Some kids really struggle with their anger. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It likely means they’re pretty sensitive and possibly have underlying stress that’s hard to express. Perhaps they simply haven’t learned better ways to express their anger. How can we help our child who seems angry all the time?
Even in peaceful homes, sensitive kids may be anywhere from anger prone to seemingly angry all the time.
Even socks can lead to meltdowns!
Certainly, no child is truly “angry all the time!” but if it feels like your child is always angry, take a deep breath. There’s practical help for you.
How do parents usually respond to anger?
- Child gets mad.
- Parent gets mad and sends the child to his room
- Child bangs on door.
- Parent takes away (__________) for the rest of the day.
Sound familiar? It’s a pretty familiar script in a lot of homes.
The problem is, that it doesn’t address what’s happening inside either the child or the parent.
The thing is, getting mad isn’t necessarily wrong. But hitting is. It’s also damaging to be verbally aggressive with loud, hurtful words. So how do you help kids with their anger? Tune in, and we’ll help you.
Often, the way parents navigate their child’s anger gives kids the impression that the anger itself is both the problem and the solution. Like this: “Settle down! This is not OK!” If it continues, there is some stern punishment for the anger. This misses the great opportunity to help the child feel understood and validated and be guided to problem-solve the source of their anger. It also reinforces the use of anger to cope with stress because that’s what the parent is modeling.
At this point, a parent may say, “No, I’m not angry at my child! I’m just a little bit annoyed.” But in the child’s view, this is just a more grown-up way of being angry.
If you haven’t admitted to your child (ideally with a steady voice) that you’re feeling pretty mad and need to take a break, your child may be learning that anger is so bad that it’s scary to even admit to the feeling.
They know you’re angry. Model what it looks like to admit you’re mad by saying it out loud. Take your own break if needed.
What happens if a child thinks anger is bad?
Anger is a natural feeling. If your child grows up believing that anger is bad, she will likely not develop the skills needed to navigate her anger or express it in more constructive ways.
Most kids who aren’t taught healthy ways of responding to their anger tend to do one of two things:
- They either develop the habit of fighting for the sake of gaining control…
- Or they build a habit of “fleeing” (avoiding conflict and stuffing feelings) in order to escape the pain of conflict.
That’s because anger sends our brains into a fight-or-flight response. They’ll fight, or they’ll flee.
The child that fights
Habitual fighters look angry. These children find significance in the fight for power and control. They become overtly angry and aggressive about many things. They react quickly and unreasonably to the things that anger them.
Almost every child’s first expressions of anger are some form of fighting. But if kids regularly get sternly confronted or angrily punished for these expressions, they quickly learn from their parent’s example that anger is a weapon.
They either keep fighting harder in order to win, or they learn to flee because they know they can’t win.
The child that flees conflict
Kids who flee get quiet. They get sad. They withdraw into worlds of their own and do little if anything, to let us know they’re angry. They may even disappear or cover their ears when conflict starts.
The most troubling thing when kids “take flight” is that, at first glance, they don’t seem angry. They are often compliant with our requests. They may not like what’s being asked of them or the feeling of being controlled, but they don’t have the will or energy to fight.
So they give in and coast along. But there is a limit to how much anger they can hold in. At some point, they must express it.
And without healthy instruction on how to express their anger, it may come out in unhealthy ways, just like the child that looks angry all the time.
The child with indirect anger – When fight and flight combine.
After fleeing anger long enough, as resentment builds, kids learn to combine the fight and flight responses by doing both at the same time. Kids’ anger goes “underground,” and then… Expressions of kids’ hurt and frustration keep bubbling up to the surface in indirect anger! They display anger about one issue by directing the anger at someone or something else. It can be confusing and complicated to sort out what the anger is even about. It’s quite probable that the kids don’t even know what it’s about. Their behavior is simply acting out their pent-up feelings.
Sometimes indirect anger can be more active…
- “Accidentally” damage things (because things are easier to control than people—and they don’t fight back)
- Yell at their sister when they’re mad at mom or dad
- Do things in public to embarrass their parents
And sometimes more passive…
- “Forget” to do what you’ve asked
- Fail at things that are important to you
- Dawdle and be late
- Pretend to not hear you
In my work with high-risk teens, I regularly saw indirect anger. Teens angry at their teachers vandalized the school. Bullied students bullied others. Perhaps the most common example were those youth who had lots of anger about their lives but turned the anger on themselves by self-harming. In general, it’s hard to get a handle on this kind of complicated, confused expression of anger. By the time it’s expressed, there is a history of baggage and unresolved anger from the past.
The anger spectrum
Christians have a tendency to avoid anger. But we’re not told, “don’t be angry!” We’re instead told, “Be angry but don’t sin and don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” (see Ephesians 4:26). The mandate is to be angry at the right things and to resolve your anger well. Like one of my mentors once taught me, “Anger is like dynamite. Used carelessly, it can cause a lot of unwanted damage, but under God’s guidance, it can be constructive. (See David’s anger at Goliath’s mockery of God).
Whether your child’s anger is expressed by fighting, fleeing, or indirectly, your job is to teach your child a constructive way of expressing his anger.
Here’s a graphic that depicts the spectrum of possibilities for expressing anger.
Note: This teaching is best understood in the context of teaching restorative anger practices in families. It is our experience that those best equipped to express civil anger in a variety of ways are first equipped for calm, respectful, constructive, and restorative expressions of anger in the context of their most important relationships.
Wherever your child’s expression of anger lands on this spectrum, the goal of wise anger education is to help them make progress toward the green (constructive) side of the spectrum. You can talk with your kids about your intention to model and teach “respectful anger” as you work to identify feelings and solve frustrating problems together.
Children (and grown-ups) learn first to be assertive and then gradually learn to be restorative. And here’s where we find a big problem when it comes to teaching kids about anger.
Where children start on the anger spectrum
As mentioned, kids’ first expressions of anger are almost always aggressive, with some form of fighting or tantrum. Their response to the big angry feelings inside of them falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And it’s almost always ugly and unrefined.
Remember this: Often, this is the best children know how to do with the skills they have, but parents almost always punish it!
Instead of constructively helping a child make progress toward the green (growth) side of the spectrum, they send messages that anger is not OK.
This actually inclines a child toward the red (unconstructive) side. They become more hurtful, more silent, or more indirect. They’re not learning new skills for expressing anger, so they begin to bottle up their angry feelings.
Things might look better temporarily, but they’re not better.
Teach your child healthy anger management
The first step is to validate your child’s anger. You might say something like, “You’re angry right now, aren’t you?”
When you say these words, you’re demonstrating that you see the feeling, and it’s okay to admit to the feeling. You’re not shaming your child for anger but joining on their side.
You might go on, “I understand! I get angry sometimes too.”
This approach often takes the wind out of a child’s anger sails. It allows them to feel angry and express it without a power struggle.
As naming the feeling becomes a habit, it teaches kids that there is “grace space” to wind down and more appropriately express what’s going on inside of them. Once your child has begun to calm, you can begin to invite them to the growth side of the spectrum.
Try asking questions like this using a calm voice:
- How can I help you?
- How could you be more respectful when you’re angry?
- Can you say what it is you want?
- Can you give me your ideas about how to solve this?
Things can get better! At first, this approach may not be as easy as it sounds. But over time, as kids grow to believe that you are for them and not against them, they will learn to be more respectful in their anger. To be angry, but not sin.
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