Child Rage: How to Manage 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 an Empowering Parents poll, Angie S. made the following comment:
“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 responding to your child’s rage with your own anger is not the answer. Rather, you need to have what I call a rage plan so that you know exactly how you will effectively handle the next outburst or temper tantrum. A rage plan puts you in control of yourself and the situation.
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 around your child is safe and that no one can be hurt if and when your child 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. Focus on Being Calm
Even if emotions are running high, work to calm yourself down. Talk to your child in an even tone of voice even if you feel as if you should be screaming at him.
Tell your child that his or her 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. And don’t take it personally. Simply leave the room or send him to his bedroom.
Also, don’t yell back at your child because it will bring you into his rage and make you the focal point of his anger.
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.
Don’t worry if it seems as if you’re ignoring the inappropriate behavior. What you are doing is not reacting to the yelling. Or, to say it another way, you are not letting your child’s yelling control your actions.
Later, when things are calm and at the time of your choosing, you can explain to your child that her behavior was not acceptable. Tell her there are better ways to deal with anger than losing control. But do it on your terms, not your child’s terms. After all, you’re the CEO of your household.
You might also have your child make amends if she broke something or hurt someone else. If your child is very young, you may want her to draw a picture that says, “I’m sorry.” If your child is older, ask her to do something more meaningful for the person she wronged.
5. Give Consequences for the Behavior, Not the Anger
Don’t give consequences because your child got angry. Rather, give consequences for your child’s specific inappropriate behaviors, such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, or property destruction.
Your child needs to understand that it’s okay to feel angry. We all feel angry from time to time. And sometimes we yell. We just need to learn to manage ourselves appropriately when we get angry.
In other words, let your child know that anger is normal and that there will always be things in life that make him angry. Then stress that he is responsible for and will be held accountable for all inappropriate behaviors that result from his anger.
Related content: Angry Child? Fix the Behavior, Not the Feelings
If your child has just begun to lash out in rage when angered, this plan going to work fairly well—especially after you go through it a few times.
Your calm and matter-of-fact response is going to teach him that explosive anger is not the way to deal with his frustration. And it won’t get him what he wants.
If, however, the behavior has been going on for a long time and it’s more ingrained, prepare to go through your rage plan repeatedly until your child learns to manage his anger better.
Understand Your Child’s Triggers
Some kids have been engaging in bad behaviors associated with extreme anger 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. You can ask him:
“What happened before you blew up today?”
If your child comes home angry and in a volatile mood after school, 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 punching a hole in the wall.
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.
Don’t Walk on Eggshells to Accommodate Your Child’s Anger
Many parents of defiant kids walk on eggshells around their children, trying not to upset them. I understand why parents do this. Angry outbursts are unpleasant and you do what you can to avoid them.
But remember, your child isn’t learning to behave differently when you walk on eggshells to accommodate his behavior. In fact, by getting you to walk on eggshells around him, he’s teaching you to behave differently. He’s training you to anticipate his angry outbursts so that you leave him alone or let him get what he wants.
Therefore, don’t alter your behavior to suit your child’s moods. Just have your rage plan ready and respond to your child’s behavior accordingly.
Managing 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 be made to replace them with his own money—or go without. That’s known as a natural consequence.
If your child is breaking your things or punching holes in the walls, make him pay to fix the damages
For kids too young to earn money outside the home, use chores to earn things back.
If your child is older, he can get a part-time job. This is a great lesson because your child will see that his behavior caused the problem: he threw his phone against the wall and he has to replace it.
Managing Threatening Behavior
If you are threatened or physically harmed, don’t be afraid to call the police on your child.
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 he will learn that the best way to get what he wants is with threats and physical abuse.
If your child or teen has developed a pattern that includes threats or physical abuse, 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 call the police.”
Remember, there’s no excuse for abuse.
You Can’t Talk Your Child Out of His Rage
Keep in mind that you should never try to reason with your child in the middle of a rage or tantrum. Any attempt to engage 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 him, or talk 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 OK. 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. Say it out loud in your car when you are alone. Rehearse the words you will use and your rage plan will be easier to execute.
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 these behaviors don’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.
But, 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.
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. We make mistakes. We learn.
So give yourself a break work on your rage plan for the next time your child explodes. Be patient and persistent and you can manage these outbursts and restore peace to your home.