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Calm Parenting: Anger Management in Children and Teens

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Calm Parenting: Anger Management in Children and Teens

Many parents want to know how to manage anger in their children. Maybe your child acts out and is belligerent, and you’re at a loss to help him control those feelings. Not only is it upsetting to see, it impacts the entire family.

But here’s the truth: Whenever we want to manage someone else’s feelings, particularly our child’s, not only is it impossible, but it will also make the child angrier. No one likes to feel managed or controlled, and trying to figure out ways to contain someone else’s intensity will just add fuel to the fire. The natural reaction for a child—or anyone else—is to resist feeling controlled.

"Believe it or not, the best way to help manage your child’s angry emotions is to stop trying to manage them."

If you’re trying to figure out how to manage your child’s anger, you might want to take a closer look at the basic relationship patterns that exist between the two of you currently. Is your pattern one in which you try to manage him in other ways as well? Do you carry the common parenting myth that you’re responsible for the outcome of your child’s behaviors, feelings and thoughts? If you believe you’re able to succeed at that, your child will go out of his way to show you that you’re just not that powerful by resisting you through defiance and anger.

Related: Does your child push your buttons?

Believe it or not, the best way to help manage your child’s angry emotions is to stop trying to manage them. Recognize that you’re not responsible for how he feels or behaves; you’re only responsible for how you feel and behave toward him. Allow him to have his own feelings, perspectives and identity. Be with him as he experiences intense feelings of anger, rather than jumping into his box and trying to make him feel differently. This is when you can start being instrumental in helping him with this issue. If you’re emotionally untangled from your child, you will also see him more clearly and realistically, rather than from your own perspective.

For example, let’s say your 14-year-old daughter wants to stay out late and asks for your permission. This situation already has a catch, because as far as she’s concerned, there’s only one right answer and she already knows it. But let’s say your answer is no. She immediately starts tantruming, throwing things, and threatening you. Her anger is in full force and continues to escalate. When you try to give her your logical reasons for saying no, she just gets more infuriated.

It’s very easy to want to manage her anger at this point by giving in to her wishes—or by yelling or screaming back. But instead, pause, breathe, and give the problem back to her. If she wants permission for something, don’t feel compelled to say “yes” or “no” so quickly. Let her do the work instead of you feeling it’s your job. How do you do that? You can say, “I’m willing to consider letting you stay out past your curfew after the homecoming game, but how will you make it work for us? Dad and I give you curfews for your own safety. If we are to say yes, and I’m not promising that we will, what steps would you take to ensure your safety? And if we do say yes to your request, how will you make us feel like responsible parents when you are out until one in the morning?” In other words, it’s her job to get you to yes. This changes the pattern and often de-escalates a power struggle very effectively.

Related: Stop power struggles in your house today.

Here’s another scenario: Let’s say your six-year-old son is angry because he wanted to go for breakfast at the pancake house, but instead your family went with his brother’s preference, the diner. Your six-year-old spends the entire meal furious and sulking, and this mood continues for the rest of the day. Make no mistake, one of the aims of his fury is to keep an intense emotional engagement with you. You might feel annoyed by his sulking, or even guilty for not giving him what he wanted. Perhaps you respond by getting angry back at him or trying to talk him out of his feelings. You say something like, “Oh c’mon, Josh, it’s only a restaurant. Cheer up.” Realize that any of these reactions—guilt, irritation or your attempt to cheer him up—will usually only intensify his anger. He knows you’re trying to get him to stop feeling a certain way so he’ll just dig in his heels and prolong the uncomfortable situation. At this point, you have to be careful not to get angry at him even though your attempts to change his feelings didn’t work; this will only cause a counter-attack. Don’t give in or give him anything to respond to—remember, his aim is to keep the emotional interaction going. Seeing that he’s made you feel bad—or hearing you beg him for forgiveness—will only serve as ammunition.

So what can you do? Absolutely nothing. Allow him to be angry and sulk. Act towards him like you would any child who’s in a bad mood and not talking. Don’t force a response from him. So if you’re at the diner and you say, “Josh, could you pass me the bacon? “ and he ignores you, continue with something like, “Oh well, I’ll have to reach over and get it myself.” Essentially what you’re saying to him is, “You may be very angry right now, but I’m not. You can be in a bad mood and I will continue to be in my good mood.” The other important message you’re sending is the following: “I’m not mad at you for not feeling and behaving the way I would like you to. And I don’t love you any less because of it.”

