Taming Childhood Anger: Developing Healthy Habits
Temper tantrums are often associated with the "terrible twos," but rarely do they begin on a child's second birthday and end on his third. Some children never have a temper tantrum, while others are still having them at age forty-five.
Parents have an opportunity when their children are young to teach them appropriate ways of coping with and expressing
Anger is a normal emotion that we experience throughout our lives. The goal is not to eliminate anger but to learn healthy ways to cope with and express this emotion.
An infant often begins expressing anger moments after she enters the world. With a high-pitched scream, flaring fists, and red face she lets you know that she's not happy with the adjustments of this new world. As she enters the toddler years, she may use temper tantrums to express her anger as she desperately works to establish her individuality and independence. Preschoolers call upon their newly formed vocabulary to express their anger with outbursts such as "You're not my friend anymore" or "I hate you." Although these experiences are not enjoyable, they are a normal part of development during the child's early years.
Your child's experience with anger during the first 5-6 years of life may greatly influence his future ability to handle anger in an appropriate way.
Causes of Anger
Regardless of the cause, if the child's expression of anger is inappropriate or destructive to other people or property, it must be addressed.
Getting Your Way
One of the most common causes of anger begins early in life and continues throughout adulthood—we don't get what we want. This is exacerbated when children (and sometimes adults) are over-tired or over-stimulated. They simply don't have the energy to demonstrate control over how they express their emotions.
Another common cause of anger for a child is being uncertain of boundaries. It is normal and healthy for children to test the limits they are given. They do this to see if the boundaries are real and trustworthy. As parents you demonstrate the trustworthiness by holding fast to the limits. Giving in shows children that the testing behavior is a successful way to get their demands met. With clear boundaries, children can exercise their freedom and independence by making choices within the limits. They aren't likely to ask you to give them rules, but rules bring order and security to their uncontrolled world. Of course, this makes it very important that the rules you set be fair and consistent.
Some children use anger as a method of getting attention. All children need attention, but some need more than others and will become outraged until they receive it. Once they discover that this method gets a response, they will continue to use it, even if the attention is negative.
A child's temperament can cause her to have a short fuse. She can be playing happily one minute and the next she is screaming with dissatisfaction over a minor infraction. She is easily irritated, quickly frustrated, and reacts impulsively.
Anger by Example
Children learn from the values and behavior they see demonstrated. Numerous studies have confirmed a link between a child's exposure to uncontrolled anger in the home, media, and community with aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. When children watch adults vent their anger in destructive ways, they are likely to do the same.
Circumstances that are beyond a child's control—such as their parent's divorce; the death of a loved one; poverty; illness; or physical or sexual abuse—can cause deep-rooted anger that will manifest itself in a variety of ways.
Teaching Appropriate Ways to Express Anger
You can teach your child appropriate and acceptable ways to express anger. Expressing feelings and solving problems are skills all children need to get along in the world.
Model Controlled Behavior
The best way to teach your children appropriate ways to manage anger is to model it in your own life. What do your children see when you're confronted with problems,
When your child is having an outburst of rage, calmly let her know what she needs to do to get control. For example, "I understand that you are angry that we can't go out and play, but I can't allow you to show your anger by kicking the wall. Instead, you can tell me how angry you are."
Begin setting boundaries at an early age and consistently reinforce them. Children need clearly-stated, logical consequences for their actions. Teach your child that inappropriate expressions of anger such as temper tantrums, destructive behavior, or hateful remarks will not get him what he wants. Show him that negative behavior doesn't remove the frustration, excuse him from responsibility, or change the expectation.
No matter how embarrassing or stressful, don't give in to negative behavior. It's amazing how quickly a child learns that an outburst of anger can pressure his parents into submission or distract them from their original concern. For example, a child may have a temper tantrum because his mother asks him to pick up his toys. As a result, she sends him to his room. While he is there, she decides to go ahead and pick up the toys. Thus, the child learns that the temper tantrum got him out of picking up his toys. A more appropriate response would be to send him to his room until he is willing to pick up the toys, and then praise him generously when the toys are picked up.
Moderate Media Influences
Protect them as much as possible from powerful influences such as television, video games, movies, and music that demonstrate uncontrolled anger. The media often show children that hurting others has no consequence and that the only way to resolve conflict is with violence. This shows children that violence is an acceptable way to express anger. Talk to them about why violence is not acceptable.
Reward Cooperation and Good Behavior
If a child has established a habit of getting what she wants through outbursts, she may need a tangible incentive to change the behavior. Praise her when she settles a disagreement without resorting to a "melt down."
Seek Professional Help
If your child continues to show signs of intense anger by losing his temper, reacting impulsively, and demonstrating destructive behavior, request a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional. Common goals of treatment include anger management, responsibility for actions, and acceptance of consequences. It is common for the professional to address family, friend, and school issues as well.
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
The New York University Child Study Center
About Kids Health
Canadian Psychological Association
Hagglund KJ, Clay DL, Frank RG, et al. Assessing anger expression in children and adolescents. J Pediatr Psychol. 1994 Jun;19(3):291-304.
Modrcin-McCarthy MA, Pullen L, Barnes AF, Alpert J. Childhood anger: so common, yet so misunderstood. J Child Adolesc Psychiatr Nurs. 1998 Apr-Jun;11(2):69-77.
Snyder KV, Kymissis P, Kessler K. Anger management for adolescents: efficacy of brief group therapy. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999 Nov;38(11):1409-16.
Last reviewed March 2010 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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