Stephany, a Burlington County, NJ mom, was becoming increasingly desperate. She and her husband couldn’t understand the source of their daughter’s out-of-control anger. Something else seemed to be going on besides the ADHD diagnosis she’d received.
“Things were deteriorating and we were floundering out there,” said Stephany. Finally, she and her husband found appropriate mental health services and support groups through which they were able to start addressing the situation.
During April 2011 alone, 173 residents of Burlington County like Stephany called their local Family Support Organization (FSO) for help dealing with their children’s emotional or behavioral issues, according to executive directorDeborah Kennedy.
The FSO is part of a county-based system of parent-peer counselors set up under the state’s Department of Children and Families. FSOs connect families to resources that help them deal with their troubled children. They also sponsor parenting classes on topics such as the “Explosive Child.”
About one-third of the children in her Wilmington, DE-based practice exhibit aggressive or defiant behaviors, estimates therapist Carol Bouzoukis, PhD. Dr. Bouzoukis specializes in play psychotherapy to help children ages 3-12 gain mastery over their problems.
“Many children have a lot of angry behaviors that can be very problematic,” according to Leslie Rescorla, PhD, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and director of the Child Study Institute.
Angry reactions are common, but can stem from many different causes, she says. So if a child shows frequent and intense anger, it may be helpful to consult with a mental health professional to determine what underlying problem the anger may reflect.
Therapists often ask parents and teachers to complete behavior-rating questionnaires to document the frequency, intensity and duration of angry periods during which the child is out of control. These behaviors are evaluated, with the age and gender of the child taken into consideration.
The issue isn’t the anger itself, which is a normal human emotion, Dr. Rescorla explains. The challenge is to teach children how to manage and express the emotion. Anger is sometimes internalized — perhaps becoming depression, withdrawal or stomachaches — and sometimes externalized — appearing in aggressive and oppositional behavior.
Be a Detective
Numerous triggers can irritate children, produce stress and anxiety and set off anger. Frustration with schoolwork and social situations, thwarted goals and unmet physical needs are common anger triggers. “Is the child tired, hungry or off schedule?” asks Dr. Bouzoukis.
Parents often need to be detectives when things are rocky, says Lisa, mother of three who is also a peer educator with the Burlington County FSO. It took her family a long time to discover that a hormone imbalance and lack of estrogen were part of the problem with their daughter. For many children, learning “to calm themselves down is a huge skill,” she says.
Here are suggestions from professionals and parents for dealing with angry children:
- When you see a child in a tantrum or acting out of control, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parents are bad parents or clueless.
- When a child is out of control or misbehaving, it doesn’t automatically mean he is intentionally being annoying, evil or hurtful.
- When a child acts angrily and adversarial, don’t take it personally. It’s not “about you.”
- There’s a myth that what the child who is out of line really needs is a slap or spanking. But professionals disagree.
- In the midst of his anger, an emotional child often cannot process rational discussion.
- Children often cannot articulate or even understand why they’re angry. They may be just as upset about it as you are.
- Waiting out the child with frequent angry behavior hoping that she is “just going through a phase” and will outgrow the problem often is unwise. Timely intervention may produce better skill-building and faster improvement.
- Kids are “wired” differently, and have different temperaments and needs. They don’t all respond to the world in the same way.
- Be aware that rage can feed into shame and depression.
What To Do About Anger
- Validate the legitimacy of the emotion of anger. Children have the right to feel angry. Emphasize appropriate ways to calm down and express it.
- Negative attention can reinforce negative behavior. Avoid feeding into this cycle.
- Try to provide structure that minimizes unnecessary triggers or frustration. Provide tools to help the child manage foreseeable challenges. For example, bring an appropriate toy or snack if you anticipate a long wait at a restaurant.
- You don’t have to engage with an angry child. Return to the issue when tempers are cooler. Remain calm and neutral when the child is agitated. Screaming back is not helpful. De-escalate.
- Teach acceptable ways to calm down and express anger, frustration and anxiety.
- Try to notice and positively affirm when the child behaves in desirable ways. Incentives, rewards and privileges can be earned. Show your pleasure with good behavior.
- Build adequate “down time” into the child’s schedule.
Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.