There’s a quote by an unknown author that says, “Children are not giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time.”
Anger is a complex emotion for everyone, especially children and teens in varying stages of brain development. In this post, we’ll explore ways to help children of all ages manage their anger but first, we must find the source.
Step 1: Finding the source of children’s anger
When we cannot stop an infant from crying or watch a child/teen explode with rage, it can be extremely frustrating for us as adults. It’s important for us to take a deep breath and try to find the “why” behind big emotions. This can lead to healthier solutions and relationships with our kids.
Finding the source of anger with nonverbal infants and toddlers
Young children, like all of us, have BIG emotions. Managing these emotions can be challenging because, unlike older children, young children do not always have the language or social/emotional skills to process and express these emotions in a positive way or in the way we’d like them to.
There is no specific age or stage of development when infants or toddlers begin to show definite signs of anger. For very young infants, their most noticeable way of expressing displeasure is to cry, which can be an indication of anger, frustration, or many other feelings. We can look for nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and tensing of the body to sometimes determine differences in emotion, but ultimately using and teaching language as children grow and develop over time will help us know what our little ones are feeling and how we can help.
Before they gain those verbal skills, and even for our non-verbal children, there are strategies we can use to give them tools for self-expression. Sign language is a great tool to teach young children in such cases. Introducing even the youngest infants to language, including sign language can be extremely impactful as language development begins very early on and peaks between ages 0 and 3 years of age.
We can also provide visuals of people displaying emotions to show children to help them associate facial expressions and body language with emotional words like happy, sad, angry, excited, afraid, etc. Reading books and talking about emotions, even using stuffed animals or puppets can be a great way to introduce and normalize the concept of emotions and model appropriate responses. Books like Teeth Are Not for Biting and Hands Are Not for Hitting are used often when teaching young children about big feelings and the best ways to manage them.
Finding the source of anger with preschoolers and kindergarteners
Finding the source of young children’s anger can be simple in some situations, but may take more effort in others. For example, if you observe a peer conflict or deny a child something they want, they may respond angrily. However, if a child has a seemingly unprovoked angry outburst, it may be due to a number of different factors. If we think about the times we, ourselves get angry, it could be due to a single incident, or it may be because we didn’t get enough sleep, or we’re late-breaking for lunch or our routine has somehow been thrown off, which results in a mood change that could quickly turn to anger. Environmental and physiological factors play a big part in our mood and emotional responses.
Ask open-ended questions, such as “What happened to upset you?”, “What do you need from me right now?”, and “How can I help?” Acknowledging and validating young children’s anger teaches them that their feelings matter and that they aren’t alone. It helps develop social and emotional skills including trust and healthy attachments with responsive adults. It also provides an opportunity to teach young children that it is okay to get angry while helping them learn positive ways to manage it.
Finding the source of anger with children and teens
A child or teen who becomes angry is not someone who is trying to be difficult – they likely have deeper emotional needs that are not being met. Anger is what is called a “secondary emotion”. This means anger is often not experienced in isolation but is often the emotion most easily seen at the surface while other feelings and needs lie hidden underneath. These underlying needs can also include physiological components such as hunger, fatigue, and fluctuations in certain hormones (which are a natural part of adolescent development).
There’s a balance when it comes to identifying the source of a child or teen’s anger. Helping to identify the root can help provide insight into how to meet the child’s need and/or help them cope with their emotions. First, explore biological needs. Does the child need food, sleep, a stimulation break, etc? These needs can generally be met more quickly. Second, consider what events happened immediately before the child or teen’s anger surfaced to see if you can identify the “trigger” of the anger. Seek to resolve or minimize biological needs or triggers first.
The catch is, often it’s difficult for any person to identify and express the source of their emotions clearly and effectively, especially while the person is dysregulated. Once the person has reached a point of regulation for approximately 20-30 minutes, offer an opportunity to discuss what made them angry. Further down the page, we explore exercises and steps to help children and teens regulate.
