How to Manage An Angry Child
Takeaway: Tackle your child’s anger issues in 3 stages: (1) During a meltdown, focus on calming her down, (2) After the meltdown, teach her how to recognise and cope with anger, (3) Finally, reinforce these lessons by modelling healthy anger management techniques.
It’s perfectly normal for your child to feel angry and want to express it. But at what point does it become a problem?
It’s hard to process anger. And if we adults have such a tough time with it, it’s no surprise that children struggle even more. Their brains’ executive functions haven’t yet fully developed, so they find it much harder to stay in control. A handful of 5- or 10-minute tantrums a week is perfectly normal in a young child. But when these tantrums regularly become physically aggressive (hitting, biting, throwing things) and spiteful, it’s a problem that needs solving.
The clearest sign that your child has anger issues is if she finds it increasingly harder to fit in.
Healthy, controlled anger isn’t toxic. Out-of-control anger is. Since people try to steer clear of toxicity, your child’s relationships can tell you a lot about her personality. For example, is everyone at home always on edge, worrying about her next meltdown? Or is your relationship with her changing (e.g., do you often cancel plans to go out because a public tantrum would be unmanageable)? Perhaps your child has trouble making and keeping friends or getting along with her siblings? These are all signs that anger might be a problem.
What causes all this excessive anger? Well, there’s usually more than one reason.
It’s hard to pinpoint just one cause for out-of-control anger because there are many factors involved. First, your child’s genetics and biology make a big difference. For example, children with ADHD, autism, or learning differences are likely to get frustrated easily in certain situations and lash out in anger. Similarly, children with anxiety issues might bottle up worries and then release them in a sudden, angry explosion. And children with sensory processing difficulties could melt down when overwhelmed in noisy, crowded places. But what happens to your child from day to day is as impactful as her biological makeup. For example, if she’s being bullied or harshly disciplined, it can trouble her into acting out. Also, watching role models mindlessly losing their temper can influence her, too.
So, how can you help an angry child? Well, it’s a 3-step process.
The first step is to handle the meltdown well. The second is to help her build coping skills. And the third is to set a good example.
Step 1: While your child is having a meltdown, don’t bother reasoning or explaining things. Deal with her gently but firmly.
a) Try to stay calm.
Raising your voice and trying to force her to behave will only trigger her further. So, remind yourself that as the adult, you’re the only one who can de-escalate this. If you lose control, there’s no hope. Also, recognise that she’s having a hard time and isn’t doing any of this on purpose.
b) Talk as little as possible.
During a meltdown, your child can’t process information or think straight. So, rattling off a string of instructions, requests, or commands won’t help. Instead, use short, calming phrases — repeating them over and over so that they sink in. You could try saying things like, ‘You’re angry. I understand.’ or ‘I want to help. I’m here for you.’
c) Use time-outs tactically.
You don’t want to reinforce meltdowns by giving into them or reacting unnecessarily. But if your child is getting physically aggressive, you’ll need to do something about that. Here, time-outs can help, especially for children younger than 8. Put them in a time-out chair or a separate time-out room that doesn’t have TV, toys, or anything distracting. (If they’re particularly aggressive, you might need to carry them into the time-out zone physically.) The rule can be that time-out is over only when they’ve calmed down and stayed calm for a whole minute. This teaches them that there are consequences to bad behaviour.
d) Praise good behaviour.
Time-outs might don’t work with older children. Here, try using positive reinforcement by praising and rewarding them for calming down or ‘using their words.’
Step 2: After the meltdown (and before the next one), work with your child to develop an anger management plan.
Show your child that it’s not ‘you’ versus ‘her’. Instead, the two of you are working together to help her handle anger in a healthy way. Keep reminding her that being angry is fine. What’s not fine is throwing a tantrum or taking it out on others. Here’s how to create an anger management plan:
a) Identify common triggers.
Try and figure out what usually triggers your child’s meltdowns. Does she get angry when she’s frustrated? For example, when she struggles with her homework, or when playtime is over and she wants to keep playing. Or is hunger and thirst the problem? Maybe it’s loud and noisy places that annoy her the most? If she’s old enough, you can get her to think through these triggers with you.
b) Teach her what anger feels like.
Children often get angry without realising what’s happening. So, start by teaching your child about anger’s physical signs. For example, she might find herself clenching her jaw, shoulders, or fists. She might start breathing faster and feel her stomach churning. For younger children, you can also make a game of it. Ask them to draw anger as a cartoon character and give it a name. This way they learn that anger isn’t them, but something that happens to them. Something they can learn to control.
c) Brainstorm practical coping skills.
After recognising she’s angry, your child will need to figure out what to do about it. Here’s where you can brainstorm coping techniques. For example, she might try distracting herself by counting till 10, leaving the room, or breathing deeply. She could try and work the anger off by going out for a cycle ride, playing a sport, or just doing jumping jacks — whatever type of physical exercise she likes. And finally, she could look for comfort from friends — perhaps talking to them or getting/giving a hug. Once you have a list of options, have her try them out in turn for a couple of minutes each week. This will help you both identify the ones that really work.
d) Set up an if/then rule system.
Now you’re ready for the last step: setting up an if/then system. That is, a set of rules that tells your child how to handle different levels of anger. For example, she might have identified that when she starts to get angry, she sighs loudly. The rule for this could be, ‘If I start sighing, then I must take 5 deep breaths.’ A little more anger and she might start shouting. Now the rule could be, ‘If I start shouting, then I must stop, excuse myself, and leave the room for a bit.’ Keep going through all the physical signs you listed earlier, and draft simple if/then rules.
Step 3: Regularly model healthy ways of dealing with anger.
Your child won’t take any of her coping skills seriously unless you use them too. When she sees you get angry but deal with it constructively, she’ll learn that it’s okay to feel an emotion, but it’s not okay to behave badly. Even if you do end up yelling or venting, it’s still a teachable moment. By apologising for losing control, you’ll show her how to take responsibility for her actions. (You might say, for example, ‘I’m sorry. I was angry, but I shouldn’t have shouted at you.’)
Sometimes, though, your child’s anger issues may need extra attention. If that’s the case, consider consulting a specialist.
If your child is particularly aggressive and disruptive, it might be impossible to manage her without a trained professional to help. For example, a child psychologist can formally assess her needs and choose a targeted treatment plan — perhaps, cognitive behavioural therapy, combined with sessions teaching emotional regulation. The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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