Teaching children strategies to manage their anger is key. The causes and symptoms of anger in children can vary child to child. A child who is experiencing anger may have various reactions and may exhibit different symptoms including shutting down, experiencing an outburst, crying, and becoming frustrated. Types of treatment will depend on the needs of the child and the severity of the symptoms presenting in the child.
Treatments for managing anger amongst children will vary depending on symptoms and causes of the anger including individual counseling sessions, small groups, and behavior management programs. Parents and families are also encouraged to see how children comply with recommended interventions.
Signs of Anger in Children
Signs of anger in children may vary based on the child’s age, developmental level, and mental health diagnoses that the child may have. When considering potential signs of anger, parents and family members should be mindful that depending on the child’s age and/or developmental level, he/she may lack the vocabulary to express the causes of anger. Therefore, behavioral signs may be the first clue that a child is dealing with concerns pertaining to managing anger. These signs often appear in early childcare centers or in K-12 academic settings.
Common symptoms of anger may include:
- Temper tantrums
- Shutting down
The experiences of children who are experiencing symptoms related to anger may vary based on their experiences, age, mental health diagnoses, and other life factors. The signs and symptoms of anger in children may vary depending on the child’s experiences and ways that he/she has been taught to cope with anger. Adults who are interacting with children should also be mindful that anger symptoms can be physical, emotional, behavioral, or psychological.
Not only do children sometimes exhibit negative psychosocial and academic concerns when dealing with managing their anger, but they may also have somatic symptoms and other physical health concerns.1
Below is a list of symptoms that parents, family members, and educators may see at home and in the school setting related to children experiencing anger concerns:
- Appetite changes, which can include an increase or decrease in appetite
- Change in affect, which is the term used to describe how emotions are outwardly expressed.
- Decrease in the ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, including during school, extracurricular activities, and other hobbies or interests
- Clenching of the teeth
- Easily angered or frustrated
- Relational concerns with peers
- Somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Tense muscles
- Heavy breathing
- Withdrawal from peers and/or family members
Causes & Triggers of Anger in Children
The causes and triggers for children dealing with anger can vary, so it is important for adults who are interacting with children to pay attention to the antecedents of a child’s behaviors that may be triggered due to anger. Also, it is imperative for adults who are observing children becoming angry to not only pay attention to the causes and triggers, but in addition pay attention to the frequency and the intensity of the reactions to the causes and triggers. These triggers may be external to the child or related to internal feelings or emotions.
Some of the causes and triggers of a child’s anger include but are not limited to:
- Frustration with peers, home, or school
- Substance abuse
- Environmental factors such as familial difficulty (e.g., Divorce, separation, abuse)
- Family history of mental illness
- Physical illness
- Stressful life circumstances (e.g., academic issues or abuse, bullying)
Potential Risk Factors for Anger in Children
Potential risk factors, like causes and triggers, vary from one child to the next. Regardless of causes and triggers, however, it is imperative to recognize potential risk factors that may contribute to children experiencing anger.
Common risk factors of anger in children include but are not limited to:
- Abuse (e.g. physical, emotional, sexual)
- Having an undiagnosed or diagnosed mental health disorder
- Having a lack of meaning and feeling hopeless and/or helpless
- Low self-concept (i.e., confidence, image, esteem, etc.)
- Stressful situations (e.g. school, bullying, divorce/separation of parents)
- Traumatic experiences (e.g., death of a loved one)
How to Get Help With Anger Management for Children
When addressing anger in children, it is imperative to seek professional support to help them thrive. Children who are experiencing anger may have a high need to regulate their emotions and behavior caused by the anger, which may manifest itself as mental, social and emotional, and physical concerns.1 So, the first step is to visit your child’s pediatrician to assess any physical symptoms to ensure that what your child is experiencing is not a physical or medical illness.