But what about those terrible, awful temper tantrums? We all want to manage those because they’re hard to take. (I'm not talking here about a tantrum where your child is frustrated and just needs a hug—I'm talking about an "I want my way" tantrum.) It doesn’t matter if your child is three or 43, no one likes the feeling of trying to be emotionally controlled or contained. What is a child, or an adult for that matter, saying through his or her tantrums? “I am not getting my way; I want my way; and I want that to change now!” But again, trying to stop your child’s fury will only make it worse.

Like many parents, you may have used different types of anger management on your child in the past when he was in the throes of his explosion. You might have given in to his demands, or gotten angry and threatened him with punishment. You may even have tried reasoning with him. But any of these attempts probably just prolonged the tantrum and deepened its intensity. Remember, your child feels like the tantrum was a success once he has an audience and/or gets a reaction from you. What you want to do instead is make the annoying behavior as ineffective as possible—and to do this, you must ignore it. When ignoring it is no longer possible, separate yourself from the tantruming child. Separation is necessary until the tantrum is over. Understand that this is not a punishment. Let your child know that he’s welcome to return when he is calm. In effect, you’re saying to your child, “You are welcome to tantrum but not around me. And it won’t get you what you want.” If you continually make the behavior ineffective, there will be fewer tantrums.

What to Do When Your Child or Teen is Angry and Defiant

Teens who are oppositional, defiant or angry much of the time will frequently try to draw you into arguments and power struggles. The best thing you can do is be your solid self and figure out what your limits are: what will you or won't you put up with? Then disengage and let your child learn how to regulate his emotions of disappointment and frustration. And when I say “disengage,” I mean truly disengage. One word of caution: disengaging can enrage people, so don’t do it as a reactive, emotional response to your child. You can calmly say, “You have my answer. We can talk about this when we’ve both calmed down,” and then walk away. After that, don’t respond to him or “get into it” again, no matter how much he tries to draw you in. Your child’s goal is to keep things stirred up and continue the engagement with you. The more you react, the more he’ll pull you in, so you’re just fueling the power struggle if you continue. Now let’s say you go into your bedroom, but your child keeps banging on the door or keeps coming in to argue with you. Just ignore his attempts to pull you in—turn on the radio or the TV. If your child is old enough, you can go for a walk or a drive. Note: If you feel endangered at any point—if your child is kicking down your door, for example, or threatening you—then one option is to call the police and tell them you don’t feel safe.

6 Tips to Help You Deal with Your Angry Child Effectively

Here are 6 things you can do that won’t escalate the situation—or result in a power struggle—when your child is angry.

1. You can’t manage anyone’s feelings or behaviors—stop trying. You will only increase your child’s anger and resistance. Let him feel what he’s feeling; allow him to sit in his anger or disappointment. Remember, finding ways to cope with his uncomfortable feelings is a crucial part of developing into a mature adult.

2. Try to see your child as objectively and clearly as possible. Work on becoming emotionally separate enough to be able to see him without taking his behavior personally—or taking it on yourself. Understand what your child might be going through by seeing things through his lenses, not yours. Allow him to have feelings that make you uncomfortable.

3. Your child is not you. By accepting that your child has feelings that make you uncomfortable, you can better determine your response—and ways you can be most useful to her. And you can best help her manage her strong emotions by managing your own.

4. Think instead of react. Ask yourself, “When my child gets angry, what gets stirred up in me? What can I do with my feelings that won’t add fuel to the fire?” Remind yourself that your child’s job is not to behave or feel the way you think he should so that you can feel good—that’s your job. Your child is entitled to his own experiences. Pause and think, “What are the values and principles I want to live by in response to my child’s behavior?”

5. Wait until your child asks you for help in managing their anger. If you try to jump in and give advice without your child’s consent, she’ll probably feel you attempting to change her—and she’ll resist and get even angrier. If she asks for guidance or seems open to hearing ideas, you can talk to her and help her discover her triggers—the things you’ve observed that cause her to get angry or melt down. It might happen more when she’s tired, hungry or stressed about a test, for example. Maybe your teen daughter gets upset when her tween sister takes her things without asking. Talk to her about what you’ve observed. Next, help her with a plan of action. For older kids, it’s often useful to give them an acronym, like STOP, to help them calm down. This stands for “Slow down, Think, Options, and Proceed.” So an example conversation might be,

“Next time you’re really angry, Slow down and take a breath. Think about what you want to do or say. And then review your Options. Next, Proceed to action. Think about what you could do instead of screaming at your sister or pulling her hair. What will you do differently instead of getting into trouble?”

