A 12-year-old boy from Mumbai would frequently get angry at his parents, often hurling abuse at them. He spent hours glued to the phone, despite his parents’ attempts to put it away, divert his attention and make him read books. But this would make him throw a fit. Controlling anger in kids is a concern that perturbs many parents. However, not all of them are aware of the ways to deal with their child’s varied emotions, say experts. Anger management in children is paramount for their well-being and optimal development.
Increasing academic demands and parental expectations worsened the boy’s anger issues when he resumed school post the COVID-19 lockdown. “He was also being bullied, which further aggravated his anger,” says Shachee Dalvi (PhD), a child and women psychologist from Mumbai, who treated him.
Anger management in children: Identifying the triggers
One of the key steps of anger management in children is identifying the triggers of their outbursts. Dalvi says if parents don’t meet their children’s demands, it causes them to throw a temper tantrum. “In addition, if they feel cornered after being caught in a lie, for instance, they may use anger as a defense mechanism instead of admitting the truth,” she explains. In addition, she notes that being asked to do things that the child doesn’t like can also trigger a tantrum.
Anger issues in children: Not always their fault
“Our brain has two halves: right and left. The right brain is associated with emotions and the left with logic. The right part develops faster than the left, which leads to children’s emotions overpowering their ability to respond logically,” says Dr Sumaira Quazi, consultant pediatric intensivist, Sparsh Hospitals, Bangalore. “It takes time and experience for the logical part to develop fully. A child isn’t always equipped to respond to a situation appropriately.”
According to Dalvi, children tend to get angry because they cannot express their feelings due to their limited vocabulary. Anger becomes a means of expressing their emotions. “Children with speech delay are more likely to develop anger issues,” she says.
What causes anger issues in children?
Deepali Batra, senior clinical psychologist and director, Psychological-Academic-Learning Services for Children & Adults, Delhi, lists some common causes of anger issues in children, which include:
- Underlying psychiatric conditions (like ADHD and anxiety)
- Dysfunctional family dynamics
- Parental violence towards the child or others
- Bullying and issues adjusting to a peer group
- Poor sleep schedule and violent video games
- Trauma or abuse (physical, emotional or sexual)
When does your child’s anger become a problem?
Frequent, intense and developmentally inappropriate anger over seemingly minor reasons needs to be addressed. According to Dr Quazi, eight to nine instances of temper tantrums a week are acceptable.
Batra says for those with psychiatric conditions like ADHD, the anger will be accompanied by symptoms like sleep disturbances, appetite changes, concentration issues and a reduction in their optimal functioning.
How to control anger in kids
Elaborating on how to control anger in kids, Dalvi stresses the importance of acknowledging a child’s anger and letting them know that it is human to feel negative emotions. She lists a four-step strategy to discipline an angry child:
- Firstly, parents need to decide on the consequence of their child’s behavior and explain it to them in an affectionate manner. For instance, they can warn their child that they will be put under a verbal time-out, where neither parent will talk to the child until they calm down and apologize for their behavior.
- Next, they should approach the child with a mix of affection and sternness. The sternness should be restricted to the tone and body language. Abusing the child is a no-no.
- If that doesn’t work, parents should adopt a completely stern approach.
- Finally, they should act on the predecided consequence by informing them that their noncompliance has led to this outcome. They should not talk to the child until they realize their mistake and promise not to repeat the behavior.
“Parents shouldn’t give in as soon as the child apologizes. They should give children time to introspect, after which they can be doubly affectionate as reinforcement,” says Dalvi. Not giving in immediately will help establish clear boundaries.
Dalvi also emphasizes that parents should jointly decide on the words or phrases used to discipline the child (for example, ‘be calm, be quiet’). The repeated usage of the same phrases will help the child register the message without confusion. “Parents must also be on the same page. If one parent is stern, the other shouldn’t be affectionate and should support that parent,” she adds.
Teaching healthy coping strategies
According to Dr Quazi, parents shouldn’t respond to their child’s tantrums with anger. “The parent can distance themselves if they’re angry and approach the child once the anger has settled. This way, you are teaching healthy coping strategies to the child. If you respond with anger, you are normalizing it,” she says.
She also suggests calming a child down through activities like drawing, scribbling (for smaller kids) or taking them for a walk. Parents can also encourage journaling if the child is older.
“Many a times, these temper tantrums surface from feeling unheard and trying to grab parental attention. Parents should have designated parent-child time where they devote their attention to the child, minus the distractions. They can play board games and lend an ear to the child’s feelings and emotions about school, friends, etc.,” explains Dr Quazi.
Parents should work on themselves too
In the boy’s case, it was found that his father was verbally abusive and would spout profanities, which he absorbed. “The boy, who considered his father a role model, had picked up the cuss words used by his father,” says Dalvi.
According to Batra, parents must work on regulating their emotions so that they can approach the child in a proactive manner. Active listening and communication are the cornerstones of establishing a healthy parent-child relationship.
“Parents should refrain from criticizing or threatening the child and establish an active channel of communication where the child feels safe and cooperates,” she says.
The boy’s father was counseled to bring his anger under control. When he changed his patterns, it reflected in the child’s behavior as well. “The child’s treatment involved therapy and meditation exercises. In two months, his anger issues improved significantly,” says Dalvi.
According to Batra, parents shouldn’t label their child or make them feel like they are the problem. “Parents should have a ‘we approach’, where they see therapy as an attempt for both parties to work on themselves and enhance their relationship.”
Therapeutic interventions for managing anger in children include behavior therapy for younger kids, where parents are guided on how changing their behavior can cause a change in their children’s behavior as well.
- Anger issues in children can result from factors like underlying psychiatric conditions, dysfunctional family dynamics, parental violence and bullying.
- It is important for parents to acknowledge their child’s anger and let them know it is human to feel negative emotions.
- Parents should not approach their children if they’re angry. They should distance themselves and talk to their child once their anger has settled. This inculcates healthy coping strategies in the child.