Anger in Children: What’s “Normal?”

Child AngerOf all of the challenges of parenting –and there are many- perhaps none is as frustrating, infuriating, and troubling as dealing with anger in a child.  Depending upon a child’s age, it can manifest as tantrums and screaming fits, aggression with playmates, classmates, and siblings, or sullen, disrespectful and intentionally hurtful words or acts.  Among the difficulties in dealing with these situation is realizing what is going on…and then knowing how best to handle the situation.

The first thing that parents should remember is that, just as in adults, anger is a normal emotion in children.  Unlike other facets of adult behavior however that do not develop until puberty or later maturity, the capacity for anger is something we are all born with; meaning that it is something that is observed in the youngest of children.

The experience of anger can be very confusing for many kids; partly because of the mixed messages they get about anger, how to handle it, how and when to express it, and whether it is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing. They occasionally see Mom and Dad expressing anger, and see many of their cartoon characters on TV expressing anger; but then they are scolded or punished when they express anger of their own.

It is also worth recognizing that, as a society, our cultural views of childhood anger have changed over time, ranging from the 19th Century’s view that boy’s anger was a useful part of their development (girls, however, were not supposed to express anger!), through the early 20th Century perspective that equated all anger with aggression, and culminating in today’s world of zero-tolerance policies on expressions of anger in many schools.

While never an easy experience for either the child or the parent, it’s important to remember that the boundaries of what is considered to be “normal” expressions of anger in a child may very well go beyond one’s personal limits of toleration. In other words, a tantrum of 15 minutes, for example, while it may feel excessive to the adult witnessing it, is not really outside the bounds of what child psychologists recognize as “normal” for children of a certain age.

Anger has three components:

  • The emotional state of feeling anger
  • The expression of anger
  • Being able to understand the anger and what has happened

While children are hard-wired from birth to experience the emotion of anger and to express anger, their ability to understand how and why they reacted the way they did, whether or not it was appropriate, the effect their anger had on others or on the situation- is usually limited until they are much older. Until the child has grown both emotionally and physically, and has had greater social exposure, understanding anger can be a very frustrating process for both child and parent.

For the parent trying to deal with a repeatedly or unusually angry child, it is necessary to recognize that such things as the child’s still-developing ability to remember and connect a current event with a past event, his or her language abilities and capacity for expressing themselves, and their self-regulatory abilities all go into the degree to which a child can manage his or her own anger, and whether that child can be managed by an adult when in the middle of an angry episode.

Finally, parents and adult caregivers need to keep in mind the fact that even if a child’s world looks rosy from an adult perspective, from a child’s perspective things can often seem frightening, unfair, or simply not the way they want things to be. Given their limited capacity for sorting through and expressing feeling, all of these stimuli can result in an angry episode in a child because that is one of the few ways they have of expressing themselves.

Parents should, however, watch out for certain behavior that might indicate a problem more serious than simple child anger.  One term now being used to describe intense anger responses in children is “Anger Overload.” This is described as intense and quick reaction by the child to a perceived insult or rejection. The rejection can seem quite minor to parents or others and the response out of proportion to the event that triggered it.  The problem is called anger overload because it is more severe than a temporary anger reaction lasting only a few minutes. With anger overload, the child may become totally consumed by his angry thoughts and feelings, or their reactions to those emotions. He or she may be unable to stop screaming crying, or in some cases, acting out physically.

There are signs adults can watch for that may indicate a greater need for professional care:

In toddlers:

  • Tantrums that last more than 30 minutes most of the time
  • Tantrums that involve violence or aggression towards caregiver and others
  • Tantrums that involve self-injuries
  • Frequent tantrum episodes ( 5 or more in a day, or repeatedly over many days)

In children 5-12:

  • Anger in the child becomes severe; he tears up his books and breaks things in the house.
  • The child’s behavior poses a danger to himself and others.
  • Anger in the child is sustained, lasting for an hour or more.
  • Teachers or counselors at your child’s school have voiced concern over his anger and behavior.
  • Breaking down into tears after expressions of anger
  • The child has performed acts of violence against others

In teens:

  • Persistent rude and verbally abusive behavior
  • Physical aggression or outbursts against others
  • Physical aggression or outbursts against self
  • Anger turned inward through starvation, avoidance of friends, self-mutilation
  • School attendance and performance problems

 

While a normal part of emotional development, experiencing, venting, and learning to manage anger make up one of the hardest parts of growing up; and it is tough on parents and other adults around almost any child. Unusually high frequency of displays of anger, excessive or over-reactive displays, or violent displays may be a sign for the need of greater care, guidance, or clinical intervention.

If you are concerned because you are noticing any of these signs in your child, or if you are worried about your ability to correctly handle and respond to your child’s anger, we urge you to contact Capital EAP and speak to one of our trained counselors.