What to do when a child is angry

Sadly, the problem of excessive childhood anger is on the rise. Dealing with angry children, and the strong emotions it evokes in people, is arguably one of the most difficult tasks of a parent’s role. Nothing prepares for the feelings of anger, frustration, guilt and at times the sheer exhaustion parents experience as their little bundles of joy start to discover, experience and express their fury.

The explosive nature of anger makes it a difficult emotion to handle: angry outbursts, fights and daily frustration introduces an element of strain into the family dynamic that can impact every member. Left unchecked, anger can turn to rage, evoke tremendous fear, acts of violence and tear families apart.

But punishing children for expressing anger, or demanding that they stop being angry, can also have far-reaching effects, in that it creates an environment where repressed emotions can have a negative impact on both physical and emotional health and well-being.

Anger is a hot topic at the moment. Results of recent studies have found anger to be a deterrent for physical healing – more research confirming that mind body relationships matter; and according to Dr John Rifkin, author of “The Healing Power of Anger,” unresolved or unrecognized anger can set the stage for all manner of diseases, including depression, heart disease, arthritis and some forms of cancer.

Trying to suppress anger won’t help either. Research at the University of Ohio, Columbus, recently found that both anger in and anger out is negative; that is, not only people who outwardly rage, but people who tried to control, hide or re-press anger by holding it in, also demonstrate negative responses to the healing process.

The same group who registered high on the anger scale, in these studies, also showed a higher secretion of stress hormone cortisol, which, earlier studies showed, had a direct relationship with anger, and revealed a link between coronary heart disease, hypertension and stroke: indicating that sitting on our anger is not recommended.

Inexperience in dealing with anger can also trigger other crippling emotions that undermine how adequate people feel as a parent. “Often parents and children get locked into a contest of wills, and the parent wins with a “Because I Said So” argument. Afterward, they doubt themselves as parents and feel guilty, ashamed, and inept. Many of us were taught as children that we were not allowed to be angry, that being angry was bad, or that it was our fault if we were angry. These kinds of mistaken beliefs from our own childhood make it more difficult for us to handle anger in children,” says Associate Professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Richard Niolon, Ph.D.

Most people fear their anger, hide it and often punish children when they demonstrate it. There is a fine line however, between naughty kids and those that need to let off some steam.

Just like adults, kids get frustrated … all the time! They want to experience and do things that they are often too young to safely do, or that require motor or communications skills that they have not yet developed. Children respond to life with anger when they feel helpless – anger born out of frustration is a natural part of life.

Responding to a child’s anger with anger is counter-productive. Marilyn Grechus, Associate Professor of Health Education, Central Missouri State University, warns that punishing children for expressing feelings of anger or frustration, can lead to resentment and further anger.

Whilst anger is often the result of frustration, Professor Niolon points out that anger in children is often a generic emotion triggered by embarrassment, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and hurt. “Children often respond with anger to these types of situations because they feel helpless to understand the situation fully and helpless to change it. In a way, their anger is a response to frustration as well.

“A child that is especially defiant may be behaving this way to counteract dependency and fears of loss. A child who feels hurt by a loss may become angry as a way to avoid feeling sad and powerless. Sometimes a child’s anger prompts an adult to set rules more clearly, explain matters more thoroughly, or make changes in the child’s environment. In other words, a child may have learned that anger is an all-purpose red flag to let others know that something is very wrong.”

How a parent repeatedly responds to a child’s anger will determine their future well-being. Teaching children how to have healthy anger requires patience and obviously time, but it can be done, and the results are rewarding for child and parent. It creates personal growth and development, promotes relationship building, and affirms to the child: “you are worth it”.

“The first step toward better management of children’s anger is to set aside what we were taught, and instead teach something new. Teach children that anger is normal, that it is okay to get angry. The task then becomes how to manage anger and channel it toward productive or at least acceptable outlets,” suggests Professor Niolon.

Mirroring anger

When this author’s child was quite young, she wanted to do things beyond her tiny years. Not because she inherited brilliant genes, but because she, like most children had, a curiosity and desire to create beyond her years.

One of her favorite creative outlets included building with blocks. She would study the pictures on the side of her block bag and spend frustrating hours trying to reproduce the images. There were often tantrums, tears and throwing of blocks across the room because her masterpiece either kept crashing down or she couldn’t achieve the desired outcome.

