Anger Issues in Children and Teenagers
Anger is a perfectly normal emotion but possibly one which parents find the most difficult to manage. By school age, parents often think anger outbursts should be a thing of the past. However, this is a myth and the ability to master anger and frustration is a skill that is still developing in our early twenties. That is one reason why anger issues in children and teenagers are common.
Fight! The Primitive Response
When we feel threatened or vulnerable, the body’s alarm system activates and we kick into our primate caveman mode. Our two options are to either ‘run away’ or to ‘stand and fight’ (fight or flight). Although in this day and age there are no sabre tooth tigers lurking, other situations can trigger this primitive response. For example, a crowded classroom with lots of hustle and bustle could become too much for a child who is hungry and tired. This may cause them to revert to this primitive response, causing them to shout and lash out.
Young children cannot regulate their emotions and impulses. They need an adult to help them with this until the brain develops this ability. The pre-frontal cortex if the brain helps us to inhibit our emotional responses. It is also involved in planning and organising. It has a surge in development at puberty, but does not fully develop until our twenties or possibly later. This is why children have outbursts when experiencing high levels of emotion or stress, and it is important for parents to know that sometimes your child simply cannot calm down or control their behaviour.
Expressing feelings through behaviour
Children, especially young children find it difficult to put into words how they are feeling or when they are worried or anxious, so it may come out through their behaviour. Therefore we need to look to what is going on in a child’s life to get a clue as to whether there is anything else underlying anger issues in children.
Some children are sensitive to changes in their surroundings, and a school or house move is enough to raise their stress levels sufficiently to mean that even something small can trigger anger. They might be going through a developmental change. During middle childhood, children go through massive developmental changes, where their physical, social, and mental skills develop at an incredibly fast rate. With friendships becoming more important, children become more susceptible to peer pressure and bullying can become an issue.
There are four areas to consider in tackling anger issues in children and teenagers, in order of importance:
Building up relationships through play or time together
The behaviours which anger often causes can lead parents and others around the child to feel overwhelmed, resentful and stressed. Parents may understandably avoid doing things with their child just in case they have an outburst. The problem is that the parent and child end up having fewer positive and precious moments together. The attachment bond may be affected. Play with children can often be a platform from which a relationship can be strengthened. It is not just playing that is important, but the overall building and re-connecting of relationships. Providing children with approval, praise and encouragement is also extremely important and helps them to build self-esteem.
Try to spend at least fifteen minutes per day in one-to-one play with your child, no matter what age she is. “Play” with a teenager might involve a game of cards, having a go on her Nintendo Switch, or throwing a ball around in the park, for example.
Environment and Triggers
There might be wider issues going on in your child’s environment (e.g. stresses at school or home, changes in routine or family structure), and immediate issues that trigger your child’s behaviour (e.g. lots of noise, busy family gatherings, hunger, tiredness). It is very important to understand these. For example, does your child always have an outburst when she gets home from school? Is it worse on days when there has been a change to normal routines, such as a substitute teacher? Or perhaps when she did not like the school dinner so she did not eat much, and is experiencing low blood sugar?
I often use the analogy of a cup. We each have our own cup which fills up with different stressors. Most people’s cups are about 1/3 full of ‘normal life stressors’ (e.g. work, school, cooking, washing, finances etc). However, life events can lead to our cups filling up and up. For some children, the cup can fill up much quicker than others. Think about everyday stresses for children like doing homework, having squabbles with siblings, getting dressed. If your child’s cup is overflowing, she will have an outburst.
Emotion Regulation Skills
Learning emotion regulation skills requires perseverance, patience and practise. Some fundamental principles of teaching children to manage big feelings include:
- Like any skill, we need to help our children practice this outside of times when they are angry. It is like riding a bike. You wouldn’t expect your child to suddenly get on a bike and ride it in the Tour de France.
- Let your child know why you are practising these skills.
- Make it as creative and fun as possible.
- Use age-appropriate examples of how you deal with anger and skills that you use. Make sure to use these when you do actually feel angry to model to your child what to do when they feel angry.
- Have a range of tools for your child to use and practice, such as slow breathing or bouncing on a trampoline.
- Introduce them at the first signs of anger and not when your child has hit the boiling point. It will be much harder to use them when they are very angry, then when they are a bit frustrated.
It is crucial that parents (and teachers) have a clear, consistent system for managing anger issues in children and teenagers. It will help them stay calm and in control. We will be introducing you to various systems including the “Traffic Lights” system. The key component of managing children’s behaviour successfully include:
A child should know exactly what to expect in terms of consequences, if they engage in a behaviour that is unwanted, such as physically hurting others. If they manage to stay calm or avoid doing something that would have hurt or upset others, a small reward and praise will encourage them to do the same next time.
If you have decided that you will deal with something a certain way and it doesn’t work the first time, it is so important to persevere. This way your child will know you are determined to help them. For example, if a child hits out at her younger sibling, you ask her to apologise and remove her electronic device for one hour. To begin with, the child fights this, kicking and screaming and refusing to comply. But after a couple of days, she realises her dad is not going to give up on this idea and starts to connect hitting her sister with losing her device. Eventually, the behaviour reduces.
No matter what age, parent (or teacher) and child must understand exactly what the undesirable behaviour is, and what is the consequence. They must also know what the positive behaviour is that you are looking for, and what the reward might be. For example: “If you hit your sister, you will lose your X-Box time for today. I would like you to stay calm even when you are tired and fed up. If you manage to stay calm all evening, you can choose a cartoon for us to watch together before bed.” Don’t try to tackle more than one behaviour at a time, and make sure your child fully understands the system and why you are following it.
The brain processes and remembers visual information better than words alone. So, if you are seeking to encourage or discourage a particular behaviour, make a simple colourful poster (words and pictures). It should explain exactly what the behaviour is, and what the consequence or reward is.
With thanks to Dr Jennifer Swanston, clinical psychologist and co-author of Brighter Futures: A Parents’ Guide To Raising Happy, Confident Children In The Primary School Years