Anger is adaptive and serves a purpose. It signals to the person that something is wrong and motivates them to take action to fix the situation in which their goal is blocked. This is all good in theory, but what do you do when the person having this adaptive anger is your child, and the goal they are trying to reach is one you are actively blocking. Parenting a child who has trouble controlling their anger is difficult for many reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with the impact that the child’s anger has on the child himself. For instance, the parent may realize that if the child continues to act like this, there will be serious consequences in the future since too much anger makes goals hard to accomplish because you start engaging in behaviors that are not helpful in reaching the goal. The parent may also worry how their child is perceived by others. Some of the other reasons relate more to the parent. For example, the parents may be beating themselves up with thoughts such as “What are we doing wrong?” and feeling ashamed about what others think of them as parents. This critical task is made even harder by the fact that anger may be the most frequent, if not the only, emotion that the child expresses to the parent. And yet, parents have to find a way to persevere, so I hope that the following can help.
To better understand what you may be dealing with, let’s start at the beginning; let’s talk about temperament. Anger is one of the earliest developed emotions and can be seen by approximately two months of age. During normal development, infants display low levels of anger early in infancy, then anger increases through late infancy and early toddlerhood and then decreases as toddlers get older[i]. Also, as the expression of anger changes as the child grows, so do the coping skills that the child has at his disposal. Initially, the child is comforted and calmed by outside forces, such as the parent, who provides physical comfort and labels the emotions that the child experiences. However, as the child grows, they develop the ability to regulate their emotions by themselves using cognitive strategies, such as thinking about things in a different way or distracting themselves. Thus, it is important to point out that although temperament does impact the child’s likelihood to get angry, coping skills are learned and therefore can be taught by parents. This notion is also supported by the finding that if a parent dismisses a child’s emotions, the child is more likely to have trouble regulating them[ii]. This may suggest that by dismissing the emotion, the parent passes the opportunity to teach their child how to manage it. Based on this information, it would seem that the role of the parent is clearly defined. The parent will teach their angry offspring how to manage their emotions, and the child will learn these skills and grow into an emotionally-savvy adult. This is known as the development of “emotional regulation.”
However, as every parent of a child who expresses regular and intense anger knows, neither the teaching nor the learning needed for this to happen comes easily. Nevertheless, when the parents actually do have a chance to teach their children about managing their anger, it may be helpful to know which strategies have been found to be effective. One study found that when children are angry, helping them learn to focus their attention on something else was helpful. Another technique that was found to be helpful was getting the child to think of different ways to look at the situation. However, this strategy only worked if the mother and child engaged in it together. On the other hand, comforting was not found to be an effective strategy for decreasing anger. The study also documented that as the study progressed, the children expressed less anger and used coping strategies more[iii]. This can be taken to suggest that as the children get better at using these strategies, they become more and more effective. This should be an encouraging finding for parents to whom it may seem that their efforts to help their child regulate their emotions are having no impact.
Now let’s get back to the real story. It is difficult to stay positive and warm towards your child if they are constantly angry. It has been documented that children who have trouble controlling their anger are significantly less likely to receive “positive parenting” from their mothers than children who do not have problems with anger. “Positive Parenting” was defined as being responsive to the child and showing the child positive emotions. This relationship does not hold up the other way, so it is not the lack of positive parenting that is leading to the children’s anger[iv]. Moreover, parents’ personality traits in general were not found to be related to how likely a child was to become angry.
However, the personality of the parent does play a role in how the parent is able to respond to a child who has trouble controlling his anger. For instance, it has been found that a parent who is high on the trait of conscientiousness responds to this stress with empathy and sensitivity. The study also found different results for each parent. Thus, mothers who showed a lot of optimism responded more positively to their angry children. Interestingly, if the children were not particularly angry, then optimism had no affect on their mother’s response[v]. The authors suggested that the mother’s optimism may help her view the child’s angry behavior as a more positive trait, such as spunk, which helps her approach this behavior with less stress. On the other hand, openness was found to be the trait that helped fathers deal with difficult children. Here the authors proposed that the ability to come up with innovative solutions and new ways of looking at the situation helps the fathers cope, rather than trying to get the children to comply with the established norm. [vi] Thus, the take-away message is that not getting hung up on the idea that “I have an angry kid” but instead thinking about the behavior in more adaptive terms or trying to approach the behavior in a new way helps parents cope.
This does not mean that parents have to accept everything their child does, but approaching the problem with a new perspective may be more effective and lead to less stress for the parent. For example, since anger is associated with motivation to change the situation, the same infants who were found to be the most angry when a reward was removed were the ones who expressed the most interest and engaged best after the prize was returned [vii]. Thus, parents can try to think about ways that the child’s anger can be turned into motivation. However, to do this, the parents would have to help the child identify an acceptable goal. For instance, if a child is angry because he wants to spend more time on his Ipad, it may be helpful to show him that being motivated to do his homework faster (appropriate goal) is an effective way to get more time rather than being angry at the amount of screen time that is left after the homework is done in the usual slow way. Thus, here the goal is “done homework faster” rather than “spend more time on Ipad,” and although they are clearly related, they send a different message.
