Imagine that your child is playing with their favorite building set. They’ve been working for hours on an elaborate structure made from hundreds of blocks. They’ve almost finished when their worst nightmare occurs⏤their younger sibling knocks over their delicate creation! Crash! The blocks fall all over the floor. The child who made the creation is furious. They scream and go running after their younger sibling, and you know some type of aggression is on their mind.
Anger⏤it’s that dark emotion that we all experience and many of us have trouble managing. Our children experience it too, of course. We all know that young children often have trouble controlling their anger and may even lash out at friends or siblings. When does a child’s anger go too far? Are there times when a child’s anger is so fierce or persistent that we should be concerned? Let’s take a look at how this emotion plays a role in our children’s development and our family life.
Anger: What is Typical in Children?
We all experience anger, even the youngest children. If you’ve ever seen a toddler scream in anger when they don’t get the piece of candy or toy that they desire, you know that anger in children can be intense. Developmentally speaking, young children cannot be expected to manage their emotions well, including anger. Their young brains still need a lot of help from adults to help them regulate their emotions. This is why we typically see more frequent tantrums and emotional outbursts when children are young.1
Generally, as children mature and gain more emotional regulation skills, their ability to manage anger improves. By the time children are over about 8 years of age, the frequency of tantrums should have declined dramatically. Of course, just like adults, even older children can still have moments of overwhelming anger, but these should be less frequent.
When should you worry about your child’s anger or their ability to manage it? Most psychologists suggest that children’s anger can be a sign of a more serious concern if it is interfering with their ability to make or maintain friendships, resulting in aggression, disrupting their school experience, or causing a lot of conflict or tension at home.2 Under these circumstances, you may consult with your doctor to determine if your child’s anger is the result of a larger underlying cause such as anxiety, learning disabilities, or behavioral difficulties (like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD]). If a child’s anger is having a serious impact on their life or the functioning of your family, seeking help from a psychologist or pediatrician can be a helpful option.
The Importance of Managing Anger
In most situations, where a child’s anger is simply a function of their typical developmental process, we can help our child learn the coping skills they need to manage it appropriately. Our first step on the path of helping children cope with anger is to help them understand that anger, like all emotions, in itself is not bad.3 Many cultures have a very negative connotation of anger. In reality, however, anger can offer us helpful information about our response to a situation. If we become angry at a person or situation, it is telling us that something about that situation probably holds great value to us and is perhaps threatened.4 Just as the child whose block creation was destroyed, when we feel something of value to us is threatened (a person, an object, or a value), anger is a common response.
What often happens, however, is that, as a result of our anger, we lash out at others or become aggressive. This is the component of an angry situation that we can help our children understand more clearly. We can help them see that it is not usually the anger itself that causes a problem, but the behavior that often results from the anger. When we (or our children) become angry, we often express it through aggression, in either physical form or in words. If we can help children learn to express anger in ways that are more appropriate and healthy, then we have equipped them with a very valuable life skill.
Helping children learn how to regulate all their emotions, including anger, can be helpful for them in the long term. Research clearly shows that children have better psychological adjustment when they are more skilled at emotion regulation.5 The question that remains, however, is how do we, as parents, can help foster emotion regulation (especially in regards to anger) in children?
Parents’ Role in Fostering Anger Management in Children
Emotions, like anger, can be difficult for children to understand. Our first step, therefore, is to simply help children understand emotions and the concept that they can, indeed, be managed. Studies show that parents who have a strong belief that anger can be managed (and that it’s not inevitable to have an outburst) are more likely to have children who believe this as well.6 Labeling children’s emotions when they are experiencing them can be helpful. If you see that your child is angry about something, simply validating that what they are experiencing is anger can help them begin to have the vocabulary to express their emotions (e.g., “It looks like you are angry that your brother broke your block tower”).
Additionally, research points to the idea that how we react to our children’s emotions can play a key role in them learning how to manage them. Longitudinal studies show that when parents react supportively to children’s negative emotions (including anger), children learn to self-regulate these emotions better.7 Researchers can actually evaluate different neural activities in children’s brains in response to parents’ reactions. This pattern of neural activity seen when parents respond supportively is consistently linked to positive behavior and psychological well-being in children.7 Reacting in a supportive way to children’s emotions does not have to mean condoning misbehavior. Rather, trying to empathize with their emotions (including anger) instead of punishing or dismissing them can be most helpful.
Helping children learn to manage their anger in healthy ways can also be supported through modeling. How we manage our own emotions, especially anger, can be a major way that children learn how to manage theirs. Research points out that parents’ ability to regulate their emotions and provide an emotionally warm and supportive environment for children helps them learn to regulate their own emotions, including anger.8 Thus, the more we can model calm, supportive reactions in our relationships with our children, the more they will learn to do the same. Consider strategies that help you manage your anger in healthy ways⏤perhaps it’s going for a walk, listening to music, or talking to a friend. Using all the coping strategies that help you handle anger appropriately will eventually help your child too.
Learning Healthy Ways to Handle Anger
Anger can be a difficult emotion to manage, for both parents and children. Learning to manage it in healthy ways, however, can be a key component to achieving psychological well-being. Additionally, helping children learn to manage anger in ways that avoid aggression, or regrettable words and actions, will serve them well in their relationships now and in the future.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Yale Medicine (2022) Anger, Irritability and Aggression in Kids. Yale Medicine Fact Sheet, Yale School of Medicine, 2022. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/anger-issues-in-children-and-teens
- Child Mind Institute (2022) Is My Child’s Anger Normal? Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/is-my-childs-anger-normal/#:~:text=Here%20are%20some%20signs%20that,7%20or%208%20years%20old)
- Victoria Department of Health (2019) Anger – How It Affects People. Better Health, Victoria State Government, March 30, 2019. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/anger-how-it-affects-people
- Mayo Clinic (2020) Anger management: Your Questions Answered. Mayo Clinic, Adult Health Information, March 5, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/anger-management/art-20048149
- Perry, N.B., Dollar, J.M., Calkins, S.D., Keane, S.P., and Shanahan, L. (2020) Maternal Socialization of Child Emotion and Adolescent Adjustment: Indirect Effects Through Emotion Regulation. Developmental Psychology, March, Vol. 56(3):541-552. https://doi.apa.org/manuscript/2020-11553-013.pdf
- Giunta, L.D., Iselin, A.R., Lansford, J. E., Eisenberg, N., Lunetti, C., Thartori, E., Basili, E., Pastorelli,C., Bacchini, D., Uribe Tirado, L., and Gerbino, M. (2018) Parents’ and Early Adolescents’ Self-Efficacy About Anger Regulation and Early Adolescents’ Internalizing and Externalizing Problems: A Longitudinal Study in Three Countries. Journal of Adolescence, 2018 Apr; 64: 124–135. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5920650/
- Chen, X., McCormick, E., Ravindran, N., McElwain, N., Telzer, E. (2020) Maternal Emotion Socialization in Early Childhood Predicts Adolescents’ AmygdalavmPFC Functional Connectivity to Emotion Faces. Developmental Psychology, 2020 Mar;56(3):503-515. https://doi.apa.org/manuscript/2020-11553-010.pdf
- Morris, A., Criss, M., Silk, J., and Houltberg, B. (2017) The Impact of Parenting on Emotion Regulation During Childhood and Adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, Volume 0, Number 0, 2017, p. 1–6. https://thethrivecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/The-Impact-of-Parenting-on-Emotion-Regulation-During-Childhood-Adolescence -Houltberg.pdf