Remember, attempting to control or manage anger is going to make it worse, not better. Get yourself out of that role and try to understand what’s going on with your child and see things from her point of view. Ask yourself, “Is it really anger at me that I’m trying to deal with, or is my teen son angry at everything in general?” Pay attention. If his anger is impacting you, you'll have a different response than if he's upset about his homework. Use "I" statements with him to let you know how he's impacting you. "I don't like it when you yell at me as soon as you walk in the door." If your child is often angry at his teachers, his friends, or his siblings, then you can simply empathize and try listening reflectively by paraphrasing what he's saying. Just be there with him—not joined to him, feeling as if you have to calm him down every time he’s upset about something. Instead of getting into his box, sit next to it. You can say, “Wow, that must’ve been tough. Let me hear more about it. What do you think you can do about that? What really got you upset there? Let me know if you want some of my thoughts on this—I think I could help.”

Related: How to stay calm in the face of your child's acting out behavior.

Instead of blocking communication by judging, criticizing, shaming, ordering or lecturing, just listen. When your child feels truly accepted for who he is and where he is in his life, then he’ll be free to move on from there. He’ll begin to think how he wants to change and will begin to understand that inappropriate behaviors will no longer work to get him what he wants.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

This is so true. I had an extreme case where my adoptive 17-year-old son's birth mother passed away suddenly, and he wanted to jump in the car and drive 2 hours there by himself. I told him I would be glad to drive him there, or help him work out some other plan, but he wasn't driving there by himself. I've never seen my son so angry--partly at me, but mostly at all the struggles and challenges he had had growing up. In other words, the anger was much bigger than just me not allowing him to drive there. I just wanted so bad to give in--after all, he's hurting because of this loss--but I knew that under the circumstances it was dangerous to let him go on his own--even though he has driven that two hours and back many times before. For the next FIVE HOURS, he relentlessly came back asking to drive there by himself, and I just kept giving him the same message, "I love you and I'm sorry for what has happened. I'll be happy to drive you there or help you work out some other plan, but I can't let you drive there yourself." Finally after literally five hours, he came back, actually apologized for his behavior, then let me help him work out a plan to contact other family members and find out details on what had happened.

Comment By : Kenny

My son is 4 and is so angry. He has had alot happen to him in just 4 years, with an abusive father and his parents splitting up at such a young age. What do I do with him when his is hitting and kicking his 10 year old sister while we are in the van? He didn't like her halloween costume and he doesn't like change at all! Any help is greatly appreciated!!!!!

Comment By : WolfpackGloryGal

I just had this last night - Halloween. For weeks I had told my kidz no trick or treating. They're too old. They're teenagers. Last night, while I'm still at work, the text and calls start coming in "my friends and I are going trick or treating", "I'm going out with so & so", "can you pick me up at this time", and on and on. I was furious! The plan was for them to watch the dog while I handed out treats OR they hand out treats while I watch the dog. I barely got through the door from work and all he** broke loose. The boy went one way out the back door with his friends, the girl went out the front door with her friends and I was literally left holding the bag of candy. So, I locked up the house and went out to dinner with my boyfriend to my kidz favorite restaurant - Olive Garden. When they got home with their candy, which is all they wanted, they asked what was for dinner. They got leftover hot dogs from the night before. I showed them my doggie bag that I would be eating today for lunch. After a few "not fair"'s, they promised this would be the last time they would go trick or treating.

Comment By : luvmykidz

This truely does work. I have a 16 yr old son who is trying to control the intire family. Everything is not fair, not his fault, not accountable, etc. We ordered the Total Transformation and have only gotten through the 3rd CD along with the book. With my Husband and I making some changes in our behavior, and how we respond to his behavior, we are already seeing a difference. My husband and I no longer take anything my son says personally. Warning, the first couple of days of my Husband and I making some of these changes, my sons behavoir was the worst it's ever been. It drove him right into a tail spin, he couldn't handle it that he could no longer drag us into these screaming matches. Heres the good part, we have had 3 great days in a row and that includes the mornings before school. (only asking them to get up one time). If any of you have not ordered the Total Transformaiton, please do, it is impowering and truely helps not only your misbeahaving teen, but your entire family.

Comment By : lovingmyfamily

Some of what I have read here works great, but with this, I have frustrations. What about the child that will not let you disengage? He throws himself at me. When I pull him away, he runs back. If I go in another room, he follows. If I lock the door, he will pick the lock or kick at it. He is almost nine, so I can't leave him alone. Now what? The other thing is that his big thing is to get and keep all my attention on him any way possible at all times, especially if others are present. When I try to stop him or send him away, he escalates. I want to scream.

Comment By : Beth

This article was very helpful. I am raising my 12 year old granddaughter and she tries to tell me no everytime I ask or tell her to do something. Her mother was also like that and I see now how I let her control me and she still does to some extent. I am determined not to make the same mistake with my grandchild.