Keep in mind, some children and teens may not want or be able to talk about their feelings so non-verbal strategies may be more effective. Encourage the child or teen to express themselves in other ways such as drawing their experience, sharing music that speaks to their experience, acting out their experience with puppets, etc. The goal is to create a space where the child or teen can share their authentic selves, without judgment, or fear of retribution.
Anger is, after all, a normal emotion, and a person who is sharing their experience with you is a person who is seeking trust, safety, and connection.
Step 2: Helping children manage their anger
After you’ve identified the source of a child’s anger, whether momentary or prolonged, it’s time to practice anger management skills. These skills will look different for each child, and at each stage of development.
Helping infants, toddlers, and preschoolers manage anger (ages 0-5)
There is no one solution for managing young children’s anger. However, addressing it begins with a calm, prompt response. Verbally acknowledging their emotion and the reasons behind it helps build language skills and provides words to build emotional literacy. Reassure them that you are there to help and provide verbal and/or physical affection if they enjoy that.
Depending on the age/stage of development of the child and the source of the anger, that may be all they need. For very young children, ages 0-3, anger management exercises look more like adult guidance and facilitation. This may include talking through their anger with them, guiding them through a peer dispute, providing some one-on-one attention, redirection, and positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and responses. Young children ages 3-5 may be ready for exercises such as breathing techniques, asking for help, “cool down” areas with soft mats and pillows, and sensory items such as stress balls, sensory bottles, and fidgets.
Language development plays a significant role in anger management because children become frustrated when they can’t effectively process and express their anger or talk through upsetting interactions and experiences. Because young children copy so much of what they hear and see, modeling appropriate responses and communication is essential for anger management at any age.
In some cases, a child’s anger can become more than parents and/or caregivers can help them successfully manage. This can be for reasons such as trauma, developmental delays, and/or lack of resources. In these cases, outside help is available. Connect with agencies such as the Virginia Infant and Toddler Specialist Network that offer mental health services for young children, as well as supports for parents and caregivers. Speaking with their pediatrician may be a good place to start as well. Anger management should not go unaddressed, and early intervention in recommended in these cases.
Helping children and teens manage anger
For many adults, the first reaction to anger in older children and teens is to attempt to rationalize the experience and/or stop the process but this could be a mistake. Anger, like other emotions, is a form of energy. Remember back in your high school science classes when we learned about energy? Laws of science have taught us energy cannot be destroyed, but it can be transformed from one form to another.
Our adult desire to stop the process of anger is often rooted in our own needs – to contain, to control, and/or to cope. In directing children to contain their anger we make several mistakes – we encourage the child to contain the anger within themselves which in turn means they are faced with managing it on their own, we create disconnection by invalidating the child’s emotional experience, and we miss the opportunity to model and teach effective ways to cope with and manage anger. Instead, follow these steps to effectively address anger in children and help them regulate their emotions…
Reframe the situation for yourself
Remember – the child is not giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time.
Name the feeling
It is okay if you get the feeling word wrong because you’re attempting to connect by reflecting on what you see. If a child or teen corrects you, accept and continue using their feeling word. (The child correcting you is a positive sign that they have awareness of their own experience, an understanding of emotional language, and are able/willing to advocate for themselves.)
Adult – “I noticed your fists are clenched. You seem frustrated.”
Child – “No, I’m angry!”
Adult – “Oh, you’re angry.”
Validate their emotions (even if you do not understand or agree with their perspective)
Some research has suggested providing multiple examples to validate a person’s emotional experience increases the likelihood they feel heard, seen, and valued.
Example: “It makes sense you would be angry because you really wanted to play with that toy, you waited patiently, and you may be concerned you won’t have time to come back to it again.”
Normalize their experience
Example: “I might feel angry too if that happened to me.”
Create boundaries to maintain safety
Example: “It is okay to feel angry. It is not okay to hit me. I am not for hitting.”
