10 Truths about a Child’s Anger Parents Must Understand
Many parents find themselves frustrated with emotional outbursts in their children but don’t know how to correct without getting emotionally involved themselves. One of the key indicators of maturity in kids is the ability to manage and communicate emotions in a healthy manner. But when they handle emotions poorly, it’s important how you respond. For example, the child who doesn’t like an instruction or limitation may reveal frustration outwardly, sometimes in a small way and other times with downright abuse.
Threats, drama, and escalating actions on the part of the parent often distract the child from the real heart issues that need to be addressed. One mom said, “My son communicates his unhappiness with disrespect and meanness. His roughness sends a message that says, ‘I’m not happy with you.’” She also realized that her own emotion tended to escalate the situation. Here are some things to remember when helping children who allow their emotions to get out of control.
1. Emotions themselves aren’t bad.
Emotions are not bad but poor emotional management can be destructive. At non-discipline times, empathize with the feelings without condoning the actions. Teach about emotions, what they are and the difference between emotions and actions.
2. A heightened sense of emotion is a gift.
People who react to life with intense emotions have an emotional sensitivity. It’s part of their make up. Emotional sensitivity is a gift that needs to be developed instead of viewed as a curse to be tolerated. God gives an extra scoop of emotions to some people. The person who is emotionally sensitive has the ability to pick up on cues in the environment faster than others.
Often we find that emotionally sensitive people can walk into a room and sense that something’s wrong before others can. Pastors, counselors, and even sales people benefit from this quality. It’s like a sixth sense. But one needs to manage this emotional strength or it will become a perpetual weakness. Look for ways to help children recognize their feelings earlier in the process.
3. There’s a difference between emotional sensitivity and emotional reaction.
Kids can learn that anger is good for identifying problems but not good for solving them. After all, Jesus got angry but he knew how to use that anger in a productive way. Mark 3:5 says, “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”
Jesus didn’t react out of his anger. Instead he turned it around and did something productive. Children can be like Jesus in this same way but it takes some training. Unfortunately, many children simply react to emotion, resulting in hurtful words and actions. Sometimes children don’t recognize that they’re upset until after they’ve hurt someone or said something inappropriate. There’s a better way and the home is a great place to teach kids to learn to control anger not vent it.
4. Don’t be afraid of your child’s emotions.
Sometimes children use outbursts as a form of self-protection to prevent parents from challenging them. View the display of emotion as a smoke screen and look past it to the heart of the issue. That doesn’t mean that you engage in escalating actions, but it does mean that you don’t allow a child to control family life with emotional outbursts.
You may choose to not confront in the heat of emotion, but don’t let your child’s anger prevent you from correction. Parents too often see the emotion as a personal attack and react to it, losing any real benefit that could come from the interaction.
Emotions are often indicators of areas of the heart that need to be addressed. Angry outbursts often reveal unrealistic expectations, a demanding attitude, or lack of character.
5. Anger is often the result of misbeliefs.
Children tend to believe strange things about life. Identifying those misbeliefs can help a child move in the right direction.
“I’ve been thinking about the way you responded to me earlier when I told you to do your homework. I’d like to share an observation that might be helpful for you. It seems that you believe you ought to be able to wait and do your homework just before bed or in the morning before you go to school. Is that what you’re saying? One of the values I’m trying to teach you is that self-discipline often means we work first and play later. That’s one of the reasons I require you to do your homework early every day. I’m trying to teach you an important value. I know that you may not agree with me, but I want you to know why I’m having you do your homework before dinner.”
6. Most children need to develop some greater emotional awareness.
Some kids don’t realize that they’re angry until they’ve broken something or yelled some mean words. These children would benefit from seeing their anger coming on before the reaction hits. One of the ways to help children become more aware of their own emotions is to teach them to observe emotions in others.
One dad helped his seven-year-old daughter who seemed oblivious to her own emotions and those of others. He asked her to identify examples of a friend or family member who was sad, glad, or mad that day. Then he asked the question, “How could you tell what that person was feeling?” and “How might you respond to that person in a helpful way?”
They continued this exercise every evening for two weeks. After a while it helped his daughter develop more empathy, get outside of herself, look at the needs and feelings of others, and then talk about ways to respond appropriately. When her brother is mad, it might be best to leave him alone or to just ask a helpful question. With her friend who is sad, she could offer to help and then listen empathetically. When Mom is glad, she could enter into that gladness by listening to the story and enjoying the situation too.
7. Knowing how to communicate emotions is important.
Some kids are internal processors, churning away, but don’t allow others to easily see their struggle. Other kids are external processors, revealing everything they’re thinking to anyone who will listen. Kids benefit when parents talk more about emotions and the various types of feelings experienced.
Whether they’re embarrassed, sad, afraid, or disappointed, kids often respond with anger, not recognizing the other emotions that are present. Parents can do significant teaching by reflecting the emotion that they see. “It looks like you’re sad that you can’t play baseball today. I’d be disappointed too if my game got rained out. Disappointment makes sense, but that doesn’t mean that you can treat others unkindly.”
