Everyone gets mad sometimes, children and adults alike. Anger is an emotion that can range from slightly irritated to moderately angry, all the way to full-blown rage. A child’s anger often makes us feel uncomfortable, so there can be a natural tendency to try and change the situation for your child, so the anger will evaporate. Or on the flip side, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “bringing down the hammer,” to put a stop to the anger through intimidation or punishment. But the fact is, your child will experience situations that may trigger anger throughout life. You can’t stop the triggers, but you can give your child the tools to understand anger and deal with it.
“The way your child perceives a situation is at the heart of anger.”
From Zero to One Hundred in Sixty Seconds
Parents often express concern about a child’s anger in two areas: the intensity and the speed of escalation. The intensity of a child’s anger is typically tied to the thoughts he is having about any situation. For instance, most people who sit down to a bowl of cereal in the morning to find there is no milk are mildly irritated. “Great, now I can’t have cereal.” But some people get very angry about triggers that would be mild to others. Why? Often underneath there is a thought pattern—a script—that is triggered. Some people think “Great! Whoever used up all the milk this morning is completely inconsiderate! I don’t have time for this!” They take things personally.
Kids who are oppositional, defiant or who have trouble controlling impulses often lose their tempers in a way others don’t understand. Johnny’s mom shared, “I just don’t understand why he gets so mad, so fast…over nothing! It can be as simple as me asking if he has homework or requesting that he put his backpack away. No matter how nicely I say it, he takes it as a criticism and starts yelling.” That’s because Johnny sees almost everything his mom says as an effort to control him. Kids who are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) will fight against being controlled in even the smallest way. Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) is another diagnosis parents may hear from mental health professionals. It means a child (or adult) is having episodes of intense rage that result in behavior such as screaming, throwing or breaking things, and aggression toward others. This is a diagnosis that describes episodes of anger that come and go (intermittent) and are intense or severe (explosive). The episode may appear to come “out of nowhere,” and the individual has difficulty managing the intense emotion.
Responding to Anger
So what can parents do when faced with a supernova explosion of anger? Here are some tips:
- Don’t try to control your child’s emotions. You can’t – and that’s okay. You can’t expect someone to control their emotions – you can only ask them to control their behavior. It’s okay for a child to be angry, as long as that anger is expressed appropriately. It’s a clue for her – and you – that she’s not comfortable with a situation.
- Control your own emotions. A child’s rage will often trigger a parent’s own emotions. How do you usually handle it when people are angry? Some people are very uncomfortable with anger – it makes them anxious or fearful. If you grew up in a home where anger meant shouting and danger, your child’s anger may push some of your emotional buttons. If you aren’t aware of your own issues, you could respond in ways that are actually a disservice to your child (such as giving in to what they want or yelling back). If you start experiencing intense emotion yourself, take a breath and a mental step back. One trick is to picture your child as a neighbor’s kid. This can give you a little emotional distance.
- Make sure your responses don’t escalate the situation. Just because you choose not to argue with your child doesn’t mean you’re giving in. If your child needs some space to cool down – give it to him. If he’s screaming at you, it’s okay to wait to give a consequence. The time to say “That’s disrespectful! You’re grounded!” is not in the middle of an emotional tornado. You can always hold your child accountable later, when things are calmer.
- Help your child recognize when anger is building. There physical signs of anger that your child can start to tune into: stomach clenching, a feeling of tension, feeling flushed, clenching teeth. Sometimes when we’re angry, we actually hold our breath without realizing it. If your child can notice these signs early on, it can keep anger from escalating to rage. An ounce of prevention really can be worth a pound of cure.
- Brainstorm with your child. Many kids will experience or express true remorse after having an emotional “meltdown.” After screaming and throwing things, one teenager told his mom, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I do these things. There must be something wrong with me.” If he’s open to talking and willing to learn anger management skills, you can help him work backwards from the incident: what happened right before the rage was triggered? What was said? What was he feeling (embarrassment, frustration, disappointment, fear, anxiety?) There is always another emotion underneath the anger. Learning to recognize underlying emotions is a powerful tool your child can use throughout life. A word of caution: many kids – particularly those with oppositional defiant disorder – are not willing or trusting enough to explore this with a parent or therapist. If you make an effort to brainstorm solutions and he resists, drop the subject and see if you can come back to it at another time.
- Remember that emotion is different from behavior. The problem isn’t the anger; it’s the behavior that follows. You can validate your child’s emotions while addressing the behavior that is a concern: “I understand you were angry when I said you couldn’t go to your friend’s house. Sometimes there will be rules or limits that may frustrate you, but breaking things won’t change that rule or limit and will only end in a consequence for that behavior.” Then help your child identify more positive ways he can express his emotions.
Minimize contributing factors
The way your child perceives a situation is at the heart of anger. However, you may want to keep a calendar on her mood if it seems things are escalating. Does she tend to be more irritable if she doesn’t get enough sleep, skips meals or has poor eating/snacking habits or otherwise isn’t feeling well physically? Adolescence is well-known as a time of higher irritability for kids. This isn’t an excuse for negative behavior but it can explain why “little things” seem more irritating at different times. You may want to talk with your teen’s primary care doctor if the onset of your child’s anger seems to be connected to puberty.
Anger vs. Rage
Some parents worry because a child’s anger is beyond what they would consider “typical.” While it’s true some children exhibit explosive rage, you can still use the suggestions above to deescalate a situation. If your child’s anger is extreme, you may want to seek counseling for him and as a family. Even if your child won’t participate, you can go to get support with parenting skills. No matter what degree of anger your child exhibits, the fact is, he is still responsible for managing that emotion. And remember, it’s a learning process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with support and encouragement, you can help your child continue to strengthen coping skills.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.