Anger with an Angle: Is Your Child Using Anger to Control You?

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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.

How Anger With an Angle Develops

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.

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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.

How to Stop Giving in to “Anger with an Angle”

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.

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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.

Ask Yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen if my child acts out?”

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.

Make a Plan for Dealing With Your Child’s Angry Outbursts

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 Outburst: Talk to Your Child about What Happened

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:

  • They’re not learning to deal with their urges.
  • They’re not learning how to handle delayed gratification.
  • They’re not learning how to get what they want appropriately.
  • Acting out becomes their only problem-solving skill, their only way of getting things.

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.

Should You Give Consequences for Losing Control?

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.

Conclusion

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.

Related content:
Dealing with Anger in Children and Teens: Why Is My Child So Angry?
When Your Child Uses Anger as a Weapon

About

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.

Comments (14)
  • V.Velez
    I been in a big struggle for a couple a years my now 13 year old son is just been worse and anger is escalated more more I have a 6 year old daughter single mom trying to move on in the world but all the problems I been havingMore with him and he just got expelled from school is been hard to finding another school for him and he don't cooperated I'm very tired of the situation at home he just treated everyone bad and so t care if he hurt anyone my mom try to help but he disrespect her too just wish I could find help
  • Tomi Oni
    I am so glad I came across this website at this time.Thank you for the insight.
  • chez11

    I have a 8 year old boy and a 4 year old. I am a single parent mom. My 4 year old is good as gold but my 8 year old frequently loses his temper and lashes out and throws things. His behaviour at school is good but when he is home he tends to be bossy and if he gets bored or annoyed with something he will start shouting and being horrible to me and his brother. 

    Often he says he hates his brother because he in interrupts when he wants to speak or he gets more attention than himself. Which isn't always true.

    Other times he will be happy to sit and play with his brother either with their toys or play outside together. 

    His temper tantrums seem to be getting worse. He will punch his little brother in his side or he will touch me. We was at the shops the other day and he was in a terrible moods and shouting at his brother ands I told him not to but as usual he takes no notice. When we got out the car He was still shouting while people were walking past. Then he punched me hard in my arm. I grabbed him and shook him and told him not to do it again.Then he went in the shop and was running  riot and laughing his head off with his brother.I told them it's not a playground. At the checkout he come running,and barged into me nearly knocking me over.

    One time a few months ago he was shouting his mouth off and being threatening at him.We live in a flat with an elderly couple underneath. Sometimes they ask if everything's ok. He was shouting and even though I would stay calm and tell him to stop,he started throwing things around and threatening to kill me. He ended up getting a glass tumbler and smashing it on the wall.I told him this is really bad and I won't forgive him for that. He never even said sorry.

    Now tonight after me asking about school and everything.I cooked dinner and we sat peacefully which made a change. He was playing his game console,so was his brother. Then after a few hours he got bored and wanted his brother to play something with him . It was almost bedtime and he didn't want to.So my 8 year old started getting mad. Shouting at him and making him cry. I told him to stop and leave him alone. He ended up throwing things at my head. Small hard toys ,I had to shield my head and he was throwing at his brother too. I told him to stop.He ransacked the living room and picked up a chair to throw at me. To stop him I had to grab hold of him and shook him and scratched his neck. He started crying and shouted that he was bleeding.Next thing there was a knock at the door.It was our neighbour.Asking what's happening. She wanted to see my son but he wouldn't go. She gave us some biscuits.Said boys always have outbursts like that. But it's more than an outburst.

    I've Bern crying my head off tonight.

    • Alison White

      Hi

      I relate to your situation I have boys same ages and attitudes. Please don’t let your child’s physical behaviour make your behaviour physical...you’re only upholding its use. Definitely use a consequence rather than just telling him to stop. Be strong. His behaviour is NOT ok, it’s against house rules. He will get bigger. Please give this a go..every time he goes against principles...not just the biggies. No electronics until he makes amends xx

  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Ming N 

    I’m so

    sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing with your son, and the

    choices he is making right now.I hear

    your concern for your family’s safety if your son continues to use drugs and

    sneak in his friends without your permission.At this point, I recommend working with local supports, such as law

    enforcement, to determine what steps you can take if your son is running away,

    bringing drugs home, sneaking in people who might be on drugs or selling them,

    or otherwise behaving in an unsafe manner.We have a https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-talk-to-police-when-your-child-is-physically-abusive/ which might be helpful in guiding this conversation.I recognize what a difficult situation this

    must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving

    forward.Take care.

  • cayitacote

    I have a 14 year old daughter who lived with me since she was 9 months old. About a month ago I took her with her dad who she's not seen since she was 6. I couldn't do more for her :( Since she was little, she 's been very manipulative with me and being a single mom with no male figure at home makes it a bit difficult. It doesn't help that my mother embrace her behavior when she was little.  The last 3 years she has become defiant, direspectful, manipulative, and has brought boys to my home while I was sleep. I found a diary where she wrote that she hated her life and that she would do whatever including getting child services involve so that she could go to a foster home. I had her under therapy for 3 years and we were working on self worth  and her selfsteem, because she had none. I had spoken with her about family values, principles, respect  and so much more, but it seems her psychological switch will  turn on and everything i taught her will vanish. She knew about consequences and what those meant, but she still did what she pleased and dealt with consenquences right after.

