural, and even healthy reaction when done appropriately. But when children express their frustration in a way that harms themselves or others, then their behaviour will limit their ability to make friends and can have consequences for their future.

There are many different reasons that children struggle to express themselves in acceptable ways. And there are many approaches you can use to help your child get more control over their emotions and their reactions.

By helping your child manage their anger, you’re helping them to grow into a balanced and happy adult.

If your child’s anger is getting out of control, they may need help learning to manage their emotions.

When should anger be considered a problem?

All children get angry, and few are afraid to show it. But where is the line between normal – if

frequent – venting, and a behavioural problem?

When children are very young, they haven’t yet learned how to express themselves. They’re less able to tolerate things that make them upset, like needing to go to bed or eat their vegetables. But as children grow up, they should become better at understanding and managing their emotions without lashing out or having a meltdown.

You should begin to question if your child’s angry outbursts are reasonable if they:

  • Are still happening after about age seven
  • Their outbursts are dangerous to themselves or others
  • Their behaviour causes serious disruption (at school, day-care or at home)
  • They have a hard time getting along with other children, which often leads to them being excluded from activities like parties and games
  • There is disruption and/or conflict at home because of how they act
  • Their lack of control causes low self-esteem

Of course, each child is different and in some cases there are individual circumstances that need to be considered. But if your child ticks any of the boxes above, you should seriously consider the possibility that their anger is a problem that needs intervention before it gets worse.

Everyone gets angry, but some ways of showing this are unhealthy past a certain age.

Anger is typically caused by environment or psychology

A child’s parents are the biggest influence on their behaviour. If they don’t have a role model who can teach them how to manage and express their emotions, they won’t know how. If a child sees their parents reacting angrily when they get upset, they will do the same. Parents must set a good example to their children while teaching and encouraging good behaviour.

(If you’re a parent who doesn’t have these skills, you should consider working on your approach to anger and emotions. You can do this on your own or with a professional if you aren’t sure how to begin. Maybe you didn’t have a good role model yourself so you never learned how to manage emotions as a child. Everyone can benefit from some self-improvement, so don’t be reluctant to realise that you need to work on yourself too.)

Some children are unable to contain their anger because of genetics or neurological conditions. These can affect children from all different backgrounds and environments – even if you provide a wonderful environment for your child and are a great role model, they could still struggle with anger because of a neurological condition.

Neurological conditions are best addressed by professionals who are trained to recognise them. The most common reason children are referred to therapists or counsellors is because of difficulties with expressing anger in a healthy way, so don’t judge yourself or your child if you think they should see a professional because of their anger.

There are many different conditions that cause children to struggle with anger as a side-effect. These include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Autism
  • Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Learning problems, such as dyslexia

Some of these conditions can be managed with medication. However, pills shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for making sure that your child learns how to manage their emotions – medication isn’t going to teach them empathy or self-control. Even if anger problems are caused by a neurological condition, this doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t need to be taught responsibility for their reactions and methods for controlling them.

Anger can also be caused by unresolved feelings, such as grief over the loss of a loved one or a separation. These are complex emotions even adults struggle to understand. Because anger is the easiest emotion for many children to show, they can be acting angrily when they’re actually grieving.

Bullying or other difficulties with their peers can cause anger problems. Children being bullied are upset by how they’re being treated. They need to vent their anger but don’t know how to, other than with rage.

Trauma and abuse also cause anger issues. Anger is a primal response to threats that gives people the energy they need to survive while shifting their focus away from their victimisation.

(If you’re a teacher or a caregiver who knows a child with anger issues, they may be getting abused at home. You can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you suspect a child is being abused, or contact the authorities.)

Problems with expressing and managing anger should be addressed early in a child’s life. As they mature, their unhealthy habits will become more and more difficult to change. And the consequences will be increasingly more severe. Their adolescent years can be a mixture of challenges at school, struggles with their peers, and can even involve law enforcement trying to manage their behaviour.

While young children are usually referred to get professional psychological help by their parents or teachers, adolescents are typically directed into treatment with specialists or other supports by law enforcement. If their behaviour is serious enough, there could even be legal consequences beyond requiring mental health treatment.

By teaching your child to manage their anger from a young age, you’re helping them to avoid getting into serious trouble when they’re older.

Children can struggle to express emotions other than anger, and not know healthy ways to do so.

Methods for teaching your child to manage their anger

As a parent, there are many ways you can help your child better understand their emotions and how to react when they get angry. If your child struggles with expressing themselves, you’ll need to teach them how they can become more aware of their emotions and how to control them.

Simply telling a child to ‘be good’ or ‘calm down’ doesn’t teach children how to control themselves. You’ll have to work with your child to develop techniques and strategies for managing their emotions.

