What is Anger in Children and Teens?
Anger is an emotion that is temporary and combines physiological arousal and emotional arousal. Healthy anger occurs when the intensity of the feeling matches the event, and the anger is managed appropriately.1 Anger has three components, physical, cognitive, and behavioral.2
- Physical: How the body prepares for “fight or flight” (for example: inducing a rush of adrenaline and increased heart rate).
- Cognitive: How we perceive and think about what is making us angry (for example: thinking something is unfair, wrong, or undeserved), these thoughts generate emotion that can intensify anger (like feeling betrayed).
- Behavioral: How we express our anger (for example: slamming doors, storming away, raising our voice, hitting others).
Some doctors in the field have suggested that anger disorders should be a diagnostic category of their own, but currently there is no diagnosis for children dealing with anger issues.3 Children and teens dealing with anger issues are sometimes also dealing with a co-occurring mental health disorder.
Signs your child needs help with their anger4,5
- They can’t control their aggressive impulses and physically hit or hurt others, which continues past age 5
- Severe and frequent tantrums that persist into preschool and school-age years
- They frequently have angry outbursts, it seems they are always carrying a “full tank” of anger that is always ready to spill
- They are older than the age of 2 and are defiant on a regular basis
- They are not able to constructively problem solve or take responsibility for their role in creating the situation, they constantly feel victimized and “picked on”
- They frequently lose friends, alienate adults, or are always in conflict
- They are preoccupied with revenge
- They threaten to hurt themselves physically (or do hurt themselves physically)
- They damage property
- They repeatedly express hatred toward themselves or someone else
- They hurt smaller children or animals
What does Anger look like? 6
- Clenched fists
- Tightness or tenseness in their body
- Verbal outbursts
- A particular facial expression
- Physical aggression (ex: hitting)
The severity and frequency can vary from child to child depending on the basis of their anger. Some children show intense anger and erupt quickly and intensely in reaction to an adult setting limits, teasing, a minor criticism, or playing a game when the outcome is not favorable or the rules are in question. These children become totally consumed by their anger during intense periods of screaming, hitting, kicking, biting, etc. that can last an hour, with the child unable to be distracted and tuning out soothing words of others. Some children dealing with anger can otherwise be sweet and cooperative, other children express anger on an ongoing basis.3
What causes Anger in Children and Teens?1
Anger can be triggered by any number of causes. Below are some underlying reasons children may be dealing with anger:
- Stressors: Can include conflicts with peers or teachers, teasing, pressure from parents or academic failures.
- Parenting: Parents who are overly strict or harsh and use frequent physical punishment have children that develop low self-esteem and anger difficulties. Having parents who manage anger poorly creates children who manage anger poorly.
- Grief: A child may be stuck in the grieving process.
- Social Skills Deficits: Children lacking social skills find it difficult to get along with others and become frustrated and angry.
- Learning Disabilities: Frustration of not being able to learn the same way peers do can result in anger.
- Temperament: A child’s natural temperament is determined by as much as 50% by their genetic makeup, some kids naturally have a temperament that makes them irritable, short fused, and easily frustrated.
- Sensory Integration Dysfunction: Children with sensory integration problems overreact to everyday stimuli and can lead to anger.
- Language-Processing problem: Children who do not know how to express their feelings with words can become angry and explode.
- Mood Disorder: Children who are bipolar, depressed, or anxious may develop angry outbursts.
- ADHD: A combination of impulsive behavior and constant frustration can result in angry outbursts.
- Abuse (sexual, physical and emotional): Children who are maltreated are more likely to develop aggression and inappropriate behavior.
What can be done to treat Anger in Children and Teens?
Uncontrolled eruptions of temper negatively affect relationships, friendships, and school.7 Helping your child learn to deal with anger in a healthy way has many benefits. In the short term it stops anger from causing your child and your family distress. In the longer term, it helps them learn to solve problems and cope with emotions.6 With help, these children become “assertive”and capable of communicating their frustrated feelings clearly and appropriately, preferring to seek solutions and capable of compromise . As adults they’ll be able to move through their anger quickly and resolve conflicts.2
Treatment for children and teens in behavioral or group therapy usually focuses on:8
- Providing coping and problem-solving skills to deal with anger, use of coping statements
- Improving their ability to regulate behavior and manage anger
- Goal setting, organizational skills
- Perspective taking, social problem solving, making friends and negotiating with peers
- Relaxation techniques including counting and taking deep breaths
- Biofeedback that makes children aware of their increased heart rate and frustration
Some ways parents can help:4.6
- Don’t judge them for their anger, let them know that all feelings are allowed, only actions need to be limited, such as hitting.
- How you respond to anger can influence how your child responds to anger, bring calm to the situation, and don’t yell at your child.
- Work together with your child to try to figure out what triggers their anger
- When you see early warning signs of anger, give your child a gentle reminder that you’re noticing angry signs and now could be a chance to try their calming strategies.
- Have a specific goal you work toward (eg- keeping tantrums away during the morning) and keep track of progress.
- Use positive feedback when they’re trying their strategies or meeting a goal.
- Set limits- allowing feelings does not mean you allow destructive actions. Kids should not be allowed to hit others, including their parents or destroy property.
1 Cognitive Strategies for the Treatment of Anger
2 Powerful Parenting: Anger Management Tips for Children
3 Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
4 Michigan State University Extension
5 National Association of School Psychologists
6 National Health Service (United Kingdom)
7 Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder
8 National Association for School Psychologists