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Child Rage: Explosive Anger
in Kids and Teens

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Child Rage: Explosive Anger in Kids and Teens

Screaming fights. Destructive behavior. Volatile moods. Do your child’s anger and rage make you feel exhausted and out of control? In a recent Empowering Parents poll, Angie S. commented, “I walk on eggshells around my 15-year-old son. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m afraid of his explosive temper.” In that same poll, more than 50 percent of respondents said that they end up “losing control and screaming back” when their child’s anger reaches the boiling point. But matching your child’s rage with your own angry response is not the answer. Janet Lehman, MSW, explains why—and tells you how to form a plan to help you handle their behavior.

By getting you to tiptoe around him, your child is teaching you to behave differently—he’s training you to anticipate his angry outbursts.

As a parent, one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do is manage your child’s behavior when they are in an angry, volatile mood. Whether you refer to it as a temper tantrum or extreme rage, I believe the most important thing you can do is create a “Rage Plan” to help you handle your child’s behavior. The following 5 steps are the basis of this plan:

1. Make sure the area around your child is safe. Make sure that the area your child is in is safe and that no one can be hurt if and when he lashes out. Remove yourself and any siblings from the area. Reduce any stimulation in his vicinity. Turn off the TV, lower the lights. The idea is to let your child wear himself out. (This step applies to adolescents as well as to young children.)

2. Try to get calm: Even if emotions are running high, work to calm yourself down. Talk to your child in an even tone of voice. Tell him that his behavior is unacceptable and that you’ll speak with him when he’s calmed down. Model good behavior for your child. Remember, kids learn from their parents, which is another reason you want to remain calm. You’re teaching him appropriate ways to manage stressful situations.

3. Don’t respond to name-calling or verbal abuse. If your child is screaming things at you, calling you names, or saying you’re “the worst parent in the world,” do not respond to it. Simply leave the room or send him to his bedroom. Don’t yell back at your child because it will bring you into his rage and make you the focal point of his anger.

Related: Teach your child that there’s no excuse for abuse.

4. Talk later, when you’re both calm: The time to talk is when you and your child are both calm. If he’s yelling in his room, he should not be getting your attention, period. Though it seems like you’re ignoring the behavior in some ways, later you will definitely want to let your child know that his behavior is not acceptable.

Tell him there are better ways to deal with anger than losing control. You might also have your child make amends if he broke something or hurt someone else. If your child is very young, you may want him to draw a picture that says, “I’m sorry.” If your child is older, you want to ask him to do something more meaningful for the person he wronged.

5. Give consequences for behavior, not the anger: Never give consequences for the feeling of anger—focus on the angry behavior instead. It’s important to give your child the message that it’s okay to feel angry. If your child is screaming and yelling but not breaking anything or hurting anyone, there would be no reason to give consequences.

If your child has just begun to lash out in rage when angered, it’s likely that these five steps are going to work fairly well—especially after you go through them a few times. Your calm, matter of fact response is going to teach him that explosive anger is not the way to deal with his frustration. If the behavior has been going on for a long time and it’s more ingrained, however, prepare to go through these five steps repeatedly until your child knows that you mean it.

Related: How to give consequences that work for your child

Long-standing Rage

Some kids’ rage is long-standing—in other words, they’ve been engaging in this type of behavior repeatedly, sometimes for years. This is when you need to learn about your child’s triggers. Once your child has calmed down, talk with him about his explosion. Ask, “What happened before you blew up today?” If your child comes home angry after school in a volatile mood, you might have to call his teacher and find out if there was a problem that day. Ask pointed questions like, “Was my child picked on? Did he do poorly on an assignment? Was he disciplined in class?” But remember, even if your child had a terrible day at school, it doesn’t excuse his behavior at home. After all, there are other ways to deal with having a bad day than by calling his siblings foul names, screaming in your face or kicking a table over.

Related: Tired of fighting with your child? Learn how to get through to him effectively.

Many parents of oppositional, defiant kids walk around on eggshells around their children, trying not to upset them. I think it’s completely understandable why you would get into that habit. But remember, your child isn’t learning to behave differently when you do this. In fact, by getting you to tiptoe around him, he’s teaching you to behave differently—he’s training you to anticipate his angry outbursts. So instead, do the things that you would normally do—don’t alter your behavior to suit your child’s moods. And again, have that rage plan and respond to your child’s behavior accordingly.

