It’s very normal for parents to worry about whether their child’s anger is age appropriate and typical or whether they need to be concerned and perhaps seek professional help. In my clinical practice, parents ask me on a regular basis for suggestions to help them deal with their child’s angry outbursts because parenthood doesn’t come with a manual to deal with this issue.
For instance, Holly, 45, and Dave, 48, came to counseling because Devon, their nine year old son was doing well enough in school but they said that he fights constantly with his three siblings. They also reported that he is physically aggressive with family members when he doesn’t get his way of feels left out or slighted. In fact, the entire family felt unsafe when Devon threatened to hurt them or lashed out.
How Do You Detect That Your Child’s Anger is a Problem?
In a recent article for Child Mind Institute’s website, clinical expert Alnardo Martinez, LMHC, tackles a concern common to many parents. In “Is My Child’s Anger Normal?,” Martinez provides insights and practical tools to distinguish normal childhood outbursts from potentially problematic patterns of behavior.
Martinez writes that “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.” Indeed, any parent of a young child has weathered the storm of unpredictable outbursts.
In unpacking these behaviors for parents who may have concerns about their child, Martinez offers a sort of checklist to analyze these flare-ups, so that they may be viewed in the context of the normal developmental process.
First, parents should consider the age of their child — that is, are the tantrums occurring “past the age in which they’re developmentally expected (up to about 7 or 8 years old)?” Next, take note of whether the child of a danger to themselves, their family members, or their playmates. When these emotional upsets spill over into physical realm, there is certainly cause for greater attention.
And while these behaviors commonly manifest in the child’s home when surrounded by parents and siblings, Martinez further asks parents to observe whether their child’s anger is affecting them outside the home. Are there teachers reporting their behavior as disruptive? Are they struggling to get along with their peers at school?
Finally, it is crucial to tune into your child’s anger to determine whether or not they feel out of control. In other words, if your child doesn’t feel able to check their impulses and outburst no matter the social environment, and they are aware and shameful of this issue, it may be time to seek the help of a counselor or other expert.
Martinez then lays out several of the common sources of this pattern of behavior, citing the body of research that links learning disabilities like ADHD to anger issues. Additionally, autism, anxiety and trauma can inform a child’s anger and help parents and clinicians to understand the root of the problem.
What Are Some Tools You Can Use to Help Your Child?
But just because your child may lash out and exhibit angers in and out of the home, doesn’t mean there are tools at hand to cope with and correct the behavior. In accessing how to stem the flare-ups, it’s critical to take an inventory of the things that often lead to an episode — or as Martinez puts it, to “find the triggers.” For example, “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.”
This strategy leads naturally into striving to parent consistently. To be sure, your child’s anger is not only internal. There are myriad external forces that impact their ability to cope and conform to normal standard of behavior. Chief among them are the examples they see at home, the boundaries parents set, and the form and fashion of discipline and communication.
Indeed, parents would be well served to “ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior,” “use consistent consequences” when faced with angry outburst, and communicate calmly and “when the meltdown” is over. Talking to a child who is having an outburst can often escalate their behavior and cause parents distress because they don’t feel respected or listened to. One of the best approaches is to ask them (when they are not angry), what it feels like in their body when they are calm and what you can do to help them feel this way. This might include leaving them alone for a few minutes, reminding them to breathe slowly, or giving them an squeezy object to manipulate. With a child under age five or six, making pictures of squeezy objects or breathing techniques can be especially helpful.
In the end, a parent’s concern for their child is natural — but it often seems the solutions are out of reach. However, whether through active, aware and empathetic parenting or through relying on the intervention of an expert, many families will find improvement and solace when they take the reins in a deliberate, strategic and compassionate way. It’s never too late to open the door to help your child curb their anger outbursts and frequent, regressive tantrums.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.