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Handling Childhood Anger

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >


Some of us are ready and willing to talk about them openly, and some of us keep them to ourselves. Most of us fall somewhere in between: we’ll talk about some emotional issues with other people, but there are certain subjects that never really see the light of day. It’s different for everyone—we grow up and learn to process emotions in our own unique ways. For better or for worse, there are things we talk about with our parents, things we talk about with our siblings, things we talk about with our friends and still other things only our spouses or significant others get to hear.

For parents, handling their children’s emotions can be tricky, especially when the children start to get a little older. Parents who feel at a loss when dealing with emotional children can take heart, though, because there’s one important fact that, for some reason, parents tend to forget: they’ve been handling their children’s emotions since day one.

Why is this the case?

Because when our kids arrive in the world, all they have is emotion. When babies first come to us, things are fairly black and white. They tell us they’re happy by smiling and cooing up at us. We smile back and even the toughest moms and dads can’t help it—they coo right back. Babies tell us they’re sad or upset by crying, and we learn how to react. We change diapers, we feed them, we hold them and we learn all the little tricks that wash away the tears. As the years go by, things get a little bit more complex and many parents tend to forget how tuned in to their kids they used to be. This is particularly true when facing one specific emotion: anger.

Typical Anger and Anger Issues: How To Tell the Difference

Everyone gets irritable sometimes—that’s not big news. We all have our moments. Part of growing up is learning how to process our emotions without taking them out on other people. It’s not unusual for children under 4 years old to throw tantrums all the time. They’re simply trying to figure out how to get what they want from the world.

Crying worked when they were babies, so why not give it a shot?

At some point between the ages of 4 and 6, however, parents, teachers, and caregivers step in and teach children more productive ways to process their frustration and to communicate when they’re angry. They learn that throwing a fit about everything is not acceptable behavior. It’s even counter-productive. Most parents have heard themselves say something like, “If you keep going with this tantrum, I can guarantee you won’t get … a cookie, a cartoon or a piggyback ride.” So, the question is, when is anger just that: a typical emotion? And when do we, as parents, start to suspect that our children might have underlying anger issues?  There are some signs of childhood anger to look for in children that might mean they’re dealing with something beyond regular, everyday emotions.

Childhood Anger: What to Watch For

Constant Irritability.

If a child older than the age of 2 seems to be continuously disagreeable, oppositional or annoyed by small things, this is a sign that the child is having trouble processing her anger.

Frequent Temper Tantrums.

Once they reach the preschool age—around 4 years old—children have the mental capacity to manage their emotions without completely losing control. If a child tantrums excessively after age 5 or 6, parents might want to consider that the child could be developing anger issues.

Excessive Hitting.

For young children, hitting is typical behavior. However, if a child continues to constantly hit people—parents, friends, classmates or siblings—after the age of 5, it’s well-accepted in the child development community that the child could be developing anger issues.

Self-Destructive Behavior.

When parents see behavior such as a child hitting herself or otherwise hurting herself and/or threatening to hurt herself, this is a sign that the child is having trouble processing her anger and is turning it back on herself.

Lashing Out.

When a child attempts to hurt other children, particularly children weaker or younger than herself, or hurts an animal, this is a clear sign that the child is having trouble processing her anger.

How to Handle Childhood Anger

If your child is repeatedly showing one or more of the behaviors listed above, it’s important to work with her and to give her tools to process her anger. Keep in mind that this doesn’t apply to a hungry, tired child of 6 who throws the odd tantrum when he or she stays up too late and hasn’t had a proper balanced meal—this is about kids who show one or more of the above behaviors over and over after the toddler and preschool age. We found a list of for handling childhood anger in this article, and we summarized them for you here:

Keep your own emotions under control.

Responding to an emotional child with excessive emotion adds fuel to the fire and models the opposite of what you ultimately want: productive emotional processing.

Help your child recognize his or her triggers.

After your child has an emotional episode, do some detective work together: talk about what made her emotional, talk to her about how it felt and make sure she knows how to identify these things herself.

Develop anger management strategies.

Once you’ve done the detective work, help your child develop productive and positive ways to deal with her emotions. This is where she needs your help: if a child is having trouble with anger, then she needs you, as an adult, to teach her how to handle it. There are many ways to deal with anger: taking ten deep breaths, removing oneself from the triggering situation or using tools such as a squishy stress ball to physicalize the emotion. Some therapists teach kids to punch pillows, stomp their feet (away from others, of course) or even jump up and down—these are ways to work the energy of anger out of the body.

Allow emotions to happen.

Trying to clamp down on a particular emotion and make it off limits has a negative effect: children need to have their emotions validated and supported. Remember, the emotion itself is not the problem. The problem is the inappropriate expression of the emotion.

Establish limits.

While it’s important for a child’s emotions to be validated, it’s equally important that she knows there are hard and fast rules about how to deal with anger. While each family is different, the most common limits are things like no yelling, no hitting and no breaking things while angry.

Be there for your child.

If a child is having anger issues, sending her off alone to deal with her anger can be counterproductive. Stay with her, comfort her and ride it out with her. There is a time for “time-outs,” certainly, but if a child is truly having issues processing anger, that’s when she most needs her parents to love and support her by being fully present and in the moment.

Childhood Anger: Finding Support

If you suspect that your child is having trouble processing her emotions, there is absolutely no shame in seeking professional support. There is nothing wrong with you as a parent, and there is certainly nothing wrong with your child. Sometimes emotions can be overwhelming, and the main reason a child develops issues with anger is because she’s scared of the power of the feelings inside of her. Help and support is available to anyone who needs it. Concerned parents can start with the American Psychological Association’s find a therapist web page, or simply talk openly with their school counselor, family or friends—the answer is often just a conversation away.

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We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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