When you talk to your child about his triggers, always ask, “How are you going to handle this differently next time?” That’s the real purpose of looking at triggers—to help your child better understand them so he learns to respond differently the next time he gets angry or frustrated. The most important thing to remember is that helping your child deal with his anger now will help him manage these feelings later on in his life.

Destructive Behavior

With some kids, their explosive anger escalates until it becomes destructive. If your child breaks his own things during one of his rages, he should suffer the natural consequences of losing those items—or he should be made to replace them with his own money. Even a young child can help with the dishes or do chores around the house to earn things back. If your child is older, he can pay you back with his allowance or money from his part-time job. This is a great lesson because your child will clearly see that his behavior caused the problem: He threw his iPod against the wall—now he doesn’t have one.

Let me add that if your teenager is breaking your things or being very destructive in your house—threatening you, punching holes in the walls, kicking in doors—this is another matter entirely. If your child is doing significant damage when he loses his temper, or if you’re feeling unsafe, I recommend that parents call someone in, like the police. Look at it this way: If you don’t do anything to protect yourself, other family members, or your home, what’s the message that’s being sent to your child? He will learn that he’s in complete control—and that the best way to get what he wants is to be destructive.

If your child or teen has developed a pattern that includes breaking things, part of your plan would be saying to him ahead of time, “If this happens again and I feel unsafe, I’m going to have to call for help. I’m going to ask Dad to come in, call the neighbors, or the police.”

Related: Does your child have a destructive temper?

You Can’t Talk Your Child Out of His Rage

Keep in mind that you should never try to talk to your child in the middle of a rage or tantrum. Any attempt to respond to him at that point will just wind him up and reinforce his anger. Additionally, your child is not listening very well at that time. Your attempts to reason with him, lecture or talk to your child about the issue at hand aren’t going to sink in if he’s in the middle of a rage.

Instead, give short, clear, calm directions. Say, “This is not Okay. You need to go to your room until you can get it together.” If you have screamed back in the past or reacted angrily to your child, really practice that calm voice. If this is a challenge for you, try practicing what you will say ahead of time.

Does My Child Have a Mental Health Problem?

If at any point you feel like your child’s behavior is beyond a normal temper tantrum, or if you really can’t hang in there any longer as a parent, be sure to seek the help of a professional. I want to stress that having these behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean that your child has a mental health problem. Child anger is a normal emotion but one that people usually have a difficult time expressing and responding to. Whenever there is a doubt in your mind, talk to your child’s pediatrician or trusted health care professional.

Here are some times when you should seek a professional opinion:

  • If your child doesn’t respond even though you are consistent with your plan of action. Often the counselor will help you continue to work on your plan and will reinforce these ideas during counseling.
  • If your child’s trigger doesn’t seem to be rational or make sense
  • If your child isn’t able to deal with his triggers, counseling might be in order. If anxiety is the trigger, for example, he will need a better way to react when he feels nervous or embarrassed.

Remember, you can always change your behavior as a parent. Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t handle things the way you wanted to when your child lost control in the past. Maybe you screamed back or gave in when they had a tantrum or lost their temper. But none of us automatically knows how to deal with everything our kids do—it’s easy to panic. So give yourself a break and practice your plan and your calm response to your child. It will take time at first and you will have to do it repeatedly, but it will work eventually. Don’t feel bad if you were less effective in the past; you can always start being more effective today. 


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

I have tried the plan and most of the time it works really well. but how do you handle the situation in a public or social event?

Comment By : Ti

I like this article cause I have a 15 year old that is very explosive and sometimes I dont know what to do this article has helped me kind of understand her better and that I cant always control her Thank you very much for helping tool Amanda

Comment By : amanda

I discovered, quite by accident, that my son's rage was part of his learning disability. I've used behavior modification for years, and waited until he was nearly a teen before I "gave in" and made the decision to put him on medication. What a difference. He still has outbursts, but he felt so out of control, and the "meds" help him stay in control and calm all those random thoughts shooting through his head. Cutting down the distractions, turning off the TV, lowering the lights - that's all a part of controlling the rage, too. Between behavior modification and medication, my now 14 year-old is manageable and maturing.