Many parents have had success with the techniques below. Please be aware that this is by no means a comprehensive guide. There are many different ways you can work with your child, and not all children respond well to the same methods.

1. Be a good role model

If you have a child who has anger management issues and you want to teach them better habits, you can begin by considering their environment and your parenting style.

Being a good role model is the most important way you can help your child manage their anger. Parents have more influence on their child than anyone else so you have to set a good example. You will have a very hard time teaching your child how to manage their anger if you’re unable to do the same.

2. Never give in to your child’s anger

When your child throws a tantrum or acts out, how do you react? If you give in, you’re sending the message that bad behaviour gets them what they want and they’ll repeat the behaviour in the future.

3. Teach your child to understand emotions

Understanding emotions is difficult for many people of any age. Some children who don’t understand what they’re feeling use anger to express any unpleasant emotion, such as sadness or frustration. Your child may need help learning to identify their emotions. This is challenging, but it is a valuable skill your child can use throughout their life.

You can begin by teaching them to recognise emotions and think about them more often. When watching TV together, ask them how they think certain characters feel. Then talk through why they think that and what it means for the character. This also teaches them empathy, which makes them less likely to mistreat other children.

Talk about feelings whenever you get the chance. You could say “I feel sad because you hit your brother and you made him feel sad too”. Ask your child how they’re feeling every day and point out when you notice them feeling a certain way. Such as “You look very happy playing with your new toy” or “I think you’re getting mad at your sister right now”. As they keep on considering their emotions and how the people around them feel, they can better understand their feelings and react to them in more reasonable ways.

With older children you can introduce more complex emotions, such as feeling nervous, disappointed, and tense.

If children can identify why they’re upset and communicate this to others, they won’t believe the only way they can show their feelings is through violence or yelling.

4. Teach your child ways to avoid getting angry

Help your child learn techniques to calm down before they get angry enough that they react badly, such as walking away from a situation when they feel themselves getting upset. This is sometimes called a self-time out. They can also take deep breaths and count to ten, picture a peaceful place, or anything else that relaxes them and gets them to think rather than just react.

By working with your child to develop anger management techniques, you’re teaching them they have control over their emotions and there are alternatives to exploding when a situation makes them upset.

5. Have clear, established rules and consequences for breaking them

Make sure that your child knows what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. Not every parent has the same standards for their children – some people don’t mind if their child wants to have dinner in front of the TV, while other families want everyone to eat together. You shouldn’t assume your child knows exactly what you expect from them, so tell them what the rules are. If you think it would help, have your rules posted where your child can see them.

They also need to know the consequences for not following these rules. And you need to be consistent in how you respond. Your response to bad behaviour has a huge impact on the chances of your child acting out in that way again.

If you don’t always follow through, then there is an excellent chance your child will try their luck and break the rules. Your child needs to know that if they hit others, or throw their toys when they get angry they will be sent to time out, have to go to bed early, etc.

6. Have appropriate consequences for bad behaviour

The consequences your child has are also very important. Consequences (not punishments) must teach your child that what they did wasn’t acceptable and they can’t behave that way again.

Consequences and punishments are different. Consequences show a child that what they did was bad, but they aren’t a bad person – they just made a mistake. A consequence for not cleaning their room could be that they aren’t allowed to play with their favourite toy until they clean up.

Punishments are unrelated to the behaviour and make the child suffer or feel humiliated. This is counterproductive because it just makes your child mad at you, rather than regret their actions and understand why they shouldn’t have acted that way. Spanking used to be a common (but ineffective) punishment.

Consequences help children learn from their behaviour while punishments just make them angry at themselves or at you.

7. Talk to your child about how they behaved after they’ve gotten upset

When your child gets angry and loses it, talk to them about what happened afterwards. Be sure to wait until they’ve calmed down – even for adults, listening to reason when you’re worked up is almost impossible. During these conversations, make sure your child feels heard and respected. You can acknowledge why they misbehaved without condoning the behaviour.

Without shaming them for losing control, discuss why they think they acted that way, what they should have done, and if there are any ways that they could avoid being in a situation like that again. Understanding their reasons for getting angry will make it easier for you to suggest ways they could have acted instead. For example, if their sister was being intentionally annoying and wouldn’t stop, your child could walk away next time instead of screaming at her.

8. Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour

Any time your child behaves how you want them to, give them positive reinforcement. This encourages your child to repeat their good behaviour because your reaction to it made them feel good about themselves. This can be a simple compliment acknowledging something good they did. When you’re praising their behaviour, be specific about why your happy with it. Instead of just saying “good job” – tell them why you’re happy with what they did. Say things like “Good job asking your sister to give you your toy back instead of getting angry”.

