Ten signs your child needs help controlling their anger

Children and youth anger issues indicate that they are terrified of the pent-up feelings under the anger.

How do you know when your kid needs help handling anger? Look for these 10 signs.

  1. They can’t control their aggressive impulses and hits people; this behavior continues past the age of five.
  2. Frequent explosive outbursts, indicating that they are carrying a “full tank” of anger that is always ready to spill.
  3. They are reflexively oppositional (and they are older than age 2).
  4. They are unable to engage in constructive problem solving and do not acknowledge their role in creating the situation, instead feeling constantly victimized and “picked on.”
  5. They frequently lose friends, alienate adults or are otherwise embroiled in interpersonal conflict. 
  6. They seem preoccupied with revenge.
  7. They threaten to hurt themselves physically (or actually does so).
  8. They damage property.
  9. Repeatedly expresses hatred toward their self or someone else.
  10. They hurt smaller children or animals. 

When a child has “anger management issues” it means that they are terrified of those pent-up feelings under the anger (fear, hurt, grief). Michigan State University Extension has some tips for parents to help kids learn to manage their anger:

1. Remember that all feelings are allowed. Only actions need to be limited, such as hitting.

2. Set limits. Allowing feelings does not mean we allow destructive actions. Kids should never be allowed to hit others, including their parents. When they do, they are always asking for us to set limits and help them contain their anger. Say “You can be as mad as you want, but you cannot hit. I see how mad you are, and I will keep us all safe.” 

Some children really need to struggle against something when they’re angry. It’s fine to let them struggle against your holding arms, if that’s what they want, but take off your glasses, and don’t let yourself get hurt. 

Similarly, don’t let kids break things in their fury. That just adds to their guilt and sense that they’re a bad person. Your job is to serve as a safe “container” and “witness,” to listen to what your child is telling you.

3. Never send a child away to “calm down” alone. Remember that kids need your love most when they “deserve it least.” Instead of a “time out,” which gives kids the message that they’re all alone with these big, scary feelings, try a “time in,” during which you stay with your child and help them move through their feelings. You’ll be amazed at how your child begins to show more self-control when you adopt this practice, because they feel less helpless and alone.

4. Stay near and connected when your child is upset. If you know what’s going on, acknowledge it, “You are so angry that your tower fell.” If you don’t know, say what you see, “You are crying now.”

Give explicit permission, “It’s ok, everyone needs to cry (or gets mad, or feels very sad) sometimes. I will stay right here while you get all your sadness and anger out.” If you can touch them, do so to maintain the connection, “Here’s my hand on your back. You’re safe. I’m here.” 

If they yell at you to go away, say, “You want me to go away. I will step back like this. But I am right here. I won’t leave you alone with these big and scary feelings.”

5. Stay calm. Yelling at an angry child reinforces what they are already feeling, which is that they are in danger. You may not see why they would think they are in danger when they just socked their little brother, but a child who is lashing out is a child in the grip of deep fear. Your anger will only make the storm worse. Your job is to restore calmness, because kids can only learn and understand how to “do better” when they’re calm.

If you are in the habit of yelling at your kids, know that you are modeling behavior that your child will adopt by the time they are a teen, if not well before.

Kids need to learn from you that anger and other upsetting feelings are not as scary as they seem – after all, mom isn’t scared of them. Your presence helps them feel safe, which helps them develop the neural pathways in the brain that shut off the “fight or flight” response and allow the frontal cortex, the “reasoning brain,” to take over. That’s how kids learn to soothe themselves.

6. Give your child ways to manage their angry impulses in the moment. Most kids resist punching the pillows on the couch, which feels artificial to them, but many love having a punching bag to beat up. You can teach your child to stomp their feet when they’re mad. With an older child, you can suggest that they draw or write on paper what they are angry about, and then fiercely rip it into tiny pieces. Teach them to use their “PAUSE” button by breathing in for four counts through their nose, and then out for eight through their mouth. Grab two squishy balls; hand them one, and demonstrate working out annoyance on the squishy ball.

When your child is calm, make a list with them of constructive ways to handle emotion, and post it on the refrigerator. Let them do the writing, or add pictures, so they feel some ownership of the list. Model using the list yourself when you’re mad, “I’m getting annoyed, so I’m checking the list. I think I’ll put on some music and dance out my frustration!”

 7. Help your child be aware of their “warning signs.” Once kids are in the full flush of adrenaline and the other “fight or flight” neurotransmitters, they think it’s an emergency, and they’re fighting for their lives. At that point, managing the angry impulses is almost impossible, and all we can offer is a safe haven while the storm sweeps through them. If you can help your child notice when they’re getting annoyed and learn to calm them self, they’ll have many fewer tantrums. When they are younger, you will have to know their cues and take preventive action – offering some snuggle time or getting them out of the grocery store. As they grow older, you can point out, “Sweetie, you’re getting upset. We can make this better. Let’s all calm down and figure this out together.”

 8. Help your child develop emotional intelligence. Kids who are comfortable with their feelings manage their anger constructively. Some kids, unfortunately, don’t feel safe expressing their uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes they have parents who discount or even ridicule their fears or disappointments. Sometimes they have been sent to their rooms to “calm down” and never received the help they needed to handle their upsets. Sometimes the pain or grief just feels too overwhelming and they fend it off to survive. They try hard to repress their fears, jealousies and anxieties, but repressed feelings have a way of popping out unmodulated, as when an otherwise loving preschooler suddenly hits the baby. These kids live in fear of their feelings. Fending off this reservoir of fear, grief or other pain causes these kids to get angry – and they stay angry. When this happens, a child needs professional help.

If parents want more information on learning to handle their own anger or helping their children handle anger issues, look into MSU Extension’s online anger management class called RELAX-Alternatives to Anger.