This sort of behavior presents a golden opportunity for parents to mirror feelings to a child. “Oh your very angry because your blocks keep falling down” is a more productive response than “get in your room and stay there until your ready to behave”.

A very valuable lesson was learned from an early childhood Montessori director, who encouraged parents to get down on knees so that they were at eye level with their child, and mirror what was going on for them. Comments like “that’s making you angry” teaches a child what anger is and “what can we do about it” encourages the child to move toward a solution through problem solving.

Children usually require some initial prompting when seeking solutions, until they get the hang of it. A solution was “what if you ask an adult to help you?” This not only resolved the block throwing tantrums, but it began to instill the idea that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help when we need it.

People teach a child to understand their emotions and feelings by being a mirror for them. Comments like: “oh, you’re feeling angry,” “you must be feeling sad,” “you look very happy” are simple but effective mirroring techniques that validate how a child is feeling.

Professor Niolon also suggests that parents find out why a child feels the way they do.
“A parent might respond to a child who hits his brother by asking why he hit him. Go beyond the “he did this first” argument and ask where they learned to hit to tell other people to stop doing something. Maybe other kids at school hit, and the child is learning to do the same.”

It’s important to differentiate anger, which is a feeling – a temporary emotional state, from acts of aggression – deliberate attempts to hurt or destroy. A child needs to know that anger is okay, but aggression is not.

Nurturing self-esteem

Whilst there is mounting evidence on the physical and emotional impacts of anger, people are yet to see this done with self-esteem. Counselors and therapists however, tend to agree that developing and nurturing self-esteem in both adults and children, provides a positive life advantage.

When people feel good about themselves, they tend to feel good about life, and there is less chance of falling into a state of helpless frustration.

Children have a tendency of mirroring the level of self-esteem and self worth experienced by their parents. This means self-maintenance is beneficial for a child’s well-being. This can go against the grain at times. When there is a problem with a child’s behavior, they tend to want to fix it in them, rather than checking on how the parents are coping with life.

The way people treat and respect ourselves is a role model for children. People are taught not to be excessively harsh on kids but it’s important, as a positive role model, not to be harsh on themselves, and it requires setting realistic goals based on abilities and limitations.

Nurturing one’s own self-esteem is like putting manure on plants; children bare the fruit of our labor. Looking for the good and not the bad; offering lots of praise and spontaneous acts of love is nourishing for parents and children, as it draws out positive traits.

It has been estimated that for every positive compliment, a child receives eight negative experiences like being called names that are degrading, or berated for their actions. “Sometimes parents are too quick to judge the wrong things their child does and forget that the child is a person who also likes to hear kind words and praise,” says Professor Grechus.

Self-evaluation is based on parent evaluation, children see themselves through their parents’ eyes. Using kind words, lots of praise and big hugs, affirms to a child that they are great, well loved and respected. Healthy self-esteem establishes a level of comfort in one’s own skin and in social settings. Children are more willing to participate in group activities, take on challenges and seek solutions when they feel good about themselves.

Positive feedback aids in delivering a lesson on making right choices. A statement like “I know you are very angry with me, but I appreciate that you helped me anyhow,” acknowledges the child’s feelings and encourages them to continue making right choices.

Keep communication lines open by encouraging your child to talk about their feelings and build their confidence by allowing them to make some age appropriate decisions that effect their life. “Early decisions should involve only two choices. Do you want to play with clay or puzzles?’ Do you want to sit here or there?’ As they mature, the decisions become more complicated,” says Professor Grechus.

“Give children lots of practice while they are young so that they learn that their decisions affect the consequences. With this, the child internalizes a sense of right from wrong and that choices bring consequences.”

Explaining, modeling, mirroring and setting rules is a good way of dealing with anger and the behavior that may result from frustration. Seek professional guidance if you believe you or your child suffers from low self-esteem, or out of control anger, by contacting a family or child counselor. Therapy can help to develop a happy and more fulfilling life by adjusting the way we view ourselves and experience our world.

Developing life skills and productive strategies around anger management will help children develop into healthy and emotionally mature teenagers and adults, who will in turn, pass these skills onto their own children.