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"A Child's Anger Can Be a Warning"

How should parents respond when a child's anger escalates?

Key points

  • Anger in itself is not a bad thing, but children need to be educated about how to deal with and express their anger.
  • Some cases of uncontrollable anger in children can be improved by professional intervention and medication.
  • Risks of untreated, uncontrolled anger in children can include an escalation to violence from which they suffer permanent consequences.

Often, even well-meaning parents don't understand their child's angry behavior. Temper tantrums are normal for very young children, and lashing out with angry words is typical for adolescents. But what about threats or actions that go beyond predictable behavior?

What I too often see is that parents attempt to make excuses for their child, rather than dealing with or seeking help for their child's violent outbursts. As a child's anger escalates, some parents may try to placate him by giving in to his demands, or try to please him in an effort to calm him down. Some may rationalize that anger is a good thing and a child must be allowed to vent his anger and even behave wildly, because such behavior is an expression of how the child is feeling.

Of course, there is some truth to that way of thinking. Anger is not a bad thing in itself, and we all have the right to be angry when we are treated unfairly. But children need to be educated about how to deal with and express their anger when someone makes them mad or when something upsetting happens. Simply allowing a child's instinctual responses to take over is not always a good idea, especially when their anger seems out of control. And merely telling children to "get over it" or "be nice" doesn't teach them how to handle critical moments in their life. Teaching by example is always the most effective tool—it shows your child that you can be upset about something without losing control and that you can talk about why you're angry and then let it go. Parents can also teach children to:

  • Talk to a trusted friend or relative about why they're angry
  • Take some time to cool down when faced with an upsetting incident
  • Slowly count to 10 when they feel themselves getting very angry
  • Breathe deeply when they sense an angry outburst coming on

When a child's anger becomes uncontrollable

Some children have never been taught that there are limits to how they should express their anger. Sometimes, parents have not provided a healthy model for handling anger or have not wanted to constrain their child in any way. Other children are clearly not in control of their behavior, even though their parents may have been good role models and set forth reasonable limits. In either case, there may be medical or neurological reasons for a child's inability to control his anger. When parents' efforts are ineffective in dealing with a child's anger, a professional consultation is warranted. Medication might be necessary in some cases and can be prescribed by a child psychiatrist.

Causes and risks of uncontrollable anger in children

There is no diagnosis for angry behavior per se, but some of the conditions that involve uncontrollable anger include bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Regardless of the label we place on a child's behavior, it is crucial for parents to realize that when their son's or daughter's anger is out of control, he or she needs to be treated by a professional. When the warning signs of uncontrollable anger go unheeded, a child's emotional flare-ups can spiral into violence that may result in tragedy—as in the recent case of a 10-year-old boy charged with murder for fatally stabbing his 12-year-old best friend.

Believing that a child's anger is "just a phase" that he or she will eventually outgrow is to deny what could be a serious problem. Before uncontrollable angry behavior escalates to a point of no return, parents can confront it and get the professional help they need.

More from Ana Nogales, Ph.D.
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