Updated: Jun 12
"My son gets mad easily and flies off the handle. He often yells, shouts, kicks, throws things, and punches his younger brother. How do you manage anger issues?"
Does this sound like you? May I start off by saying that you are in no way, shape, or form alone on this one. So many parents come to see me because their kids struggle with anger. I think I could write an entire book on this topic! Today, I'm going to help you learn how to manage anger outbursts in your children, regardless of how old they are! So buckle up, it's going to be a fast-paced and bumpy ride!
We all know that anger is an emotion, but what most parents don’t know is that anger is typically a secondary emotion. This means that there is another emotion that comes first, and then rapidly develops and morphs into anger. I’ve given hour-long lectures to graduate students on why an emotion morphs into anger in children, but that won’t really help you. What’s more helpful to understand is what these underlying emotions that trigger anger are. While there is much debate over this topic, in my own clinical practice as a therapist, I define these emotions as follows:
Frustration (Defined for me as “unmet expectations”)
When dealing with anger in young children, it’s important for us, as parents, to help them develop an understanding of what they are experiencing. We do this by helping them voice their emotions and develop a vocabulary for appropriate self-expression.
Let’s look at an example:
Sally is playing with her doll when her younger sister comes and takes it away from her. Sally starts to cry, showing signs that she is upset. Dad comes in, and when he discovers what the issue is, he asks Sally to please let her younger sister have a turn with the doll. Sally becomes more upset, begins to yell and scream, and ultimately snatches the doll back while shoving her younger sister to the ground.
In this example, I think we can all see that Sally is angry. We can also guess that she is probably frustrated, right? She might have been expecting that Dad would give the toy back to her, but instead, he allows the younger sibling to keep the toy. Sally’s expectation isn’t met, and thus, produces frustration. We might also be able to infer that Sally could be hurt, too. If she is expecting her Dad to come in and get her toy back, only for Dad to come and allow the sibling to keep the toy, we can see where she may feel hurt by Dad. After all, does this mean that Daddy loves younger sister more? Is younger sister more important than her?
A good way for Dad to manage this example would be to help Sally identify her emotion with language that is developmentally appropriate. When my daughter was 2 and she would cry, I would always ask, “Rachel, are you happy, sad, mad, or scared right now?” In the beginning, she would say "sad" or "mad," but as I helped her identify the different emotions, she began to acknowledge different feelings. In our example, Dad could offer the same question to Sally. If she is very young, she would most likely say “sad” or “mad” for her response. Dad could then take the opportunity to ask her why she is “sad” or “mad.” This step gives your child the space, time, and opportunity to express themselves to you. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can always do this step. When they express their feelings and thoughts about why they feel the way they do, it’s also important that we listen! Try to remember what it was like to be a kid again yourself. Do you remember what it was like?
So, now that we have a little bit more of an understanding of anger as an emotion, let’s talk about how we deal with anger issues in children. Here are some basic tips on how to tackle this problem:
1. Help Your Child Regulate Their Emotions
Children who have intense anger reactions typically need help regulating their emotions. You can help by teaching your child techniques to help them calm down, like Counting to 10 or Deep Breathing.
2. Help Your Child Label Their Emotions
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to help your child identify the emotion they are feeling and encourage them to use their “words” to express themselves. We need to prompt our kids to use their coping skills and their “words” to explain what they are experiencing. Also, letting your child know that you can’t understand what they are trying to tell you when they scream will help motivate young kids to try and calm down.
3. Help Your Child Think of an Alternative Behavior
I always encourage parents to have a discussion about appropriate ways to express anger. Some families are completely ok with children stomping their feet or screaming into a pillow, but other families are very opposed to this. Think about ways your child is allowed to express anger in your home. Spend some time talking and practicing with your child about these “acceptable” ways of expressing anger and model it too!
4. Prompt Your Child to Use Their Alternate Behavior
Finally, when your child gets angry and starts acting out, remind them of the “appropriate” ways to express themselves. Prompt them to do what it is you already practiced with them. And remind them to use their relaxation tools to help them calm down too!
I hope this was helpful to you! If this is a hot topic in your household, you are definitely going to want to snag your FREE copy of my new book, Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Your Child's Anger Outbursts. I go into much more extensive detail on how manage anger outbursts with kids of any age! Just click the link and you'll be able to get your free copy.