Taming Childhood Anger: Developing Healthy Habits
by Virginia Reece, MS
Temper tantrums are often associated with the "terrible twos," but rarely do they begin on a child's second birthday and end on the third. Some children never have a temper tantrum, while others are still having them as adults.
Parents have an opportunity when their children are young to teach them appropriate ways of coping with and expressing anger. Your response to your child's anger during these formative years may greatly influence their ability to manage theirs emotions as they continues to face the challenges of life.
Anger is a normal emotion that we experience throughout our lives. The goal is not to eliminate anger but to learn healthy ways to cope with and express this emotion.
An infant often begins expressing anger moments after entering the world. With a high-pitched scream, flaring fists, and red face, babies have no trouble letting you know they are not happy with the adjustments to this new world. Toddler temper tantrums express anger as a means of establishing individuality and independence, and sometime to manipulate parents. Preschoolers call upon their newly formed vocabulary to express their anger with outbursts such as "You're not my friend anymore" or "I hate you." Although these experiences are not enjoyable, they are a normal part of development during the child's early years.
Proper anger management during the first 5-6 years of life may greatly influence your child's future ability to handle anger in an appropriate way.
Causes of Anger
Relatively speaking, anger comes and goes in a flash. Children get angry for many reasons, usually self-centered, and some that we may not understand as adults. Regardless of the cause, if the child's expression of anger is inappropriate or destructive to other people or property, it must be addressed.
Here are some common causes of temper flares:
Getting Your Way
One of the most common causes of anger begins early in life and continues throughout adulthood—we don't get what we want. This is worse when children (and sometimes adults) are over-tired or over-stimulated. They simply don't have the energy to demonstrate control over how they express their emotions.
Another common cause of anger for a child is being uncertain of boundaries. It is normal and healthy for children to test the limits they are given. They do this to see if the boundaries are real and trustworthy. As parents you demonstrate the trustworthiness by holding fast to the limits. Giving in shows children that the testing behavior is a successful way to get their demands met. With clear boundaries, children can exercise their freedom and independence by making choices within the limits. They aren't likely to ask you to give them rules, but rules bring order and security to their uncontrolled world. Of course, this makes it very important that the rules you set be fair and consistent.
Some children use anger as a method of getting attention. All children need attention, but some need more than others and will become outraged until they receive it. Once they discover that this method gets a response, they will continue to use it, even if the attention is negative.
A child's temperament can cause them to have a short fuse. A child can be playing happily 1 minute and the next be screaming with dissatisfaction over a minor infraction. Some children are easily irritated, quickly frustrated, and react impulsively.
Anger by Example
Children learn from the values and behavior they see demonstrated. Numerous studies have confirmed a link between a child's exposure to uncontrolled anger in the home, media, and community with aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. When children watch adults vent their anger in destructive ways, they are likely to do the same.
Circumstances that are beyond a child's control, such as their parent's divorce, death of a loved one, poverty, illness, or physical or sexual abuse, can cause deep-rooted anger that will manifest itself in a variety of ways. Some examples include rebelling against authority or acting out.
Teaching Appropriate Ways to Express Anger
You can teach your child appropriate and acceptable ways to express anger. Expressing feelings and solving problems are skills all children need to get along in the world.
Model Controlled Behavior
The best way to teach your children appropriate ways to manage anger is to model it in your own life. What do your children see when you're confronted with problems, conflicts, and stress? Verbalizing your own anger in a controlled way helps children associate the emotion with self-control. For example, instead of yelling at the computer when it doesn't work, try: "I'm angry that the computer isn't doing what I want it to do."
When your child is having an outburst of rage, calmly let them know what they can do to regain control. Acknowledge their feelings and show them ways to calm down. This may work by counting down from 10, walking away, or distraction with another activity.
Begin setting boundaries at an early age and consistently reinforce them. Children need clearly-stated, logical consequences for their actions. Teach your child that inappropriate expressions of anger such as temper tantrums, destructive behavior, or hateful remarks will not get them what they want. Demonstrate to your child that negative behavior doesn't remove the frustration, excuse them from responsibility, or change the expectation.
No matter how embarrassing or stressful, don't give in to negative behavior. It's amazing how quickly a child learns that an outburst of anger can pressure their parents into submission or distract the parent from something the child is not interested in doing. For example, a child may have a temper tantrum when their mother asks him to pick up a toy. As a result, she sends the child to his room. While he is in his room, mom decides to go ahead and pick up the toys. Thus, the child learns that the temper tantrum got him out of picking up his toys. A more appropriate response would be to send the child to his room until he is willing to pick up the toys, and then praise him generously when the toys are picked up.
Moderate Media Influences
Protect your children as much as possible from powerful influences such as television, video games, movies, and music that demonstrate uncontrolled anger. The media often show children that hurting others has no consequence and that the only way to resolve conflict is with violence. This shows children that violence is an acceptable way to express anger. It is very important to talk to them about why violence is not acceptable.
Reward Cooperation and Good Behavior
If a child has established a habit of getting what they want through outbursts, they may need a tangible incentive to change the behavior. Offer praise when your child settles a disagreement without resorting to a meltdown.
Seek Professional Help
If your child continues to show signs of intense anger by losing their temper, reacting impulsively, and demonstrating destructive behavior, request a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional. Common goals of treatment include anger management, responsibility for actions, and acceptance of consequences. It is common for the professional to address family, friend, and school issues as well.
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
The New York University Child Study Center
About Kids Health
Canadian Psychological Association
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Taming tempers. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated April 2015. Accessed January 6, 2016.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 1/30/2014
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