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How to Talk to an Angry Child

What causes children to feel anger and how parents can help them work through negative feelings.

It is a guarantee that your child will get angry sometimes, even if they handle their emotions well most of the time. Whether your stubborn toddler erupts into a loud, public tantrum on the floor after not getting their way or your sullen teen gives you the silent treatment, kids feel negative emotions but may not always know how to express or manage them healthily. Even if it's only an occasional outburst, it's critical to remember that your child's feelings are genuine, and they use their behaviors as a form of communication.

If your child has consistent issues coping with their anger, you need to develop practical strategies to help them work through their emotions, understand their feelings, and learn how to express them better. In working through this with your child, it's beneficial to remember that their feelings are natural, even if their coping mechanisms and reactions seem excessive or unnecessary from your perspective as an adult and a parent.

Why do kids get angry?

Anger is a normal emotion that people feel at all ages. As children grow and develop socially, mentally, and emotionally, they feel and express anger and other negative emotions in different ways. At the same time, they should learn ways to process their feelings and healthily express them, but they may not be able to because of their age. Depending on your child's age, the American Psychological Association cites various reasons that can lead younger children to express certain negative emotions in specific ways.

Babies (0-18 months)

While it can come across as sadness, babies can express anger and often do when they feel discomfort. The most common causes are when they're hungry, tired, or scared.

Toddlers (18 to 36 months)

Because their foundational language skills are still being developed, anger-related behaviors often stem from frustration with being unable to express their feelings. They also struggle with being unable to do what they want, having difficulty sharing things with others, and not being understood by other kids or adults.

Mother consoling an angry child

Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)

While preschoolers are more developmentally advanced than toddlers, they still struggle with the same sources that cause anger. Because their language and social skills are still developing, preschoolers cannot control their emotions, have issues with sharing, and have difficulties understanding other perspectives.

School-aged children (6 to 8 years)

As children develop in their early school years, they deal with typical issues that cause anger. They often feel angry when mistreated, rejected, punished, discriminated against, or misunderstood. Because they can lash out by hurting or bullying others as a response to anger, being on the receiving end of those behaviors from their classmates can contribute to negative feelings.

Pre-teens (9 to 12 years)

With the many changes that come with being a pre-teen or tween, Today's Parent mentions several sources that can cause irritability and anger. More often than not, fear that stems from the changes they experience manifests in anger or anxiety. Changes in hormones can also contribute to changes in their mood and sleep patterns. Additionally, school-related stressors and screen time are frequent culprits for pre-teen anger.

Teens (13 to 18 years)

The biological and social changes pre-teens face often extend and amplify as they become teenagers. Dr. Lauren Allerhand with the Child Mind Institute emphasizes that a teen's brain and body chemistry continue to develop into their mid-twenties. While there are some developmentally appropriate causes for anger, other factors like mental illness issues, negative experiences or traumas, or even social life struggles can cause anger.

Can some underlying factors cause excessive anger?

Children of all ages commonly experience issues with anger, but there is a line that differentiates between healthy and unhealthy levels of anger. It's critical to remember that frequent or excessive emotional outbursts or tantrums can indicate that your child may be experiencing some form of distress. While it's not always the case, it's helpful to search for and identify potential triggers and sources that can contribute to excessive anger in children.

According to the Child Mind Institute, some factors that can lead children to feel higher levels of anger and express them in unhealthy or extreme ways may include:

  • ADHD, impulsivity, and hyperactivity
  • Severe, unrecognized anxiety
  • Trauma, neglect, or chaos at home
  • Undiagnosed learning disorders
  • Sensory processing issues
  • Autism spectrum disorders
Mother holding daughter's hands

When should I be worried about my child's anger?

Anger is not an unusual emotion for a child to express, and the frequency at which they have tantrums or episodes may be higher than you think. According to Yale Medicine, it's normal for children younger than 4 to have up to nine tantrums in a week. Once children pass that age, the tantrums should lessen or even disappear. For kids who still experience emotional outbursts as they grow up, it can be a developmentally inappropriate issue that requires assistance from a mental health professional.

VeryWell Family lists five signs that may indicate your child needs help with their emotions:

  • Difficulty in relationships with family or friends
  • Regular disruption of family life to avoid tantrums
  • Aggressive behaviors toward others or themselves
  • Immature behaviors that linger as children age
  • Low tolerance levels for common frustrations

How can I help my kids manage their anger?

Meri Wallace, LCSW, provided Parents with these six helpful ways you can help your child manage their anger.

1. Accept your child's anger

When your kids feel overwhelming anger, it's essential to provide them with acknowledgment, validation, and acceptance. Even if it's a simple statement like, "I can tell you're angry," it can help your child feel more comfortable and reduce their emotional intensity. Ensure your child knows it's okay to be angry so they don't develop a tendency to hide their feelings or feel like something is wrong with them.

2. Encourage the use of words

Depending on your child's age, they may not know the right words to use when upset or angry. As their parent, you need to teach your child the social skills to express their feelings and ask for help. Even if it's by telling them to use their words so you can better understand and support them, they'll gradually learn how to share how they feel with you.

3. Find positive solutions

When your child experiences anger or emotional distress, finding ways to de-escalate the situation in a calm, direct manner is critical. If they're upset about something specific, try to help them identify substitutes and relieve their anger. Using redirections or compromises is also a helpful tool, as these elements can help your child move away from what upsets them and focus on what they can enjoy.

Mother hugging teenage daughter

4. Slow down and talk

Instead of saying "no" right when your child wants something, pausing and talking through the issue can help you handle the situation positively. Take time to listen to your child's reasons for being upset and offer an explanation that makes them understand why the answer is "no." Doing so allows them to trust your guidance through similar conflicts and teaches them practical ways to regulate their emotions.

5. Find a quiet space

Both parents and kids often feel the added pressure of other people's attention when a tantrum or outburst occurs. Moving somewhere quiet with fewer distractions can help you and your child focus better on whatever issue arises. Your child can better pay attention to your words, and you can better relate to your child and help them feel calm.

6. Set firm limits

Helping your child accept and process their emotions is essential. Still, some lines regarding aggressive words or behaviors can't and shouldn't be crossed. Balance your efforts to provide acceptance and understanding with statements that certain behaviors are not okay. Provide a reason for your limits so your child can better understand and cooperate with your rules.

In helping your child through their anger, it's critical for you as their parent to model good, calm behavior before supporting them through their negative feelings. As a co-parent, working with your child's other parent to identify triggers and develop effective approaches is especially beneficial. Having a way to talk to your co-parent about any anger or distress that your child may be experiencing is also important. Find out how a co-parenting communication service like TalkingParents can help you collaborate more effectively with your ex and better support your child.

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