Comment By : luvmykidz

* Dear ‘Ti’: It can be so embarrassing and challenging when kids act out in public. When going into public or going to a social event, be sure to discuss your rules and expectations ahead of time and talk about a plan for what your child can do to follow those rules. If your child is starting to stray from those rules, quietly and privately remind him/her of the expectations and that plan you discussed earlier. Remind the child of the consequences if they don’t try to turn things around. If you child does have a meltdown of any kind, and they are unwilling to leave the situation, tell your child once that he/she needs to calm down and you will talk to him/her again once they are calm. Then do your best to minimize the amount of attention your child gets from others and just ride out the storm nearby by either continuing to socialize, reading, or some other method to distract your attention from your child’s behavior. James wrote a really great article that includes a lot more information and ideas on how to handle acting out in public. You can find that article here: Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage? We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Hang in there.

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

We've been through just about all of these situations. Our son is now eleven and thanks to the TTP we have got through it and come out the other side. Many times I removed myself and my other son and sat locked in the van until he calmed himself down. I would also add to the above that if your child is showing any kind of rage or being out of your control while at home prior to a social occasion, DO NOT take him out where you have even less control. Even if these are family/important events, your child needs to know that you will not ignore this behavior, you will not reward it (by going out,) and that there is a consequence for it. You need to be able to contain the behavior in your own home and not give him/her any more power over you (social embarrassment.) It can be very, very difficult but not doing it, is worse.

Comment By : Alison

This is great advice. My only question is what to do when you tell your angry, screaming child to go to his room and he screams back, 'NO!'. If I try to leave the room instead, he'll follow. Sometimes I take him to his room but he's getting too big for me to physically take him there.

Comment By : AR

wow, had a rage experience with my 13 yr old son last week. hadn't seen this temper tantrum behavior in years. I try to stay calm but he will get in my face, follow me, and say very hurtful things that are very upsetting to me and my 10 yr old son. I repeatedly tell him to go in his room or outside, that I can't be around that and he won't. When he did go in the backyard he started throwing things to be threatening.I don't know what to do, to make him stop and I can't just watch him, feels like I am allowing it. He finally broke down in tears and we were able to work through it, then he is very remorseful.

Comment By : lessons

* Dear ‘lessons’: It sounds like your son’s behavior has been really challenging. A lot of parents feel like they are allowing negative behavior if they don’t step in and try to make the child stop. The important thing to remember is that you can’t make your son do anything—you can only control yourself and how you react to his behavior. It is best to stay very calm, take yourself out of the situation if he won’t leave, and to ignore him when he is throwing things around outside. If he does break something, you can hold him accountable for that later. It’s important to talk when your son calms down to explore what he can do differently next time instead of being verbally abusive and defiant. James wrote an article that talks about how to handle tantrums in the moment and then how to have problem solving conversations later on. You can find that article here: Managing the Meltdown. In summary, when your son is acting out, walk away from him and focus on taking care of yourself and helping your other child. We don’t want your 13 year old to get attention from acting out. Only intervene if there is a safety risk. Focus on teaching your son to learn how to manage his anger more effectively in the future. Good luck and hang in there.

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

* Dear ‘AR’: It is so challenging and frustrating when this happens. It is very common for kids of all ages to follow parents who try to walk away. We do not recommend trying to physically bring your son to his room, as that can make things worse. After all, it’s most effective to focus on what you can control and that is yourself. James Lehman said that when you walk away from a child during an argument, you show the child that you are in control. That said, kids will often try to get you re-engaged with them to compensate for that loss of control they feel. It would help to have a conversation with your son when things are calm to let him know that you will not talk to him when he is angry and screaming at you, and that it is not okay for him to follow you around. Ask him what he can do differently to calm himself down next time. Tell him you will remind him of this plan when he becomes angry again, and that he can earn a reward if he tries to calm himself; if he does not, there will be a consequence later. Then, the next time you are in this situation, give him this reminder and walk away. A lot of parents find it helpful to go into a room with a locking door and just wait until things calm down. Stick with these suggestions and with time, your son should learn that following you around doesn’t get him what he wants. Good luck as you continue to work on this.

