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Angry Child? Fix the Behavior, Not the Feelings

by James Lehman, MSW
Angry Child? Fix the Behavior, Not the Feelings

Many parents make the mistake of assuming that since their child’s behavior is connected to their feelings, fixing the feelings will fix the behavior. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s critical for parents to understand that processing your child’s feelings while they are happening is not constructive. Children become overwhelmed with emotions, and by the time they’re feeling angry or resentful, you’re already way into a negative situation. The time to teach kids about fire safety is not when the curtains are burning. In the same way, appropriate behavior is best learned before the crisis. And make no bones about it, if your child is screaming, yelling or punching things, you are already in crisis mode. I like to remind parents that the Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” So when your child acts out, although it’s a dangerous situation, also remember that it presents a good opportunity for learning to take place.

The time to teach kids about fire safety is not when the curtains are burning.

Many parents try to deal with their child’s emotions first because they believe that’s where the bad behavior is coming from. If your child gets angry and smashes his sister’s dollhouse, asking him, “Why did you get angry?” or “Why did you do that?” is ineffective. It focuses on the emotion or the act itself, not the child’s thinking behind the behavior, which is what you really need to address. Your goal is to help your child solve the problem from which his feelings emanate, the thinking that sparks the emotion. The key is to focus on the underlying thinking and the faulty problem-solving that triggers the whole crisis.

It’s important to acknowledge that most kids solve problems by being compliant. For instance, when you tell one child, “You can’t ride your bike, it’s too close to dinner,” that child might shrug and say, “OK,” and come into the house. But some kids solve problems by being defiant. If you tell another child exactly the same thing, he might answer you with, “I don’t care. Ben rides his bike! Why do I have to do this?” He starts raising his voice, getting more and more frustrated and angry. The underlying thought for the kid who acts out is probably something like, “This isn’t fair, you don’t have the right to stop me, other parents let their kids do it,” or some other thought which triggers a negative emotional response. Focusing this kid on his feelings of anger and frustration will notchange his behavior.

Instead, you have to focus him instead on the original thought or perception that made him think your direction wasn’t fair, and the inappropriate behavior he used to solve the problem of “fairness.” In life, the problem for everyone—including your child—is that things are not always going to feel fair. There’s injustice in life, and injustice leads to frustration. Or there are times when you want to do something, but it’s just not the right time. And that can lead to frustration and anger for your child if he doesn’t process it the right way.

How do you start effecting this change in your child’s perceptions? The next time your child acts out, instead of asking him why he did it, try saying, “Let’s look at what you do when you get angry.” That way, you’re teaching him that he’s angry and getting him to look at what he’s doing with the anger. The primary goal of behavioral change is to get people to do something different when they’re upset, angry or afraid. The next step is to ask, “The next time this happens, what can you do differently?” Don’t try to tell him, “You shouldn’t feel this way,” or “Those feelings aren’t valid.” Just say, “The next time you feel this way, what can you do differently?” It’s a very different process than the one that begins with “Why do you feel that way?” or “Why did you do that?” When you ask those questions, you’re going to get all the excuses and justifications which are so detrimental to actual problem-solving.

Make the shift. Focus on your child’s thinking, not his emotions. This is the most powerful step you can make toward changing his behavior.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


very helpful.. have a very very defiant 14 year old - mostly when he gets angry looks like I've been focusing too much on the feelings which is why I get little results. great article !

Comment By : Michelle Medeiros

You must know my son because you hit the mark again! I like reading your articles because they reinforce what I've been learning in the Total Transformation Program. Thanks for practical advice!

Comment By : Mom of 2

What can I do to keep from becoming so frustrated at my ADHD issue in my precious son. God made him, I love him, and I want to be the best mom I can be. Got some calming ideas for me?

Comment By : melkelcc

my son,10 yrs. old gets so upset and yelling he usually can not talk about anything. I first put him on a time out in his room then we can talk. So I like the approach of talking with him about what he does when he gets angry. What are some suggestions on alternatives. Joan

Comment By : Joan

i really agree with this... i always do this with my children and with my students....thanks for more insights....