You can also give rewards for good behaviour when it’s appropriate, like being able to play video games longer or going out for a treat. This will teach your child what you want from them while giving them more insight into what they should be doing instead of getting angry.

As you’re rewarding positive behaviour, ignore any small ways that your child acts up. If it’s not a big deal, don’t acknowledge it. Some children act out to get attention, especially those who have a history of misbehaving. By ignoring your child’s bad behaviour, you’re helping to stop them feeling the need to act out.

9. Acknowledge and discuss your own anger with your child

Whenever you lose your temper in front of your child – at them or in general – apologise and tell them what you should have done instead. If you yell at your partner, you could say “I’m sorry I yelled at Mummy. I was angry but that’s no excuse for yelling. I should have talked to her calmly about why I was upset.”. This teaches your child to take responsibility for their anger and that there are alternatives to exploding.

10. Do what you can to make life calm for your child

As you and your child identify situations that make them get upset, do what you can to avoid or minimise these situations. If your child gets angry when getting ready for school in the morning, come up with a routine that will make this easier. You could wake up earlier and get as much ready as possible the night before. If they don’t like being told to stop playing and come to dinner, give them a 15-minute warning so they have time to accept they’ll have to leave their game.

Of course, avoiding all situations that cause anger is impossible, for children and adults. But if you can give your child a calm home environment where they don’t need to focus on staying calm in upsetting situations, they’ll have more energy to maintain their temper when they face unavoidable challenges.

Some children need help from their parents to learn how to understand and control their emotions.

Needless to say, this isn’t an easy process and will take a lot of time and energy from you and your child. But teaching your child to manage their emotions, especially anger, does much more than just make life calmer. Angry children have many challenges in life that only become worse as they get older. You’ll be giving your child the tools to be a reasonable, empathetic, thoughtful adult who is in control of their emotions.

Professional help can make this process easier, for you and your child

Some children need specialised help that professional therapists or counsellors are trained to provide, especially if the cause of your child’s anger is neurological.

If you’ve been a good role model, provided a consistent and positive environment for your child while trying to teach them how to manage their anger and they still have angry outbursts, you should consider visiting a professional. Your child could have an undiagnosed condition that makes controlling and understanding their emotions very difficult for them. Or you might not be doing as good of a job as you believed. You could have habits you aren’t aware of that contribute to your child’s unhealthy behaviours.

Therapists and counsellors are able to provide a trained outsiders’ perspective that can shed light on some of the mistakes you’ve been making and give you new strategies you hadn’t thought of.

Professionals aren’t out to criticise your parenting skills. Think of a therapist or a counsellor as training wheels on a bike. You still need to put in the work to move forward, but you’ll be supported as you progress, and they’ll keep you on track if you’re getting off course. Professionals are allies who want the same results as you, but they have years of experience in helping others achieve those results.

Making positive changes is still your responsibility, but a professional can take some of the pressure off you, as you won’t be the only one trying to figure out techniques and solutions. They will enable to you start teaching your child essential skills and building a healthy relationship with fewer challenges.

Some children need extra training to learn respect for others, and some parents need help learning how to respect their children. Professional therapists and counsellors can provide these lessons. This is why there are different programs available that work with children AND parents to teach important skills for understanding and managing emotions.

They teach the child ways to manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviour. They help children:

  • Identify their emotional triggers that make them get angry
  • Teach preventative measures to avoid getting so angry they lose control
  • Explain different ways to express their anger and frustration
  • Help children understand the consequences of their emotions

When working with parents, professionals teach how to use positive reinforcement to encourage healthy behaviour in your child and how to give consequences so your child will learn what sort of behaviour is acceptable. You’ll learn alternative ways of reacting to your child’s temper that aren’t centred on punishments. They can also help you understand how to better manage your own anger.

There’s no set training program, and the activities you do will depend on your child’s age and are tailored to your family’s personality types.

You don’t have to do all the research and try out different techniques with your child on your own. By working with a professional, you’ll be able to make an anger management plan much more quickly than you would at home.

You don’t need to be the only one trying to help your child learn how to manage their emotions

Teaching your child these skills is worth the effort

Childhood is a critical time to form the habits and attitudes your child will carry for the rest of their lives. Unlearning past mistakes is incredibly difficult for adults, but children can change much more easily.

If you think your child needs to change some aspects of their behaviour, you should act sooner rather than later.

You don’t need to do this on your own. I’m a trained counsellor who has helped other families learn how to manage anger. I can work with you to make the changes you want for yourself and your family.

If you would like to work with me, or have any questions about anger management, or mental health in general, please feel free to get in touch. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

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