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.
But poor emotional management is destructive. At non-discipline times, empathize with the feelings without condoning the actions. Teach about emotions, what they are and the difference between emotion and reaction.
2. A heightened sense of emotion is a gift.
Emotional sensitivity needs to be developed instead of viewed as a curse to be tolerated. 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. God gives an extra scoop of emotions to some. Pastors, counselors, and even sales people benefit from this quality but they need to manage their 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 learn 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 go to the soccer game. I’d be disappointed too that it got rained out. 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 de-escalation.
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.
The Biblical Parenting Coaching Program is designed to walk alongside parents for 8 weeks to bring about major change in a child’s life. You can learn more at biblicalparenting.org/coach
Here is Dr. Scott’s latest video on helping kids with anger :