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

Very interesting article.... I have been dealing with my 17 yr. old son's rage for the past 3 years, but unfortunately haven't been too successful. We've done counseling, have rage plans, know the triggers, etc. but when a 6 ft. 200 pound enraged boy loses it, the only thing I have left to do is call the police. My son has been diagnosed with a type of bipolar disorder that has rage as the manic phase, and it's tough to manage. He is actually in a long-term care facility now to stabilize his meds.... I can't even think about what the future holds for him, so I hope for the best and prepare for the worst....

Comment By : tired mom

luvmykidz- Like your son, my seven year old has frustration/anger issues, and he too has been identified with a learning disability called "gifted talented learning disabled." There's a discrepancy in his IQ. His verbal IQ is in the very superior range and his processing speed IQ is in the average range. Special education school staff tell me that this leads to more frustration for him than for kids with a more evenly balanced IQ. We've been trying various ADHD meds without a great deal of success. I was curious as to which med your son is on - is it specifically for anger/frustration? Thanks very much for any information!

Comment By : ts

I have been going through a very hard time for many years with my child now grown . From school days to adult hood to friends she has made who also verbally abuse me it hurts. I know my child has an underlying problem we must solve.But she continues ot runaway from e.She moved out and has used her baby as a tool to dicipline me or I will be cut off from seeing my grandbaby.She is very demanding and uses these tools until I apologize to her .And I have nothing to apologize about . Shes text messaged me some very hurtful narrations and over the phone tells me that I am [expletive] up and hangs up. I’ve offered to meet her at the church so I can talk to her and I have connected to outreach services which aren’t helpful because my abuse isn’t an abuse that these facilities offer help for.

Comment By : GodHelpUs

* Dear ‘GodHelpUs’: It sounds like your daughter’s behavior has been very hurtful to you. It is very tough when dealing with adult children because you no longer have the authority to hold them accountable for treating you a certain way. The most effective thing you can do in this situation is to focus on what you can control which is yourself and how you choose to respond to your daughter when she is abusive toward you. It might be helpful to seek some support in your area to help you come up with some additional coping skills as well as some new communication skills you might try with her. You can search for supports in your local area by visiting www.211.org. This website will direct you to your local 211 service, an information and referral service run by the United Way that is available in most of the United States. We are very sorry for the pain you are in and we wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

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

These are great tools to use. Would your advice be the same for children with special needs? My 2 boys have neurological issues (seizures and a tumor) that effect their behavior. Do you think this would be sufficient to help them learn coping skills, or would I need to 'add on' with other things?

Comment By : silenthummingbird.com

* To ‘silenthummingbird.com’: Thank you for your question. It sounds like you’re dealing with some really big challenges. It’s difficult for us to say for certain whether the tools and techniques in this article, or anywhere on our site for that matter, would be appropriate for your children. The best way to find out for sure is to check with their pediatrician. I hope this helps. Take care.

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

I just had an altercation with my 15 year old daughter. She is horrible to me and I have no one to talk to. She constantly tells me how dumb I am and that I am the biggest looser. She is always ordering me around and never shows any appreciation of me. She is physically abusive as well. If I tell her to go to her room, she says "make me" and laughs at me. I loved her so much as a little girl and I feel as if I have completely lost her. She throws things at me, hits me and knocks over furniture. Once,she threw a spoon at me and it split open my forehead. I've had to go to probation and court with her over her school attendance. The school staff, her lawyer and the court all blamed me. She acts very quiet in school. I would try to get her up in the morning and she would be aggressive and often kick me. I have read these other texts and see my future with her. She is very selfish and plans to be rich and famous, she never seems to focus on any ones feelings or consideration for others. I don't know how to handle her, I'm afraid because I find it very hard to even like her. Please help.