Comment By : t. rose

This makes a lot of sense. However, when my 15 yr. old son gets to a certain level of anger, he seems to decide NOT to use those previously discussed alternatives like going for a walk, listening to music in his room, or playing his guitar. Then what? There has been enormous improvements in him this past summer and for that I am SOOO thankful. Yet he still has the tendency to disobey behind my back. Therefore, I told him until I see that he is trustworthy, no driver's license when he turns 16 in 2 weeks. That is quite a motivator for him and gives him incentive to shape up at least externally.

Comment By : Lisa

Can you offer some alternatives to the "bad" or undesireable behavior, ie. temper tantrum/anger? My son is an 8yr twin who has very low self esteem and jealousy issues. His brother is more balanced. It would be helpful to have some coaching alternatives on hand in advance.

Comment By : Marie

with a 17 year old daughter I am finding it increasingly difficult to identify time to discuss anything, nevermind better ways to handle anger. Whenever I open my mouth she is ready to argue, insult or verbally abuse me and it gets worse if I suspend a privalege because of her abouse. HELP

Comment By : momof2

I have i defiant 15 years old, he came to me to asked me for a ring and a locket that he gave his previous girlfriend 5 months ago, i said no, and inmediatetly start searching in my bedroom to look for it with out any respect, his dad told him if his mother said no thats the last word he got very angry and he spit at my husband face. my husband got very mad and told him that he doesnt want to see this behavior and he wants him out of the room, this morning we didnt talk at all and i apply "lets look up what you do when you get angry ? what can you do differently? i want you to think about it today, i love you have a good day. he was going for last day of summer school. now my question for you is, what would you do in this situacion when time get this rough? help!

Comment By : elisaalba58

i have a 7 yr old daughter whom I love w/all my heart but when she lashes out she screams how much she hates our dog, her sister, her dolls, and she is totally defiant. Maybe i will try your suggestion and see how that will result.

Comment By : frustrated mom

* Dear Momof2: Regarding your 17 yo daughter being verbally abusive, I wanted to let you know that we are going to have an article in EP very soon on that topic, so please stay tuned! This is a very real and painful issue that James Lehman treats separately from backtalk. To ElisaAlba58: Your son spitting in your face constitutes a type of physical assault. I recommend that you read: "There's No Excuse for Abuse: When Kids Get Violent".

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I have a 15 year old daughter who is very stubborn, selfish and always hating her siblings and cousins. She takes for granted that we have to do everything for her but she is not helpful at all.Shouting and demanding has become her habit. Please advise me on how to handle this situation.

Comment By : fa52

I have a 12 year old daughter who thinksshe is owed everything and does nothing for anyone. If asked to do anything she yells and screams and throws things. She has been diagnoised with odd and mood disorders. Not sure how to handle her so we have harmony in our home.

Comment By : msmishy

we have been dealing with our daughter for 10 years now, seeing counselors, used medications. She is add and ocd. After being thrown out of the house for not complying with rules because of abusive behavior and constant disruption of our family, she then proceded to get pregnant from a sociapath who was extremely verbally abusive to her. The only way to help her at that point and not put the child in danger was to allow her to move back in. We helped her care for the child for 4 years while she had various jobs, and even supported herself for a big 11 mons. We then moved to another state and offered her to come, she could have stayed where she was, but decided to come with us. We paid her apartment for 1 year to give her the opportuinity to find a job. A real job which only required us to babysit during the day. I has never worked out. My question is this....We have stuck to our rules, howev er, she gets so abusive with us it is still making my life a living hell. The problem stems from her believeing that parents must always be there for there children til they die...its their job to do things for her, and she doesnt need to be appreciative about it. She feels everyone owes her. she really gives almost nothing back. She has had alot of bad relationships and burns from friends, but I am sure she is responsible for them. She burns her bridges behind her with every job or friend. She is a plain bitch who is never happy. I dont even talk with her on the phone because she cant be civil, unless she needs something and then she can be sweet as pie in advance......because there is a child involved, we are kind of held captive to babysitting because we dont want her to suffer....But as add there is no consistentcy, no advance planning , she just throws requests to us last minute and makes me look like a bad mother because it would put my granddaughter in an unstable situation. I just dont have it in me to take the child full time...I have been too much with her in the past 10 years and cant take over her job....and that would be letting her off of her responsiblity, but what about the effects of all this on my granddaughter? My husband and I are at the end of our rope, I am going to have a nervous breakdown very soon......we live in Florida, which is very behind in social services and she does not qualify for anything because she has not followed their rules. She has no money and moves every 6 mos. This is bad dfor her daughter....we dont know what to do.. I have told her since she only abuses me, she must do all her "dealing' with her father...who she doesnt do this to. But she still causes chaos with anything she involves anyone with. While as a mother, I love my daughter, but I am getting to the point of hating her. please tell me something which gives me hope of some sort for this horrible daughter!