Once your child’s physical symptoms are addressed, you should seek out mental health services to support your child throughout the process of coping with his/her anger. Many pediatricians can provide contact information for mental health providers that focus on anger management in children. If your child is currently in school, you can also check in with the school counselor and ask if there are resources available in the child’s school. Some resources that may be available in school are small groups that focus on social skills, individual check-ins with the school counselor, and outside agencies that may provide mental health support in schools.
Please note, when looking for a mental health provider outside of the school setting for treatment of symptoms that may be related to anger, take your time and seek out someone who has an expertise in diagnosing and treating mental health concerns in children specifically related to anger management.
You may research mental health providers with this specialty by using an online directory, getting a list of providers from your insurance company, getting a referral from your family doctor, and/or getting a recommendation from a colleague, friend, or family member. Your child’s school counselor may also be able to provide a list of mental health resources in your community. The following are essential considerations when finding a mental health provider to support your child’s mental health.
Below are factors to consider when selecting a provider for your child:
- Check to see if the therapist is accepting new clients
- Read to ensure that the mental health provider focuses on the specialty areas that are specific to your child’s mental health needs
- Ask if the therapist accepts your insurance plan or offers affordable cash payment options
Treatment of Anger in Children
Treatment of anger varies depending upon the severity of the signs and symptoms, triggers, and resources available. Also, parents, family members, and schools must consider that what works for one child may not work for another when it comes to managing anger. It is imperative to not force one particular type of treatment if the child is resistant to engage in the process initially. It is often helpful to explain anger management tools to children as they relate to their emotions, symptoms, and treatment. It is also important if the child has a specific mental health diagnosis that the child understands helpful ways to cope with the signs and symptoms related to the diagnosis.
Normally, when children are facing challenges pertaining to managing their emotions, behavioral interventions are often recommended. However, depending on the cause of the behaviors, different treatments may be recommended. Below are therapeutic treatments that are used to help support children and families when a child is having a difficult time managing his/her emotions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anger is a normal method of treatment when working with children. Within CBT, children can process their thoughts and identify distorted thoughts that are causing unwanted behaviors. Throughout this process a mental health provider can help children modify distortions that may be responsible for disruptive behaviors.4 It is also imperative when working with children suffering from concerns with being able to re gulate their emotions that a trauma sensitive approach is considered.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach for children and adolescents who have symptoms related to trauma.5 When a child is in therapy it is key for the therapist to assess whether or not the child has been exposed to traumatic experiences that could be causing outbursts or other symptoms that are out of the norm for the child.
TF-CBT combines psychoeducation and cognitive techniques to teach children and adolescents how to express themselves, learn cognitive coping skills to deal with stressors, develop relaxation techniques, create and process trauma narratives, and manage behaviors that could be detrimental to their overall mental health.7 The range of sessions can vary from 8-25 sessions.5
Parent training should be a primary approach when supporting children with concerns or diagnoses pertaining to regulating their emotions.6 It is imperative when children are learning healthy ways to manage their anger that parents/families are included in training to ensure that everyone is using similar interventions that reinforce the behaviors that the adults would like to see. Parent/Family Training helps parents limit outbursts by teaching alternative ways to handle misbehavior. The focus is on using positive reinforcement for what a child does right, rather than punishment for negative behaviors.
Social Skills Groups
Small groups for children learning to regulate their emotions can also be beneficial for children. Social skills groups use evidence-based practices to teach children healthy ways to regulate their emotions, interact with peers, and strategies to support them in their day-to-day interactions with others. Social skills groups can take place in a counseling setting in or outside of the child’s school setting. However, whatever skills that the child is being taught in social skills groups should also be taught or communicated with the parents, caregivers, and teachers who are working with the child.
In addition to behavior management strategies and parent training, medication for anger may be prescribed by the child’s pediatrician or a child psychiatrist depending on the diagnosis. There are various diagnoses that children may experience such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, or other diagnoses. Anger can be a concern or symptom in almost any childhood mental health disorder. Parents/caregivers should consult with their child’s pediatrician or a child psychiatrist if they believe their child is experiencing any of these conditions. Any time medications are given to children they should be discussed with the child in an age-appropriate manner.
