Have your child’s angry outbursts worn you down so much that you’ve simply learned to give in? You should know that this is not a phase or a behavior that will go away.
Anger is a fact of life. Everyone gets angry, including kids—they get frustrated and disappointed just like adults. The goal for children as they mature is to learn ways to manage their anger. Or, as I like to say, “solve the problem of anger.”
That’s because anger is a problem—it’s not just a feeling. And like many other problems, kids solve the problem of anger in different ways. Some learn to solve the problem by developing skills like communication and compromise, while other kids deal with it by becoming more defiant and engaging in power struggles.
As children grow up, most learn to manage their anger. Each time they experience new situations, they draw on the skills they learned previously. Most kids learn that tantrums don’t work. They learn that yelling will not help their situation and that hurting someone or breaking something will cause them more trouble than it’s worth.
But other kids go a whole different direction and practice a thing I call anger with an angle. They learn at a very early age that if they get angry and act out—or threaten to do so—the people around them will give in. In effect, they’ve learned how to blackmail their parents into giving them what they want.
A child who uses anger with an angle looks like they’re losing control. But in reality, they’re using anger to gain control of their parents and the situation. The anger gets them what they want, whether it’s a candy bar at the store or avoiding homework and chores at home. And that’s the dangerous thing. The fact is, a child’s behavior won’t change until they’re not able to get power from it anymore. And certainly, for a kid, control is power. As long as they get power from their behavior, they will continue to act out.
As an infant, a child’s behavior is certainly not calculated and manipulative. But as kids develop, if they get their way by throwing a tantrum or threatening to get angry, they keep doing so until they’ve trained their parents to give them what they want. And many times, parents don’t recognize what’s happening. It’s a natural progression that leaves families frustrated and overwhelmed by the time their child hits elementary school.
If you’re in this situation with your child, you will soon see their behavior escalate until you give in. That’s when anger and acting out do become premeditated.
When your child uses anger with an angle, they look like they’re taking you right to the brink. They’ll act like they’re going to throw a temper tantrum in the store. And then you have a choice: deal with that temper tantrum or buy them a candy bar.
Most parents buy the candy bar, which increases the probability this behavior will occur again. I understand why parents give in. They reason, “Well, it’s only a candy bar.” And I agree: I’ve got nothing against buying things for kids.
But the bottom line is, how does your child go about getting that candy bar or comic book? Do they earn it with good behavior or buy it with their own allowance money? Or do they intimidate and bully you into giving in to them? If they’re doing the latter, you will see them act out in restaurants and other public places when they don’t get their way. At home, they will threaten to have a tantrum or lose their temper to get more power over you.
This is anger with an angle. And make no mistake, kids use it to solve their social problems and dictate to their parents.
By the way, you’ll often see a child who uses anger with an angle go to school and do the same thing. That’s because this has become their primary way of dealing with problems. You’ll see them play brinkmanship, take all the adults in their life to the edge, and it becomes their primary coping skill. And when that doesn’t work, they’ll act out. In this way, they keep the threat of blackmail alive.
In my experience working with families, this problem keeps getting bigger and more explosive as kids grow up. And by the way, some kids use anger with an angle by shutting down. For example, your teenage daughter may stop talking to you until you give in to her demands. If you give her what she wants, this ultimately gives her more control.
Either way, if you let your child’s behavior control the situation instead of following your parenting values, you will have a serious problem both now and as your child gets older.
If your child has been using anger with an angle in your family, I think you and your spouse have to devise a clearly defined plan of how you will deal with this behavior. That plan has to include teaching your child other ways to solve the problem of anger besides intimidating you or misbehaving. The plan should also include how you will teach them other ways to solve the problem of not getting their way instead of manipulating you and taking it out on you and other family members.
I think parents have to deal with acting-out behavior in an organized way. You need to take away the power associated with the threat of your child acting out. Know that whether they act out in the supermarket, your living room, or a restaurant, you can learn to deal with that. Here are some things I recommend you do when your child is using anger with an angle in your family.
As a parent, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen if my child acts out?” If you determine that you can live with whatever happens, you can move on to the next step.
For example, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen if my child acts out in the supermarket?” If the worst that can happen is they’ll lie on the floor and kick their feet, let them go at it. Have a seat and let your child scream away. It may be embarrassing for those few minutes it’s happening, but your indifference will eventually teach your child that their acting-out behavior no longer controls you.
Just be sure to insulate yourself from real risk. If the worst that could happen is your child will run onto the highway, that’s too risky.
Decide what you’ll do ahead of time if your child frequently acts out in public or at home. Know what you’ll do before the anger and intimidation start. Will you leave the room or tell them they’ll have consequences for their behavior? Try your best to speak clearly and calmly when your child is having a tantrum. Don’t get into a power struggle with your child over whatever they’re trying to use anger to accomplish.
After the incident, briefly discuss what happened with your child so they can learn skills to help them deal with the situation differently next time. If you don’t do this, know that their behavior is not going away on its own. In most cases, it builds on itself over time.
Remember, every time your child acts out over something they want, a few things happen:
So always ask yourself, “What is my child learning, and what do I need to teach them to do differently?”
You have to sit down with your child and say:
“You got really angry there, and I understand why. You wanted a candy bar, and I wouldn’t get it for you. But that behavior only got you into trouble. Next time we’re in the store, and you want something, and I tell you ‘no,’ what can you do differently besides throwing a temper tantrum or yelling at me that won’t get you into trouble?”
Your child doesn’t need to learn to understand their feelings. Rather, they need to learn that when they get angry, they make choices—choices they will be held accountable for. So, from now on, they have to learn to make more choices that are positive and don’t get them into trouble.
The first thing you have to determine is whether your child is actually losing control or if, instead, they’re giving you cues and signs as a warning to give in to them. If the latter, consequences are essential. Many people will tell you not to give your child a consequence for acting out of control or throwing a tantrum because they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions over which they don’t have control.
In my opinion, if your child loses control once or twice, you may want to hold off on the consequences. But if losing control becomes a pattern—if losing control is how they deal with things regularly—I think there should be consequences.
Their behavior inconveniences others and might even put your child or others at risk, particularly if they’re doing it in the car while you’re driving. So, don’t let your child off the hook with “oh, he lost control.” That’s exactly how they’re manipulating you. Their angle is, “I lost control—I couldn’t help it.”
Many parents get suckered in by that excuse. But I would tell you that if this acting out happens more than once in a while, your child should be held accountable, and there should be consequences. And afterward, there should be coaching so that your child understands there are alternative behaviors that will work better for them. Your child may not immediately respond to coaching, but keep at it and praise them when you see them handle a situation appropriately.
Behaviors for which people are held accountable and receive consequences tend to diminish over time. Conversely, behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase. It’s just that simple: if you reward the acting out or the threat of the tantrum, it won’t go away. A child who’s blackmailing you with temper tantrums over a candy bar in the supermarket today is the same kid who will stay out all night when they don’t get their way.
Again, I think you have to decide: “What’s the worst that could happen if I don’t let my child manipulate me?” Will your child’s behavior escalate when you start to deal with it? Yes, it will. But I think the more guidance and support you have, the better you’ll be able to manage.
Believe me, if your child isn’t taught these all-important problem-solving skills when they’re young, they’re at a higher risk of spending their adult life struggling to make good decisions. If they’re lucky, they might come to grips with their self-defeating strategies and lack of appropriate problem-solving skills. This usually occurs after many failures, disappointments, and struggles. As a parent, we want you to know that you have the power to help them face their problems now.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.