Moreover, the parent’s ability to regulate their own emotions can play a role in the situation. When a parent is able to regulate their emotions, they are able to use a wider repertoire of parenting skills, which may help the child to cope better[viii]. Moreover, when parents express negative emotions when a child acts out, the child’s behavior tends to worsen[ix]. However, surprisingly, according to one study, a mother’s reaction to her child was better predicted by the child’s expressed emotion rather than their actual misbehavior[x]. Conversely, when the children sought out comfort from the mother, this appeared to positively affect her emotional reaction regardless of what the actual level of anger was. Similar effects were found when the child tried to regulate their own emotion. It also appears to matter if this level of anger is a constant struggle for the mother or an anomaly for this child. The study found that the mothers of children who are generally more angry, react with more negative emotions as compared to mothers who deal with anger infrequently. Again, this is independent of the actual level of anger. Interestingly, the authors reported that mother’s level of positive emotions was more related to how her child’s anger compared to other children rather than whether her child has gotten angrier over time.[xi]
So, now what? How does knowing any of this help a parent who is facing yet another angry outburst in a situation that does not appear to the parent to warrant any anger at all? Here are a few suggestions:
- First, accept that parenting an angry child is difficult, and therefore it is normal that you feel drained or saddened by this. It is likely that once you accept that these feelings are normal, you may feel less ashamed and be more likely to ask for help. If you find yourself getting depressed or anxious, seek help for yourself. At that point, that is the best thing you can do to help your child. By giving yourself the emotional support and resources that you need to be healthy, you will increase the chances that you have the patience and stress-tolerance to deal with the anger.
- Avoid listening to people who tell you “It’s not that bad.” They do not know what it is like specifically for you to parent this specific child. If you think, “it is that bad,” get help.
- Be kind to yourself. Instead of saying to yourself, “Here we go again. Nothing I do help,” try saying “I have dealt with his anger before, I will get through this incident too.” Remember that the calmer you stay the better, you will be able to consider different ways of responding.
- Try to assess whether at present you can “teach” a coping skill or is the child too angry for that right now. If you decide that you can, try it. If you decide that you can’t, try to discuss the incident later when the child has calmed down and try to teach the skill then. Try to focus on what your long-term goal is, which is to help your child deal with this situation better next time, so even if you cannot impact this particular tantrum, you may be able to impact the next one. Also, try to remember that emotional regulation is something children learn and are not born with but some children learn this skill with more difficulty than others. They are also unlikely to become experts on their first try, so recognize each small improvement for what it is – progress.
- It is also possible that you are not the best person to teach your child these particular skills since they approach everything you say with a battle. In this case, identify who may be the best person for this job. It may be another family member, a teacher or a counselor. Alternatively, you may benefit from having a therapist intervene. If any one of them succeeds where you did not, this does not make you a failure. They are not dealing with the same dynamic as you likely are; just be glad that they were able to succeed.
- If you have a new idea for how to intervene, try it. You do not know when a creative solution will turn out to be just what you need.
- Sometimes it is helpful to be “the rock in the storm.” Depending on the child’s age, you may be able to teach them this visual. Their anger is the storm that is flying around and trying to destroy everything in its path. You are there with them as the rock but are not impacted by the storm. You can tell them that you will not engage with the “storm,” but you are not afraid of their anger and will be right here when they are ready to engage with you again.
- Also, as with everything, consistency is key. If your child knows that displays of anger, no matter how intense, do not get them to their goal, they may be willing to eventually consider other strategies. Again, as a way of teaching, after the incident where the child was not allowed to do something because of an angry outburst, you can help them think about what they were trying to accomplish. Demonstrate how they could have gotten what they had wanted and instead they lost that opportunity.
Your parenting job may be harder than someone else’s, and that may seem unfair, but at the end of the day, that is your reality. Try to focus your limited energy on being the most effective parent that you can be to your child, instead of wasting that precious energy beating yourself up for not doing enough or feeling cheated.
[i] Brooker, R., Lemery-Chalfant, K., Buss, K. & Aksan, N. (2014). Developmental Psychology, 50 (10), 2343-2352.
[ii] Sheffield Morris, A., Morris, M. D. S., Silk, J. S. & Steinberg, L. (2011). The Influence of Mother-Child Emotion Regulation Strategies on children’s Expression of Anger and Sadness. Developmental Psychology, 47(1), 213-225.
[iii] Sheffield Morris, A., Morris, M. D. S., Silk, J. S. & Steinberg, L. (2011). The Influence of Mother-Child Emotion Regulation Strategies on children’s Expression of Anger and Sadness. Developmental Psychology, 47(1), 213-225.
[iv] Lee-Baggley, D., Preece, M. & DeLongis, A. (2005). Coping with Interpersonal Stress: Role of Big Five Traits, Journal of Personality, 73, 1141-1180.
[v] Lee-Baggley, D., Preece, M. & DeLongis, A. (2005). Coping with Interpersonal Stress: Role of Big Five Traits, Journal of Personality, 73, 1141-1180.
[vi]Koenig, J. L., Barry, R. A. & Kochanska, G. (2010). Rearing difficult children: Parent’s personality and children’s proneness to anger as predictors of future parenting. Parenting: Science and Practice, 10, 258-273.
[vii] Lewis, M., Alessandri, S. M. & Sullivan, M. W. (1990). Violation of Expectancy, Loss of Control and Anger Expression in Young Infants. Developmental Psychology, 26, 745-751.
[viii] Connell, A. M., Dawson, G. C., Danzo, S. & McKillop, H. N. (2017). The Psychophysiology of Parenting: Individual Differences in Autonomic Reactivity to Positive and Negative Mood Inductions and Observed Parental Affect During Dyadic Interactions with Children. Journal of Family Psychology, 31 (1), 30-40.
[ix] Cole P. M. Teti, L. O., & Zhan-Waxler, C. (2003). Mutual emotion regulation and the stability of conduct problems between preschoolers and early school age. Development and Psychopathology, 15, 1-18.
[x] Lorber, M. F. & Slep, A. M. S. (2005). Mothers’ emotion dynamics and their relations with harsh and lax discipline: Microsocial time series analyses. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 559-568.
[xi] Cole, P. M., LeDonne, N. & Tan, P. Z. (2013). A Longitudinal Examination of Maternal Emotions in Relation to Young Children’s Developing Self-Regulation. Parenting: Science and Practice, 13, 113-132.