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DEAR PIP: How do I know if there is a bigger problem with my child's anger?

Updated: May 14, 2022

I've gotten a variety of questions related to anger among elementary-aged kids so rather than addressing each one, I've combined some of my thoughts in response to the topic as a whole.

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DEAR ALI: How do I know if there is a bigger problem with my child's anger?

Anger is a natural feeling we all feel. The biggest difference in our anger vs. a child's anger is how we manage it. Young kids aren't able to verbalize what is frustrating so it often manifests into outbursts. It is a lot easier for them to express anger than to understand it's origin and articulate it. That would also require a part of their brain that is still under construction!

Anger is often a sign of distress. Let's talk about what that means, how we can help our child deal with anger in the moment, how important it is to explore root causes of anger, and some parenting strategies. I will also include a list of signs that there may be a bigger issue than distress to your child's anger.

One of the first things we can do with our young child's anger is validate it. Calmly mirror what they are saying and feeling. It can help by kneeling to their level and bringing your calm energy down to them. That doesn't mean you have to agree with why they are upset, but it means you show them you understand just that they are upset. That's a great start. Show them you're on their team and you will help them face their big feelings.

Many psychologists agree that anger is a natural response to distress. It can be either physiological distress (ADHD, anxiety, physical pain or a biological issue for example) or emotional distress (neglect, being left out, etc.). Understanding the root cause of the distress can often lead to the best strategy for managing it and/or responding to it. Is a friend or classmate saying something mean or leaving your child out of classroom play? Is your child particularly irritable on mornings after staying up too late? Is there a physical issue that might be causing pain? Is there a new sibling in the house? Is your child lacking confidence? Does s/he have a speech issue or learning disability and is frustrated when people can't understand them? Pinpointing when and why your child is angry can help you begin to see it differently. When you see a tantrum or outburst, you are really only seeing one piece of the entire puzzle. And when you're sleep deprived yourself or managing four kids and your career, it's difficult to extract your emotional response to the situation in the moment.

It is important to rule out biological factors. This requires looking at the child's overall health. Annual wellness visits are perfect opportunities to do an overall health check. Let your doctor help you put all the pieces together. Biological factors - physical or developmental disabilities, allergies and illnesses - can all impact emotional health. Sometimes it's not what it seems. But many issues that require some assistance - undiagnosed learning disorders, behavior and conduct disorders, ADHD, sensory processing disorders, etc. - all have symptoms that manifest as anger or uncontrolled outbursts. You can get help if that is the case!

Once you rule out biological factors, consider any life stressors. Is something changing in the child's environment? New baby? Divorce? Death of a loved one? Is s/he being bullied at school? Again, children can't articulate many feelings they experience so they often get disguised as other things. Pain disguised as anger, in this example.

As you work towards understanding the origin of the anger, it is important to consider a couple of things. Anger is a natural feeling. How we respond to it is one thing, feeling it is another. We can't tell our kids not to be angry. We can tell them not to hit people when they feel angry. It is important to help our children learn to accept and manage all of their feelings, even the difficult ones. Give them some healthy tools to do so. Tell them what works for you! Don't forget that breathing is a helpful tool we always have in our pockets. Help them learn how to take three full, deep breaths.

A few other important parenting strategies to consider:

  • Try to extract your emotion. Adding emotion to an already emotional situation is never helpful. What the child really needs is our calm stability. This is so much easier said than practiced. Practice your own go-to-tactics - and don't forget breathing is a tool for you, too!

  • Refrain from giving in. Resist the intense temptation to end the tantrum by giving the child what s/he wants if the child is having an outburst because they aren't getting what they want.

  • Consider what anger response we elicited from our own parents. It's easy to find ourselves working in learned patterns. But we didn't always learn the right pattern. Awareness is the first step to change.

  • Build a tool-kit for calming down. Each child is different so help build unique tool kits with strategies for self-soothing in all sorts of situations. Role playing sounds silly but it's a great learning tool. Our brains get good at what they do a lot of!

Here are a few signs that a child's emotional outbursts may be a bigger concern:

  • If your child's behavior in response to his anger is dangerous towards himself or others

  • If your child's tantrums or outbursts occur past the age in which they're developmentally expected (usually around 7 years old)

  • If the behavior is causing problems at school, impacting the child's ability to learn

  • If the behavior is impacting social situations, making it difficult to get along with other kids in play-dates or being left out because of outbursts

  • If the tantrums and defiance are causing a lot of conflict at home and disrupting family life

  • If the child's outbursts make him/her feel bad about himself/herself

Talk to your pediatrician if you have reason to suspect a bigger concern. The earlier we can get our children help, the better!

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