Comment By : ewdino

I feel much better this morning after reading most of these articles-a group of parents with challenges like many of mine. I had a tough night with my two sons-but things are in perspective after reading this. I have work to do on myself so I can parent them in a better way!

Comment By : laurab

I have daughter 17 years old who is waiting for when she will be 18 she can do whatever she wants (like tatoo, piercing...) without our permission. Her dream is to go away from us, parents, like rent an apartment and live alone. All of this making me very upset, I am trying to be very good mother and I see that she will not be able to do every thing by being away from me and I am worried, be honestly i don't want her to go - i think it's not good solution for her too. But whatever i said she doesn't want to listen, understand. Any advise greatly appreciated.

Comment By : Laura

* Dear Laura: It is hard to think of our kids moving out. It’s a big change. You’re relationship will change a little, but you will still have a relationship with her. It’s what you’ve been preparing her to do--to live independently, make her own choices and decisions. Kids long to live on their own whether or not they had good relationships with their parents or not. It’s not a reflection on you if your child is excited to move out. Instead of trying to stop it from happening, talk to her about it and discuss what it would take to get her ready to go. “It may be time for you to move out soon. I just want you to be ready. Let’s talk about what it would take to do it successfully.”

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My 4yr old boy is 95% terrific! When he gets mad, he gets MAD! He usually cried when he had to go to time out, but in Sept. he started having temper tantrums at home and at school if he didn't get his way(like being the line leader at school) It sounds silly, but those little things tick him off. He cries really loud and is a disruption in school. I've had to come pick him up 4 times since the beginning of the school year. There is no talking to him when he is angrily crying. Recently he is starting to kick the wall at school or his bedroom door. It comes and goes in waves, I thought we were over this but he just melted down again at school a week ago, the last time was in Decenber! I don't know what to do regarding this behavior at school.

Comment By : Ella

* Dear Ella: It can be so frustrating when kids act out in school. The best solution is to work with your son to develop new skills to cope with anger at home. You could have a conversation that starts with, “Let’s talk about what happens when you don’t get your way. When you don’t get your way you get angry. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to ________.” Then talk with your son about something he can do differently next time he is angry to handle it better. Due to his young age, keep it very simple. It could be as simple as teaching him to tell an adult he is angry and asking for help. It’s best with young kids to “coach” them when you see them getting upset- tell your son ahead of time that when he gets upset you will remind him of the plan and if he tries it, he can earn something extra later. Remind him of this in the moment as well and then walk away. It’s also helpful to role play with your son regularly and continue problem solving on a regular basis to help him learn effective skills to manage his emotions. When he does melt down at school again, support whatever consequence they give and then talk about the incident at home that night—again, the focus should be on what he can do differently next time he’s in that situation. It can also be helpful to let the teacher know what you are working on at home so she can support the utilization of those skills in the classroom. Dr. Joan Simeo Munson wrote a great article that addresses this topic as well. You can find it by clicking this link: Young Kids Acting Out in School: The Top 3 Issues Parents Worry about Most. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My child gets angry a lot over anything and he held his brother under water when he got mad at him. Do not know what to do. No ADD, no ADHD and kind of stuck. Do not know what other steps I can take.

Comment By : Ryan

* To Ryan: It can be difficult to try to manage an angry child, especially when he is acting inappropriately when mad. As James Lehman mentions in the article, it is helpful to focus on the behavior he shows when angry rather than his angry feelings. We recommend talking with your son after things have calmed down, and problem solving with him. You might first say, “What were you thinking when you decided to hold your brother underwater?” From there, you can talk about changing his behavior; for example, “The next time your brother is doing _____, what can you do differently?” You might also consider starting an incentive plan for your son, where he can earn a reward each time he chooses to do something more appropriate with his anger rather than act out. As James says, you can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings. I am including a link to an article on behavior charts and incentives that you might find helpful: Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Line Advisor

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Related keywords:

Angry Child, Fix Behavior, Teen Behavior, Child Behavior

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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