8. Don’t get sucked into the drama.
Angry kids often provoke their parents into escalating drama. Don’t use your own anger to overpower your child’s anger. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” When you begin to lose your own emotional control, take a break. Come back later and work on it some more.
Allowing emotions to settle down first can bring opportunities for dialogue later instead of turning the present issue into a battleground. Realize that kids will go away thinking about what you’ve said, even if their initial response looks as if they haven’t heard you. Prepare what you’re going to say and choose your timing carefully without getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and you’ll help your child learn to deal with emotions more appropriately.
9. Separate the issue from the process.
When kids are angry they often want to debate the issue. Parents sometimes have a hard time not taking the bait. “It’s my money. I can do what I want.” “You’re so unfair!” “You let my brother get away with all kinds of things.” Those kinds of comments raise the hair on the back of our necks and we’re ready with an answer. But dialogue at that moment rarely contributes to emotional control.
When children are upset they are off track. The parenting strategies must switch to refusing to engage. Parents who allow children to be abusive while talking about issues actually validate the mistreatment as if it were acceptable behavior. It’s better to say, “I can’t talk about this until you settle down.” The process is the way the child is treating you and you can’t talk about issues when the process is unhealthy.
10. Require and help the child develop a plan.
Most kids who lose control of their emotions need a multi-faceted plan to get back on track. That plan must include both things to say to one’s self and things to do when the anger intensifies. Children may not work their plan in the moment, but each time they settle down you can go back to the plan to include more tools, or debrief about the ideas that could have been implemented.
Children who struggle with their emotions need heart work. The way you typically respond might be good for other children, but may not be best for this particular child. Look for new ways to respond. Don’t allow continued tension in your home without getting help. There are many tools to help children with their anger. You might need some help finding the ones that are best suited for your child. For a free consultation, click here.
The Biblical Parenting Coaching Program is designed to walk alongside parents for eight weeks to bring about major change in a child’s life. To learn more here.
Here is Dr. Scott’s latest video on helping kids with anger :
Karen Van RiesenPosted at 23:49h, 08 June
I really enjoyed reading this post – and I agree with the statement
“Sometimes children use outbursts as a form of self-protection to prevent parents from challenging them.”
I have observed this as well and it certainly is a smoke screen and diversion tactic and if the parent allows it to succeed, it just escalates.
Point 6. would also be helpful for parents. Great idea! “Some kids don’t realize that they’re angry until they’ve broken something or yelled some mean words.” Helping them recognize the emotions of others and identifying them is a wonderful strategy and I’m going to use it when coaching parents.
scott turanskyPosted at 17:28h, 10 June
Thank you Karen. One of the greatest things we can help our children do is understand their emotions, use them for good, and gain mastery over them when tempted to make bad decisions based on them. I’m grateful for your comment.
Tracy BPosted at 17:16h, 10 June
I tell my kids often, “it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to be disrespectful” or “it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to be destructive” and “let’s talk about this after you take a breather, I dont want to be yelled at, but I’m willing to talk when you can speak to me respectfully”. I can completely understand anger because I personally have dealt with it for years. I also try to rule things out like: are they tired, hungry, or did something happen at school. I often can combat the anger with, “please dont treat me that way, do you need a hug?” And sometimes they absolutely do! Sometimes they go from anger to tears so fast because emotions are intense and they still are learning how to navigate them. Sometimes they also just need to “go take a break” in their room and unwind away from the rest of us. But definitely have found that the calmer I can respond, helps them to not let their emotions overpower them, by modeling that mine can remain controlled, but its important to not be a robot either. They dont get to just be disrespectful and for me to just lay down, no a firm but calm response with love, all the balance:)
scott turanskyPosted at 17:30h, 10 June
Tracy, thank you for your heart-felt comment. It’s so true that we as parents struggle with anger just like our kids do. I appreciate your thoughtful differentiation between the emotion and the reaction. An important one for kids to learn and embrace.
Marilee CrowellPosted at 08:13h, 12 June
This is most helpful information.
scott turanskyPosted at 08:27h, 12 June
Thank you Merilee. We are eager to reach the hearts of kids and that means new and different insights than what is commonly taught. Stay connected with us. Good things are happening here. -Scott
Lisa BPosted at 12:02h, 18 June
So very useful!!!
Emily MghangaPosted at 12:47h, 06 September
This is very helpful. Thank you.
Erna PauwPosted at 05:48h, 08 September
I think there is a typo in the paragraph numbered 1. where it says ‘Emotions are bad but ….’. (It should be: ‘Emotions are NOT bad but ….’)
scott turanskyPosted at 09:11h, 08 September
Good catch Erna! I’ve made the change. I need more people like you in my life who are willing to correct me. Thanks.