Everyone gets angry at times—children and adults alike. Anger is an emotion that can range from slightly irritated, to moderately angry, to full-blown rage. And it can happen quickly.
A child’s anger naturally makes us feel uncomfortable. As a result, we may try to appease our children, give in to their demands, or avoid certain situations so that their anger goes away.
Alternatively, we may “bring down the hammer” to stop the anger through intimidation or punishment. In short, we get angry at their anger.
The fact is, your child will experience situations that trigger anger. You can’t stop the triggers, but you can give your child the tools to understand their anger and how to deal with it appropriately and reasonably.
“You can’t expect someone to control their emotions—you can only ask them to control their behavior.”
So what can parents do when faced with a supernova explosion of anger? Here are nine tips you can begin to use today.
You can’t control your child’s emotions—and that’s okay. Emotions are normal—we all have them. But you can expect your child to control their behavior.
It’s okay and natural for a child to be angry at times, as long as that anger is expressed appropriately.
So, do not ask, “How do I prevent my child from getting angry?” Instead, ask, “How do I get my child to behave appropriately when they get angry?”
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.
For those of us who grew up in homes 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 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.
Also, understanding where you are at with your ability to control your emotions can give you empathy about where your child is in developing this skill. It’s not easy—it takes discipline and practice. And remember, our kids are new at this.
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. Give your child some space and time to cool down.
If they’re 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 tsunami. You can always hold your child accountable later on when things are calmer.
There are 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 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.
When you are both calm, talk about the incident. Many kids will experience or express genuine remorse after having an emotional meltdown.
After screaming and throwing things, one teenager I worked with told his mom: “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I do these things. There must be something wrong with me.”
If they’re open to talking and willing to learn anger management skills, you can help them work backward from the incident. What happened right before the rage was triggered? What was said? What were they 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 attempt to brainstorm solutions and they resist, drop the subject and see if you can come back to it at another time.
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. You can say this to your child:
“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 they can express their emotions.
The way your child perceives a situation is at the heart of anger. However, you may want to keep a calendar on their mood if it seems things are escalating. Do they tend to be more irritable if they don’t get enough sleep, skip meals, have poor eating habits, or otherwise aren’t feeling well physically?
Adolescence is well-known as a time of higher irritability for kids. This isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, but it can explain why “little things” seem more irritating at different times.
Some parents worry because a child’s anger is beyond what they would consider typical. Know that if your child exhibits 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. Even if your child won’t participate, you can go yourself to get support and guidance.
No matter what degree of anger your child exhibits, the fact is, they’re still responsible for managing that emotion.
And remember, it’s a learning process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can help your child improve their coping skills with consistent support and encouragement.
Kids diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) will fight against being controlled in even the smallest way. These kids have trouble controlling their impulses and often lose their tempers in a way others don’t understand. One mom I worked with shared:
“I just don’t understand why my son gets so mad, so fast…over nothing! It can be as simple as 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 her son sees almost everything his mom says as an effort to control him.
Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is another diagnosis parents may hear from mental health professionals. It means a child (or adult) has episodes of intense rage that result in behavior such as screaming, throwing or breaking things, and aggression toward others.
This diagnosis is marked by 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.
The techniques above are particularly important for ODD and IED kids. But remember, no matter the diagnosis, your child is responsible for their own behavior and should be held accountable for their behavior.
Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner 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 (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). 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 also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.