As a school counselor, one of the most frequently asked category of questions I receive centers around, "How do I handle my child’s anger?" The question is almost always asked by parents in a voice burdened with shame and embarrassment—as if anger in childhood was a bad thing or that any ‘good’ parent would know how to keep their kids perpetually happy. Neither could be further from the reality of human nature and no adult need berate themselves for the fact that their children act like human beings.
To reassure caregivers that their questions about how to handle anger in children are valid and that they are not alone (by a long shot) in feeling weighed down by the challenge, here are my responses to a few of the most frequently asked questions about helping kids handle anger:
Is anger harmful for a child?
Anger is a basic, primal, spontaneous, but temporary neurophysiological feeling. It is usually triggered by some sort of frustration and often perceived as an unpleasant state. Anger is real and it is powerful—but it needn’t be feared, denied, or considered bad in and of itself. Bearing in mind that all living creatures experience frustration, it follows that the feeling of anger is completely normal and natural. It’s what we do with our anger that counts. When anger is dealt with in healthy, constructive ways, there’s nothing bad or harmful about itHowever, too often we find that young people express anger in destructive ways that are harmful to friendships, parent-child interactions, student-teacher relationships, and even to long-term health.
Do adult anger problems always start in childhood?
Problems expressing anger in healthy ways often trace their roots to childhood. Some young people learn from the adults in their lives that aggression—whether it be yelling, name-calling, shaming, or actual violence—is the go-to strategy for expressing anger. They may be taught that their momentary feelings are more important than the rights of others and that they are free to act out their feelings on others, no matter what the impact.
Then, there are other very different childhood experiences that are marked by impossible standards of perfection. In these homes, kids often get the message that “anger is bad” and that “good kids don’t let anyone know that they are angry.” Young people growing up in this kind of emotionally-restricted environment learn from an early age to hide or deny their natural feelings. Even though suppressing anger may appear far more civil than outright name-calling or aggression, kids who are forced to mask their anger can suffer a great deal as adults, as they turn their anger inward and experience depression, or engage in passive aggressive behaviors to hurt others in hidden ways.
What's the difference between a healthy spell of anger and a problem?
Healthy anger is marked by assertive communication. In a healthy spell of anger, a young person can (and will!) honestly, directly and clearly tell someone else what happened that bothered them and make a specific request for that behavior to change or for amends to be made. In some situations, this kind of communication is not an option and so a young person may make a conscious decision to distance themselves from the anger source or to “let go” of their angry feelings. For example, in a school setting, students often don’t have the social power to be able to be 100% honest and assertive with a teacher they believe has treated them unfairly. Making a choice to pick their battles and let a minor injustice go is a mature, emotionally measured, and solution-focused way to make a bad situation bearable.
Problematic anger happens when an angry young person violates the rights of others through some sort of physical aggression, verbal outburst, or backhanded means of revenge. Problematic anger is all about getting back at someone else and hurting them, while constructive anger is about solving a problem.
How can I help a child who has anger issues?
Any person at any age can learn that they have choices when it comes to how to express anger. The good news is that just as aggression is a learned behavioral choice for expressing anger, so is assertiveness. This knowledge is power. When young people realize that their choices are bringing them results that they don’t want—scoldings, time outs, loss of privileges, restrictions on free time—they are often eager to learn better choices and strategies for expressing their angry feelings.
Physical strategies such as engaging in sports, exercise, mindfulness, and yoga are proven effective in helping young people learn to calm their brains and gain greater control over their choices in healthy behaviors.
As a mental health professional and school counselor, I encourage all schools to incorporate emotion management skills as part of the regular curriculum. Since we know that emotional well-being is a prerequisite for academic success, it only makes sense that schools make so-called “soft” skills such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, and assertive communication a part of their regular skills curriculum. Prevention is our very best bet for helping young people solve their anger issues before they become lifelong patterns.
And finally, timing is everything when it comes to helping a young person who expresses their anger in destructive ways. elling a person that they have “anger issues” during a fit of rage is pretty much guaranteed to worsen the problem. The child’s emotional brain is dominating their actions and they are not able to effectively access the logical, thinking part of their brain that allows them to make good choices. For a young person to truly understand that their way of expressing anger is a problem for them (and for those around them!), they have to be calm enough to be able to clearly comprehend the costs of their destructive anger expression. Helping a child learn how to thoroughly calm down from a bout of anger is one of the most valuable skills an adult can teach. Listening (read: not talking) while a young person puts their feelings into words after (and only after) they have calmed down is a lasting way to help kids learn to understand and manage their angry feelings.