Is your child angry all the time? Are they lashing out?

They might be throwing tantrums, having outbursts at school, fighting with friends, resisting authority both in and out of the home. 

Anger is a complicated emotion, even for adults. It’s common to find ourselves feeling lost and overwhelmed by it–and for a child that feeling can be even more overpowering. They don’t have the life experience teaching them how to handle it. All they know is how overwhelming their anger feels. And without our help and guidance, they probably won’t know how to cope with those feelings without lashing out. 

For children, anger feels instinctive. 

It’s a coping mechanism they’ve learned to tune into when things feel out of control. At their young age, they aren’t able to distinguish between a physical threat and a negative emotion. Because of this, the fight or flight instinct kicks in. And the fight portion of that expresses itself the only way it knows how at that stage: yelling, crying, and other such emotional outbursts. 

“Humans mobilize against any perceived threat (even our own upset feelings) by attacking.” (Aha! Parenting). 

Unlike adults, who have the experience and context to know what is a “big dea;” and what is not, anything that threatens the emotional equilibrium for a child is likely to trigger that rage response. We see this when they lash out at teachers, parents, or friends; when they feel they are being treated unfairly, when they’re embarrassed, when they are sad, etc. In being unable to balance extreme or sudden emotions, they fall into defense mode. And often, the defense mode that makes the most sense to them is anger.

So how can you teach them to manage it?

In order to help them manage their anger, first we need to help them understand it.

Rather than telling your child to stop crying, or that there’s “nothing to be upset about”, take a few moments to help them understand where this feeling is coming from. First, try to calm them as best as you can, without diminishing the validity of their feelings. Give them a glass of water to drink (they will have to calm themselves enough to steady their breathing while they drink it), walk them through a few deep breaths, etc. 

Be sure to let them know that you’re trying to calm them in order to explore what they’re feeling, not to push that feeling aside.

You can say something like, “I see that you are upset. I want to know more about what you’re feeling so we can find a solution. Let’s take a few deep breaths to slow ourselves down so that we can talk about it.”

It’s important to teach them that their feelings of anger aren’t wrong–anger like every other emotion we experience can teach us something about ourselves. Addressing their anger without shaming them for being upset will help teach them that emotions aren’t right or wrong, they just are. There are no rules against being angry–they just need to learn what to do when they feel that anger. 

Help them learn that anger is a secondary emotion.

Primary emotions are the first emotions we feel in relation to an event. A secondary emotion is a learned response we have in reaction to that first emotion. 

For example, if your child is reprimanded by their teacher in front of their friends, the primary emotion might be embarrassment. And then, because they are uncomfortable being embarrassed or vulnerable in front of their friends, they’ll likely react in anger. So they aren’t angry about what their teacher said to them, they are angry about being made to feel embarrassed.

While teaching this won’t stop your child from getting angry, it will help them understand their anger better. 

Ask them:

  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What made you feel this way?
  • When that happened, how did you feel?
  • Did it make you feel sad/embarrassed/etc.?

Guide them to find the root of their anger. 

And when you find the root of it, offer them some empathy.

Validate their feelings. Tell them, “I understand why you’re upset. That would make me sad too.”

Offering empathy and understanding, you teach your child that it is okay to have whatever feelings they have. And you create a space in which it is always safe for them to come to you and talk about them. When they have that space to discuss and explore their feelings, big emotions feel less scary, and when they feel less scary, they are less likely to make your child lose control. And then: 

Guide them through a healthier way to handle their anger.

It’s important to teach your child that all emotions are acceptable, but that not all reactions to those emotions are appropriate. 

For example: it’s okay to feel upset when your teacher reprimands you, but it is not okay to lash out at the teacher, to yell at them, to get physical, to take those feelings out on others, etc. 

It’s our job to help teach them a better way to react to anger. Say things like: “I know you’re upset. I would be too. But did yelling at your friends make you feel better?” Remind them that when they lash out, they aren’t solving the problem. Give them some examples of what they could do next time. Say something like, “Next time you feel like this, what if you tried X? Do you think that would make you feel better?”

And help them learn to find those alternate options on their own! Ask them what they think would make them feel better. Say, “Okay, we know that yelling at our teacher, or being mean to our friends when we’re upset doesn’t actually make us feel better. What do you think would make you feel better?” 

The key is to open the space up for them to explore their feelings without shame, and to guide them to a thought process that will help them navigate those big emotions in the future.