Comment By : Nana

* Hi WolfpackGloryGal: It is so tough to see your young child acting aggressively. When you are driving and he is hitting and kicking, we recommend pulling over to the side of the road as soon as it is safe, and letting him know that he is being unsafe and you are not moving until he can calm himself down. We also advise that you get your daughter away from him for her safety. When he is calm, then you can talk about how hitting and kicking are against the rules, and give him something else to do if he is feeling angry or frustrated. With younger kids, it helps to be clear and direct when setting limits. I am attaching an article I think you might find helpful: Hitting, Biting and Kicking: How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Young Children. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

So after reading this article, I got the feeling that the only thing you can do is say "yes" and pretend everything is ok. Does ignoring the situation work? I find it impossible to ignore something and do nothing to teach kids how to control their anger. Aren't we as parents and grandparents supposed to be teaching our children how to act in society or is there a total breakdown of authority in this generation. This article was disturbing to me.

Comment By : nightsong

To luvmykids: Don't tell your kids they can't go trick or treating because they're too old! If they still wanna trick or treat, let them! It's a harmless activity. My daughter is 16 & she dressed up & trick or treated this year. If she wants to go next year at 17 I will let her. If she's not embaressed then what's the big deal? Maybe you are embaressed for them to be out cause they're old which is selfish. You should've had your boyfriend help you give out candy & let your kids enjoy Halloween the way they wanted with their friends and not throw the restaurant in their face. I mean come on, how big of a deal is it to go trick or treating whatever the age. They are dressed up & nobody knows who they are right? I don't know how old they are but what if it would've been their last year wanting to go? Why ruin it for them? You should apoligize to them.

Comment By : ConcernedMom

I had organised for my 10yo son to stay at his best mates home last night so I could have a night out with a couple of girlfriends (haven't had a night out on my own for at least 6-8 months!!). When the time came for me to get ready, he said he wasn't going... I had had a shower, done my hair & makeup etc...all ready to go & then all hell broke loose! He upset me soooo much, I burst into tears & had to cancel 1. his sleepover & 2. my night out I was/ am so embarrassed / devastated with his behaviour & selfishness. All he seems to want to do is stay in his room & play his PS3 (which I have now taken off him). Not interested in playing sport... HELP!

Comment By : Help me!

I am trying to do this with my angry, adopted 13-year-old daughter. It is very hard, as my heart is pounding, to stay calm on the outside. She has begun throwing things at me when she is mad. So far nothing has hurt me or broken, but I do fear her escalating to the point of hurting me. She pursues me as well, won't leave me alone. She also won't talk to me for days on end, only glares at me or talks when she wants something. She won't talk about the situation except to yell at me. She has never been one to share any of her feelings, except anger, by throwing 2- to 3-hour tantrums. She can't be reasoned with. It's hard. I can let her have her feelings, but she tells me to shut up and acts very mean. Fortunately she's a sweetheart at school and all the kids and teachers love her. I can be grateful for that. It's just hard to feel like the mom who has given so much, only to be hated in return.

Comment By : Adoptive mom

It's called the Gandhi approach - passive resistance will always invoke a response - initially it will be sometimes worse but as time passes and the aggressor realizes that the resistance to violence is not changing on the part of the resistor (aka parent here), then the aggressor (aka child) will learn to control their emotions and behaviors better than they were doing before the change in the parent occurred. The article is not saying to ignore that your child has a problem and is acting out, it is saying to resist the urge to jump in and fix it to make yourself feel better or useful as a parent. It is suggesting that children can learn over time to own their emotions and to react to them differently when their reactions no longer have power to pull us into a screaming match, etc. It is suggesting Gandhi's approach of passive resistance which brought India its own freedom as a country and still kept the English as allies in the end. We're aiming for the same thing with our kidlets. Emotional freedom for them and allies in the end.

