How to help your child manage their anger
We all lose our rag from time to time, and that includes our children. But some kids find it harder than others to keep their anger under control. This can be distressing for them, getting them into trouble at school, and, in the worst cases, putting themselves and others in danger.
‘Anger can be a positive force as it can motivate you to succeed, but it can also be very destructive,’ agrees Rebecca Peacock, clinical advisor at private mental healthcare company Clinical Partners. ‘Children who have trouble managing their anger aren’t necessarily being “naughty,” but are struggling with big emotions that they find difficult to express.’
What causes anger in children?
Anger is a normal emotion, and every child will have times when they don’t manage to keep it under control. Sometimes, there’s a simple cause: they might be hungry or tired, or have fallen out with a friend, for example. ‘Children have a strong sense of justice, and can often become angry if something seems unfair,’ adds Rebecca.
Children may have angry outbursts if they feel they’re not being listened to, or if they can’t express how they feel. ‘It’s a form of communication when children are trying to tell you something but haven’t learned the right way to do it,’ Rebecca explains.
For some children, anger is a sign of emotional distress. If they feel very anxious, embarrassed, afraid or ashamed, they might subconsciously cover up that emotion with a tantrum.
Anger management can be a particular struggle for children who have autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorders and other special educational needs (SEN). ‘For example, the primary school classroom, with its bright wall displays and constant noise, can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues, and this can overload them to the point of meltdown,’ says Rebecca.
Preventing angry outbursts
How you teach your child to cope with anger will depend on their age and whether they have issues such as SEN or emotional and behavioural difficulties, but most children can be given strategies to help them manage their temper.
‘One key tactic is to help your child recognise the physical signs that they’re getting angry,’ says Rebecca. ‘Some clench their jaw; others get butterflies in their stomach or tingly skin. If they can pinpoint the signs, they can often bring their anger back under control.’
They might do this by retreating to a safe place, such as a quiet bedroom or, at school, the library (with permission from a teacher, of course). Some children are calmed by reading a book or listening to some gentle music; others need a physical release, such as shouting or punching a cushion.
Teaching your child to simply take some deep breaths can help them bring their feelings back under control. ‘When children get angry, there’s a rush of adrenaline in the body that triggers the “fight or flight” reflex,’ Rebecca explains. ‘Breathing deeply means they take on extra oxygen, which dampens the effects of adrenaline.’ At first, you may need to sit with your child and talk them through their breathing exercises, but as they get more used to them, they may be able to do them on their own.
Helping your child to name their emotions is another way to help them keep their temper in check. If your child is able to say, for example, ‘I feel angry because I can’t do this piece of work and it’s making me feel stupid,’ she’s more likely to be able to find a solution: in this case, perhaps asking the teacher for more explanation.
Mindfulness is growing in popularity as a strategy for helping children achieve good mental health, and it can be used effectively in defusing angry outbursts, too. In its simplest form, it involves your child bringing all their attention to the here and now: what can they hear? What can they smell? Can they feel the pressure of their bottom on their chair, and their feet on the floor? This sort of exercise can help to ground your child and deflect their attention from their negative emotions.
If they find this hard, try teaching them to clench and release all of the muscles in their body in sequence – from their toes working up to their face. Focusing their attention on the physical sensations can be a distraction from their anger. Some children like to squeeze a stress ball or use a fiddle toy to work out their tension.
As a parent, try to be aware of your child’s triggers, perhaps by keeping a diary of their outbursts. If, for example, they always get angry when you tell them to switch off their computer, giving them 10-minute, five-minute and two-minute warnings might help.
If your child is put in a stressful situation and is able to use their coping strategies to keep their temper in check, make sure you praise their efforts, as this will give them confidence in their ability to manage their anger.
What to do if your child loses their temper
No matter how many coping strategies your child has, it’s inevitable that their anger will overflow at times. It’s important to recognise that anger is a common and valid emotion, and not punish or shame your child for it. ‘If you tell them to stop feeling angry, they may feel like they’re “a bad child” or not normal, which can inflame their feelings,’ says Rebecca.
It’s also crucial that you appear calm and in control, even if inside, you feel anything but. ‘If the adults around the child look scared of their outburst, it can make them feel even more unsafe,’ Rebecca explains. Likewise, try not to take your child’s anger personally: remember that they’re trying to communicate with you, but are just struggling to do it in an appropriate way.
If your child’s anger does bubble over, help them find a safe place to let it run its course. Time-out in a quiet space may help them calm down quicker. Some children like to be left alone when they’re angry, but others might like you to stay with them, perhaps reminding them to breathe deeply.
Try to keep talking to a minimum if your child is having a meltdown, and keep your language simple. ‘Children struggle to process information when they’re angry, so stick with simple instructions and minimal words,’ Rebecca advises.
Give your child the space and time they need to calm down. ‘This can take quite a long time, and sometimes, you might think your child is calm, but then they flare up again,’ Rebecca says. ‘Remain calm yourself, and make sure you’re available for them when they’re ready to bring their temper back under control.’
In extreme cases, when your child is in danger of hurting themselves or others, you may need to physically restrain them, but use this as a last resort, and make sure it’s borne out of concern for their safety rather than your own anger or frustration.
After the event, it’s helpful to talk to your child about what triggered their outburst, and what they could do differently next time. ‘Some children are able to talk about their emotions quite readily, while others need more help: drawing stick men and writing their thoughts down in bubbles can be an effective strategy,’ Rebecca says. ‘Start by asking them to tell you what happened, but don’t ask them WHY they got angry, as they’re unlikely to be able to tell you.’
Coping with anger at school
Children who struggle with anger can have a hard time at school. Their outbursts may affect their learning, and they may be labelled a “difficult child.” Friendships may be affected, adding to their sense of isolation and injustice.
‘Talk to your child’s teacher about their issues, and inform them of any triggers that you know of,’ advises Rebecca. ‘For instance, if they tend to lose their temper while playing football at playtime, having an adult supervise the game to make sure children play fairly might help.’
A safe, quiet space can be invaluable for children who struggle with their temper. Being able to retreat to the library, the staffroom or just the corridor can help them rein their feelings in, particularly for children with sensory issues who can feel overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the classroom. Likewise, having a trusted adult who they can talk to or just sit with in silence can be a big help.
If your child sometimes loses control to the point that they put themselves or others in danger, it’s important to make their teacher aware of this, and talk about what should be done if they get to this point. ‘There needs to be a school policy on managing violent or aggressive behaviour, which may include physical restraint as a last resort,’ says Rebecca.
Kids' anger: when you need help
Most children will learn to control their temper as they get older and more experienced in using their coping strategies. But sometimes, a child’s anger issues can be serious enough to warrant outside help. This may be the case if:
- Their behaviour is putting themselves or others in danger.
- It’s affecting their schoolwork, or their teacher is struggling to control them.
- Their outbursts are affecting friendships, for example, if other children won’t play with them.
- Their anger is having a negative impact on family life.
- They are upset, stressed or anxious about their behaviour.
The first port of call is usually your GP, who may refer your child to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Through CAMHS, you may be able to access services such as parenting courses, family therapy and anger management workshops for your child. You can also approach your child’s health visitor or school nurse, or contact a charity such as YoungMinds.
‘It’s natural to worry that your child’s behaviour is the result of something you’ve done, and this can destroy your confidence,’ says Rebecca. ‘But try not to take it as an insult. There’s a lot of support out there, and there’s no shame in taking it.’
Clinical Partners offers nationwide private mental health services for children, adults, families and businesses. Call 0203 761 7026 or visit www.clinical-partners.co.uk for advice and support.