Is My Child's Anger Normal?
How to tell if outbursts or aggression are beyond typical behavior
Most children have occasional tantrums or meltdowns. They may sometimes lash out if they're frustrated or be defiant if asked to do something they don't want to do. But when kids do these things repeatedly, or can't control their tempers a lot of the time, it may be more than typical behavior.
David Anderson, director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, summarizes the factors that indicate that a child's problem behavior may deserve professional attention: frequency, intensity, duration, and impairment. Are your child's outbursts happening more often than normal? Are they more intense? Do they last longer? And are they interfering with his ability to function?
Here are some more specific signs that outbursts should concern you:
- If your child's tantrums and outbursts are occurring past the age in which they're developmentally expected (up to about 7 or 8 years old)
- If his behavior is dangerous to himself or others
- If her behavior is causing her serious trouble at school, with teachers reporting that she is out of control
- If his behavior is interfering with his ability to get along with other kids, so he's excluded from play dates and birthday parties
- If her tantrums and defiance are causing a lot of conflict at home and disrupting family life
- If he's upset because he feels he can't control his anger, and that makes him feels bad about himself
When children continue to have regular emotional outbursts past the toddler stage, it may be a symptom of distress. Some children may have underlying emotional issues that make it more difficult for them to manage their emotions and behavior in an age-appropriate way. There are many possible underlying causes, including:
- ADHD: Many children with ADHD, especially those who experience impulsivity and hyperactivity, have trouble controlling their behavior. They may find it very hard to comply with instructions or switch from one activity to another, and that makes them appear defiant and angry. "More than 50 percent of kids with ADHD also exhibit defiance and emotional outbursts," says Dr. Vasco Lopes, a clinical psychologist. And their inability to focus and complete tasks can also lead to tantrums, arguing, and power struggles.
- Anxiety: Children who appear to be angry and defiant often have severe, and unrecognized, anxiety. A child with anxiety will have a hard time coping with situations that cause him distress, and he may lash out when the demands at school, for instance, put pressure on him that he can't handle. In an anxiety-inducing situation, a child's "fight or flight" instinct may take hold—he refuse to do something, have a tantrum, or even lash out at others.
- Trauma or neglect: Acting out, especially in school, can also be the result of trauma, neglect, or chaos at home. "Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home, can act out at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior," says Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health in a school setting. Most at risk, she says, are kids with ADHD who've also experienced trauma.
- Learning problems: When a child acts out repeatedly in school or during homework time, it's possible that he has an undiagnosed learning disorder. Say he has a lot of trouble with math, and math problems make him very frustrated and irritable. Rather than ask for help, he may rip up an assignment or start something with another child to create a diversion from his real issues.
- Sensory processing issues: Some children have trouble processing the sensory information they are getting from the world around them. If a child is oversensitive, or undersensitive, to stimulation, things like "scratchy" clothes and too much light or noise can make her uncomfortable, anxious, distracted, or overwhelmed. That can lead to meltdowns for no reason that's apparent to you or other caregivers.
- Autism: Children on the autism spectrum are also often prone to dramatic meltdowns. A child on the spectrum may tend to be rigid—needing consistent routine to feel safe—and any unexpected change can set him off. He may have sensory issues that cause him to be overwhelmed by stimulation, and short-circuit into a meltdown that continues until he exhausts himself. And he may lack the language and communication skills to express what he wants or needs.
How can you help an "angry" child?
If a child has an underlying disorder, identifying and treating what's causing him distress is key to changing the behavior. But how parents handle outbursts can also play a big role in decreasing their frequency.
Find the triggers
The first step in managing anger is understanding what triggers set off a child's outbursts. So, for instance, if getting out the door for school is a chronic issue for your child, solutions might include time warnings, laying out clothes and showering the night before, and waking up earlier. Some kids respond well to breaking tasks down into steps, and posting them on the wall.
When a child's defiance and emotional outbursts occur, the parent or caregiver's response affects the likelihood of the behavior happening again.
If a child's behavior is out of control, or causing major problems, it's a good idea to try step-by-step parent training programs. These programs (like Parent-Child Interaction Therapy [PCIT] and Parent Management Training) train you to positively reinforce behavior you want to encourage in your child, and give consistent consequences for behaviors you want to discourage. Most children respond well to a more structured relationship, with calm, consistent responses from parents that they can count on.
Here are some of the key elements taught in parent training:
- Don't give in. Resist the temptation to end your child's tantrum by giving her what she wants when she explodes. To give in only teaches her that tantrums work.
- Remain calm and consistent. You're in a better place to teach and follow through with better, more consistent consequences when you're in control of your own emotions. Harsh or angry responses tend to escalate a child's aggression, be it verbal or physical. By staying calm, you're also modeling—and teaching—your child the type of behavior you want to see in him.
- Ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior. Ignore minor misbehavior, since even negative attention like reprimanding or telling the child to stop can reinforce her actions. Instead, lavish labeled praise on behaviors you want to encourage. (Don't just say "good job," say "good job calming down.")
- Use consistent consequences. Your child needs to know what the consequences are for negative behaviors, such as time outs, as well as rewards for positive behaviors, like time on the iPad. And you need to show him you follow through with these consequences every time.
- Wait to talk until the meltdown is over. One thing you don't want to do is try to reason with a child who is upset. As Dr. Stephen Dickstein, a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist, puts it, "Don't talk to the kid when she's not available." You want to encourage a child to practice at negotiation when she's not blowing up, and you're not either.
- Build a toolkit for calming down. Both you and your child need to build what Dr. Dickstein calls a toolkit for self-soothing, things you can do to calm down, like slow breathing, to relax, because you can't be calm and angry at the same time. There are lots of techniques, he adds, but "The nice thing about breathing is it's always available to you."
Updated: January 29, 2016