Comment By : bikesnfriends

* To 'Help me!': It can be really frustrating when you have tried to make plans for both your son and yourself to have some fun time, and then he refuses to go out. As Debbie mentions, when we need something from someone else, it puts them in a position of power because they don’t have to give it to us. What might be helpful for you is to figure out how to get your needs met without depending on your son cooperating. It sounds like you need some time with other adults, so we recommend looking at other ways to accomplish that. For example, you might still set up a sleepover for him, and also set up a backup plan that you can call a neighbor or a family member to come over and stay with him if he backs out of these plans. I am attaching another article by Debbie that I think you might find helpful: Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

* To Adoptive mom: It sounds like you are in a difficult situation with your daughter. The most important thing to keep in mind is safety-both yours and hers. If you fear that things will escalate to the point where someone might be hurt, we recommend looking at local supports for you and your daughter. A helpful place to start is the 211 National Helpline. Here, you can find referrals to helpful resources in your local area. You can reach them by visiting www.211.org or by calling 1-800-273-6222. Another resource might be calling your local police department on their non-emergency line to find out what type of support they could provide to you and your daughter if she is throwing things, breaking things, or trying to physically harm you. I am also attaching some other articles by Debbie that you might find helpful: Dealing with Child Temper Tantrums from Toddler to Pre-teen & Fighting with Your Teen? What to Do After the Blowout: 7 Steps to Defuse the Tension. Good luck to you and your daughter as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

* Dear Nightsong: I understand your confusion, so let me clarify. By no means should you ever let your kids off the hook for bad behavior -- holding them accountable and providing them with natural consequences is what helps them understand the impact of their behavior on others. As a parent, you are teaching them about sowing and reaping -- about how the world works. I call this being "parental" with them, which is our responsibility. Being "parental" means transmitting our values, beliefs, limits, bottom lines -- having a voice that expresses what we will and won't put up with. It also means that we're standing next to them and relating to them from our very best principles of strength and leadership. The problem is that often times we think we're being parental when we are actually just being anxious and reactive. I call this "anxious parenting," and it happens when we parent from a place of insecurity. When we're anxious, we often feel our only option is to control or manage our kids -- fix them or shape them up. We might feel this is the only way because we ourselves do not know how to take a strong stand with them. If they change (act better) we feel calm and validated -- we are not at a loss as to what to do. If they don't change, then we feel lost and angry because we don't know what to do next. We put our kids in charge of us instead of us in charge ( which is different from being controlling) of them. Too often parents are afraid of truly being in charge. We want their validation too much. But this will actually contribute to their anger and to feeling way too powerful. In addition, no one likes to feel controlled -- and our children will let us know they don't like it by resisting our efforts. So take charge instead of taking control -- your children will appreciate your leadership!

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Wow! This website rocks. You have good articles here and i really love reading them since my visit two days ago. 5 thumbs up for this website!

Comment By : joel

Parenting is indeed a very hard challenge for persons who became parents themselves. it's not easy to raise a kid,and to make him/her grow very respectful to the mom and dad and to all the people around him/her. it's more like trying to find happiness in a place full of problems. I mean it's really hard.

Comment By : Joel C

This article has many great points specially when it discusses how the child is looking for an audience and it’s trying to get a reaction from the parent. It’s a good idea to make the annoying behavior as ineffective as possible by ignoring it. Also separation from the tantrum is a good idea and is necessary until the tantrum is over. This is a good and healthy way of letting the child know that he’s welcome to return when he is calm. Basically, the parent or adult in this situation is saying to the child, this behavior won’t get you anywhere. It’s also important for the parent or educator to let the child know that being angry is okay. And the consequences given are for behavior not anger. Every child gets angry occasionally, but when anger, aggressive acts and negative comments become the norm, it is important for parents to take action to help their children.

Comment By : Stephanie D.

I understand about the conflict and anger that arises between the parent and the child, such as telling the child that they can't have a toy or they can't stay up late but my 11 year old son gets very angry at anything that goes wrong. Anytime he's annoyed by anything or anyone he gets extremely angry and yells and screams. For example if he spills a drink or if his pencil breaks while he's doing his homework, he freaks out and starts yelling. I lost my husband when he was 2 so I'm not sure if his anger stems from that or something else. When he does get angry over those things I try to tell him that spilling his drink is no big deal and that accidents happen but it doesn't seem to help. Any suggestions would be very appreciated. I'm at my wits end!

Comment By : Frustratedmom

* To “Frustratedmom”: Thank you for writing into Empowering Parents. It sounds like you’ve been dealing with this frustrating behavior for quite some time now. I can hear how much you want to help your son develop better skills to cope with his frustration. It may be helpful to problem solve with him ways he can deal with these feelings more effectively. Here are a couple of articles you may find useful when having these conversations with him: Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” You would want to pick a time when you are both calm and talk with him about what you’re seeing and what he might be able to do the next time something happens and he gets frustrated. As tempting as it may be to have this conversation in the moment it’s usually not successful. In the moment, you can give him a brief reminder about what he was going to try to do to calm down. After that, disengage, walk away and allow him to calm himself down. Keep in mind you may need to have this conversation with him several times before he starts to utilize the new coping skills. Rehearsal and repetition are going to play an important part in helping him learn new skills. We wish you luck as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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