Comment By : klp

* To ‘klp’: It sounds like you are feeling incredibly overwhelmed and hurt by your daughter’s behavior and it’s easy to see why. You describe a good amount of physical abuse: hitting you, throwing things at you that cause injury, and kicking you. Whenever your daughter is behaving inappropriately or hurtfully toward you we recommend that you walk away and try to take some space and time to yourself. When your daughter is abusive we absolutely encourage you to call the police. With a child who has a long-standing pattern of physical abuse using the police is a great way to really send a strong message: There is no excuse for abuse in this house and I am not going to allow it anymore. We call it being empowered when you utilize supports like this. You might have trouble holding her accountable for her behavior but the legal system definitely has some ways to do that. Furthermore, when you need someone to talk to you can call the Boystown National Hotline for free and talk to a trained counselor about what is going on. The counselors there can provide support, crisis intervention, and referrals to local supports. They are available 24/7 at 1-800-448-3000. I am also including James Lehman’s article about calling the police so you can read about his stance on the matter: Is It Time to Call the Police on Your Child? We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

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

I ASKED MY SON ON PAPER WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WHEN YOU WROTE BURN IN HELL ON MY DOOR. HE RESPONDED ON THE PAPER BECAUSE I LIKE DOING BAD THINGS THAT ARE WELL DESERVED. DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON HOW I CAN HANDLE HIS RESPONSE.

Comment By : GRESS/PA

* To ‘GRESS/PA’: It would be helpful to tell your son that just because he thinks someone deserves to be treated badly doesn’t make it okay and that there’s no excuse for abuse. You can also try to do some problem solving with him to help him figure out what he can do differently next time. You can read more information about that here: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems." We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

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

I have child who is destructive he is currently in RTC gettinh ready to discharge yet is still doing the same things even there over $400 in damages there.. it is sad because even calling the police has failed to help. We have tried everything with no where to turn.

Comment By : mominWa

I'm a LBSW. I deal with situations like this, why is it that I can't deal with the situation I have with my son at home. Beleive me I have tried everything and nothing seems to work. I've tried redirecting, walking away but he follows me, talking when he calms down but it causes a new argument, calling the police, oh he listens but you can see the anger in his eyes and once they leave he just ignors me. Honestly, I like that cause I don't have to deal with anything for a moment. Couseling, man he's 13 and has been in counseling for 6 years. He's at the point where he lies to the counselor, runs away at therapy and she has to call the police to locate. Beleive me I'm at my wits end. I deal with bi-polar, all I want is peace in my life.

Comment By : momintears

* To “momintears”: I can hear how frustrating this situation is for you. It can be upsetting when you’re able to help other people’s children but feel at your wits end when it comes to dealing with your own. As parents, we tend to take responsibility for the choices our children make because we believe our children are a reflection on us. For that reason, an acting out or abusive child can make you feel like a failure as a parent. Ultimately, the only person who is responsible for your son’s behavior is your son. What may be most effective is to focus on what you can control. As Debbie Pincus points put in her article Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry, “you’re not responsible for getting your child to listen to you, but you are responsible for deciding how to respond to him when he doesn’t listen to you.” I would point out there are many ways you are being effective as a parent even if it may not feel that way. Redirecting and then walking away when he starts to act out is a great way to respond in the moment. Good for you for doing that because that is not always an easy thing to do. Following up later with a problem-solving conversation is another excellent way you are addressing his behavior. If he’s not ready to have the conversation at that time, it’s ok to wait a little longer to address the issue. If he’s still not open to talking about it, you could withhold a privilege until he’s able to have a respectful conversation with you. Keep in mind that, in the end, you can’t make your son make better choices but you can give him the tools and the opportunities to help him make better choices. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to address these challenges. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My 5 yr old has these rage sessions a lot. And they are getting worse. I stay calm, hold him , and let him know I love him and that I know he's frustrated but that we will not discuss anything until he calms down. He can't seem to control it and will sometinmes scream and yell for an hour or more until he finally falls asleep. Once he wakes he's the sweetest angel. It's frustrating to watch my kiddo be out of control. I get a lot of the "it's your fault" you just need to yell back and show him who's boss. But his yelling isn't hormones, it's frustration that he doesn't know how to fix or control. Many people in our lives say I'm doing it all wrong. I know how to deal with these sessions of his. I understand what's going on with him. But I still get the proverbial you don't know what your doing comments and they know better. I hate it. It just makes me angry that people blame me for his outbursts.

Comment By : my2sons

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