    She now lives with her dad in Colombia and things are not better. Yesterday she was almost arrested for stealing. Deep down, I know my daughter has a good heart because I've seen her in her good state of mind, but I'm affraid that her teenage years are taking the best of her and she's eventually going to get lost.

    She was a great student, great friend, belong to a Cheer leading team, was a team player, is a sassy younglady, sweet, kind but something is wrong with my child. Her father is now helping her heal what ever skeletons she has that keep resurfacing and hopefully he's got a better/strong temperament to deal with her. She keeps saying to her dad "my mom was never authoritative  with me"... 

    I had someone from the Sheriff come to our house  and talked to her about safety and respect towards adults. Any advice will be greatly appreciated..

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      cayitacote 

      I hear you.I can

      only imagine how challenging it must be for you to not only experience this

      kind of behavior from your daughter, but also to see it continue now that she

      is living with her dad.Since your

      daughter is not currently living with you, it could be helpful to focus on

      taking care of yourself right now.Self-care is an important, yet often overlooked, component of effective

      parenting, and can impact your current interactions with your daughter.It can also help you to be more effective if

      your daughter resumes living with you.If you are not currently working with anyone, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.211 is a service which refers people to resources

      in their community, such as support groups or counselors.I wish you and your daughter all the best

      moving forward.Take care.

  • Crystal2582
    My son has been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, mild ocd and, now, oppositional defiant disorder. He has also had school refusal that has been going on since last year.  I have lost my job over this and he is getting worse. I won't be able to pay for the therapistsMore or his medication in about a month.   He steals my phone so he can play a game on it when his consequences included no screen time.  He acts like he has no remorse.  He pushes me and screams at me.  Everyone looks at me like I'm a bad parent and he isn't being disciplined at home, which is not true.   We are about to be homeless.  I am a single mother and losing my own sanity.  I need help.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Crystal2582 

      I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you are

      experiencing with your son.I hear how

      much his behavior is impacting various aspects of your life, and I’m glad that you

      are reaching out for support.One

      resource which might be helpful is the 211 Helpline.211 is a service which connects people with

      supports in their community, such as housing services, employment assistance,

      support groups, as well as many others.In addition, many of the referrals provided are for services which are

      free, low-cost or available on a sliding scale.You can reach this service by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by going to http://www.211.org/.I recognize how challenging this must be for you, and I wish you and

      your son all the best moving forward.Take care.

  • Anna gale

    Need some advice please

    I have a 17 year old daughter that I had to send to my sisters house last wk due to her ongoing physical and verbal abuse she serves to myself and her younger sisters. In the past I have had SW counsellors, psychologists etc involved trying to help her and me, the the thing is she also has a medical condition vp shunted for hydrocephalus since 9 months old and is very clever in using this ' special needs card' I know she is extremely clever and minipulates every situation to suit her needs and her wants, I'm at the end of my brain trying to figure out what to do, I love her but can't tolerate her abuse anymore and her sisters are tired of her tantrums. I had planned to take her away in two wks time for s few days, just the two of us as she's better on a one to one, looking for some Genuine advice with this one

    Star

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Anna gale 

      It can be quite

      difficult when you are experiencing https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-odd-child-is-physically-abusive-to-siblings-and-parents-help/, in addition to witnessing your other

      children go through this as well.  Although your daughter has a medical

      condition, she is still responsible for her behavior and actions and does not

      excuse her abusive behavior.  I encourage you to continue working with

      local resources to help her learn more appropriate coping strategies.  It

      could be a good opportunity to work on these skills when you have some time

      with her one-on-one as well. Our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/8-steps-to-anger-management-for-kids/, might offer a starting point for this

      process.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are

      going for you and your family.  Take care.

  • Jess
    We have a 14 year old we have known for two years but has been in a therapeutic home and we are now adopting him. He is very angry and sometimes will even pack his bags to run away and walk out the door when he doesn't get whatMore he wants. I am afraid this is going to become the norm and he will end up going to friends houses that are not appropriate for him to even be hanging out with. He is African-American and we are Caucasian he also has a brother and sister that have lived with us for three years. He hates his sister from a previous home situation where they were abused and sometimes she lied on him to not get herself beat. my biggest concern right now though is he desires to do nothing but what he wants to do which is play sports and videogames he will not do any chore it's an argument or have to hold something over his head and when we don't have something he just won't do it. Any advice?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Jess 

      Thank you for writing in.  I hear how concerned you are

      for your 14 year old, and the choices he is making.  Something we often

      recommend when you are facing multiple challenges is picking one or two

      behaviors to focus on, rather than trying to address everything at once. 

      In addition, I recommend prioritizing those issues which could potentially be

      safety issues, such as https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/running-away-part-i-why-kids-do-it-and-how-to-stop-them/.  It could be useful to coordinate your

      efforts at home with local resources, such as his caseworker or other

      therapeutic supports currently in place. I wish you all the best, and I hope

      that you will check back and let us know how things are going for you and your

      family.  Take care.

  • Catherine
    PS- I already understand his possibly being angry due to our illnesses and loss. We had lots of therapy that didn't help though. Now, I feel too sick to be "on top" of a 21 yr old's behavior. Making him  move is a nightmare and living alone with serious illnessMore is a nightmare. I understand how his Dad couldn't fight anymore, but I think at some point parents get angry too. I've watched my sweet husband get hammered and abused while his life ticked away. Now this young man still lies and doesn't lift a finger to help on his own. I looked for the organization "tough love," but they went out of business and no longer exist???
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