The effectiveness of therapy and behavior management will vary based on many factors, including:
- When one first noticed the symptoms
- The severity of the symptoms
- If the onset of the symptoms is new or returning
- Triggers of the symptoms
- Recent major life changes
- Additional medical or mental health concerns
- Family history of mental health diagnoses
With effective treatment and support, symptoms related to anger can improve.
Lifestyle Changes to Help With Anger Management for Children
While lifestyle changes alone are not enough to efficiently treat anger in children, they can be helpful in collaboration with behavioral management, parent training, and/or treatment from a mental health provider. The following lifestyle changes may be positive additions to a therapeutic and medical regimen created by a mental health professional.
Parents should encourage their children to:
- Eat a balanced diet that consists of healthy foods.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep a night.
- Identify triggers that may cause stress and find effective ways to address them.
- Incorporate physical activities into an everyday routine (e.g., ride bike, walk through neighborhood, jogging, dancing).
- Practice relaxation techniques (e.g., visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, or yoga).
- Practice self-care techniques when feeling overwhelmed with triggers (e.g., take a break, go for a walk, ride a bike).
By modifying their thoughts and behaviors and learning healthy ways of regulating their emotions, children have the ability to make their symptoms related to their anger better.
They may not be able to resolve symptoms completely, but children suffering from concerns related to anger management can improve their overall life by:
- Becoming familiar with triggers, signs and symptoms related to their anger. Conditions related to managing anger can be complex and challenging at times. Therefore, becoming familiar with signs, symptoms, and healthy ways to cope are important.
- Leaving time for activities that they enjoy. Some of these activities may include but are not limited to spending time with their peers/friends, watching a movie that they enjoy, reading a book, taking a bath, physical activity, and eating their favorite meal are all pleasurable activities that can help children to relax.
- Prioritizing physical health during transitions. If a child is suffering from concerns related to managing his/her anger, it is imperative to take measures to ensure that the child has a healthy diet, engages in physical activity, and gets an adequate amount of sleep.
- Seeking out treatment and following the treatment plan provided by a mental health provider. When a child is in treatment, the mental health provider will create a treatment plan. As a parent/guardian of a child dealing with managing anger, it is invaluable to participate in this process and follow-through on strategies discussed in treatment. It is also important to communicate with the child’s teachers to share strategies that y work at home and in other settings.
- Encouraging the child to surround him/herself with a great support system. Children with concerns related to managing their anger should seek out a support system who can support them through their journey. This includes but are not limited to peers, trusted adults, loved ones, and other positive role models..
Statistics Pertaining to the Mental Health of Children
There are many children who suffer from mental health concerns and diagnoses that impact their mood. One in six children between the ages of 2-8 have been diagnosed with a mental health, behavioral health, or developmental disorder.2 Some diagnoses that are common in school age children are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety, depression, and oppositional defiant disorder.
Over 38% of children between three and 17 years old who have anxiety also have behavior concerns.3 When children are exhibiting behaviors that are out of the norm it is imperative for the adults to identify the root cause and if there are other factors contributing to these behaviors. Due to these mental health considerations, it is imperative for parents and families to be aware of changes in children’s behavior and to seek out support when they exhibit behaviors that are out of their norm.
Final Thoughts on Parenting an Angry Child
Helping your child identify healthy coping skills is key. While these lifestyle changes for children may be helpful, mental health treatment is also crucial in addressing symptoms related to managing anger in a healthy manner for children. If you are concerned about symptoms related to managing your child’s anger, seeking professional support for your child from a mental health provider is highly recommended.
Licensed professional counselors, social workers, psychologists, or psychiatric medication prescribers are able to determine whether a person is experiencing a mental health diagnosis and the best methods of treatment to support a child dealing with concerns pertaining to anger management.
Anger in Children Infographics