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One of the most common reasons parents bring their children for therapy is concern about the child’s anger. How a child expresses this anger can disrupt a family and leave parents wondering what is normal and what to do about it. Although there are many causes for anger, there are a few strategies that can help parents better understand what the child’s behavior means and when to seek professional help.
Children get angry. They live in the moment and find it hard to wait or work for things. When they are toddlers we expect them to throw tantrums. But as the child gets older, the expectations for acceptable ways of expressing anger change. It is expected that they learn to not hit or kick, to not call names, and eventually to use language to express feelings and solve problems. It becomes a problem if a child does not develop these other ways of expressing anger as he gets older. Typically, tantrums begin around age two and begin to decline around age 4. If tantrums and aggressive responses to anger persist after this age, or if these behaviors return at an older age, it could be a sign to indicate that further exploration would be appropriate.
By adolescence, it is expected that the child can identify and express several emotions without aggression. Adolescence can be a time of mood swings, but the child should be able to express these moods safely and eventually work toward a resolution after calming down. Children and teenagers who experience frequent and intense anger, even if it does not result in violence, could also be exhibiting signs of underlying factors that could impair their relationships and independence if they are not addressed.
Anger can be thought of as a “secondary emotion,” meaning that the anger we see on the surface might be masking underlying emotions that can be harder to identify. These other feelings – fear, frustration, hurt, disappointment, etc. – are quite painful and give a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Anger can be very addicting because it serves as a sort of emotional anesthesia to numb these painful feelings. Rather than feeling powerless and out of control, anger can create a sense of power that numbs the underlying pain and makes a child feel in control of the situation. In reality anger solves nothing because, not only does it not fix the original problem, but the child must then deal with the consequences of whatever he said or did when angry. This can lead to more frustration and a greater sense of feeling out of control. With more pain and loss of control comes a greater likelihood that the anger and accompanying behaviors will return in the future.
Many things can lead a child to experience chronic and severe anger. Children who have experienced significant trauma might have feelings that are so intense that they become desperate to escape these overwhelming feelings. Anger can numb these feelings and help the child feel in control. Anger and aggression can be learned from an early age. A parent who deals with the child through overly harsh or punitive means can inadvertently teach a child to behave in a similar manner. In fact, overly punitive and authoritarian parenting is one of the greatest predictors of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in childhood. Cognitive and learning challenges can also result in problematic ways of expressing anger. The child might find school and life in general to be especially frustrating if it they do not learn as easily as other children do. ADHD can make it more difficult for a child to solve problems and control impulses appropriately. Underlying mental health concerns like anxiety or depression can also result in intense anger. Commonly, children will attempt to cope with these emotions through avoidance. They might develop intense interests such as a video games or reading that distract them from painful feelings. When adults try to take away the interest the child can become overwhelmed and desperate for another avenue of escape. An abrupt and angry response can occur suddenly out of desperation.
Dealing appropriately with anger typically involves identifying the underlying feelings, expressing the feelings, and learning to experience the feelings. This last part is especially important, because many children learn to escape unpleasant feelings at all costs. For example, many children can become angry in response to boredom. When needing to complete a mundane task, no matter how brief, these children might explode with anger. This problem is made more difficult by the constant stimulation and immediate gratification that the world provides today. It might be easier than ever to find distractions and opportunities to feel good immediately.
First, parents can help angry children by modeling how to deal with emotions. This also means talking to the child about what you are experiencing, how it feels, and how you are going to deal with it. It is valuable to sometimes do this in the moment and not only after the fact. For example, most children are aware that their parents become angry when stuck in traffic or when they are unhappy with another driver. This can be an opportunity to tell the child how you are feeling, what your options are, and what you are going to do. Coping with anger is largely about learning skills that don’t always develop on their own and have to be explicitly taught. When you see your child becoming angry, it can also be useful to identify underlying feelings the child might be experiencing. If you point out that the child might be disappointed because someone else ate the last cookie, you might be able to help him identify appropriate ways of expressing disappointment rather than expressing it as anger.
If there are concerns that the child’s anger is excessive, and he is not responding to some of these strategies it could be time to consult with the pediatrician or a mental health professional. Early interventions often result in shorter and more effective treatment than attempting to change patterns later in life. Identifying other contributing factors such as ADHD or learning problems is also more helpful when identified early. If you are unsure if the child’s anger is excessive, consulting with teachers, school counselors, pediatricians, or others who are familiar with developmental milestones could be helpful. Frequently, families will consult with a mental health professional to gauge whether further assessment or treatment would be helpful. And remember that a child’s behavior is a way of communicating. When he does not have the language or awareness to express himself with words, his behaviors will tell you what is going on beneath the surface. Instead of merely punishing the behavior and ignoring the root of the problem, change can require uncovering what the child is trying to communicate and finding more appropriate ways to meet those needs.