Support in finding healthy, safe, and effective outlets for anger
Remember, anger is energy. Helping children and teens connect with their bodies to release this energy and regulate their systems will be helpful tools. This could be through small movements, like squeezing play-doh, punching a pillow, or making a piece of art; or it could be through big movements, like running outside, screaming at the top of their lungs, or kicking a ball.
Example #1*: “If you feel your body needs to hit, you may hit a stuffed animal or a ball. Which would you like to choose?”
*Keep in mind, depending on the age, development, and skill level of the child or teen, they may need you to join them in using coping skills, modeling its use, and highlighting its purpose.
Example #2*: “Let’s find something together we can hit to help your body while it is feeling angry.” (Adult engages in the action and statements they want to see the child mirror, by using “I” statements.) “I notice my body is feeling angry. I’m going to hit this ball to help my body while it is feeling angry.”
*Teens are much more likely to simply need permission and space to act on their own, but some may want you to remain nearby.
Example #3: “It is okay to feel angry. I am here if you would like to talk about it or you could take a 5-minute break to get some space and listen to music on your headphones.”
Take care of yourself
When difficult emotions and energy come into a situation, you yourself will become impacted by the experience. Take time to reflect on what comes up for you and help yourself effectively cope with your own emotions by repeating steps 1-6.
Step 3: Preventative measures for anger management
From a preventative standpoint, there are many strategies to help with anger management. Ensuring children’s biological needs including food, sleep, movement, housing, and a sense of safety are consistently met will help them remain more able to effectively regulate their emotions. Additionally, providing kids with consistent access to physical activities which help them release energy and gain skills in areas of self-awareness and impulse control can be beneficial to long-term skill-building. Such activities include yoga, martial arts, and sports.
Research also consistently highlights the protective benefits of having a supportive community. Ensuring your child or teen has self-identified social support such as family and friends they feel safe and able to confide in, will help ensure they know who they can turn to when they experience big emotions.
A child or teen who is consistently angry or becomes angry easily may have recurring underlying needs or challenges that have not been identified or met. It is important to seek additional help or support when anger impacts someone’s daily life and/or causes safety concerns to self or others, particularly if it’s happening consistently. It is generally easier to identify children and teens who could use additional help when they display “big behaviors” such as throwing objects, hitting, or threatening others. More often, children and teens who experience internal struggles with anger can be harder to identify.
If you see a child or teen who is consistently withdrawn, isolating, and/or is expressing a desire to or is actively self-harming, it’s time to seek professional help. Help could come in many forms for these children and teens but should include a combination of guardians/caregivers, pediatricians, school counselors, educators, and mental health professionals. For most individuals, beginning a conversation with a child or teen’s school counselor or pediatrician is the best place to start. These professionals are well versed in what is developmentally appropriate vs. what is not and will be able to provide advice and referrals to ensure children and teens are connected to the appropriate resources.
If you are in the United States and have concerns about a child, teen, or adult’s immediate safety please contact 988 or go to your nearest emergency center. If you are in the Richmond area and your child is experiencing trauma, connect with ChildSavers’ Immediate Response team. ChildSavers also offers ongoing outpatient mental health services at our clinic and several Richmond Public Schools.
Additional anger management resources
Looking for more resources to help children manage anger and explore emotions together? Check out a few of our favorite videos, articles, and tools:
- Help! Why Is My Toddler Angry and What Can I Do to Help Them? (Article by Healthline)
- Is It Normal for Babies to Get Angry? (Article by What to Expect)
- Video: Helping Babies and Infants Explore Emotions
- Video: How to Make A Calm Down Box in 5 Minutes
- Video: What Does It Actually Mean to “Flip Your Lid”?
- Video: De-escalation Techniques for Adults Working with Kids
- Video: Calming Breathing Exercises to Try with Kids
- Tool: Feelings wheels (for infants/toddlers) (for children and teens)
- Tool: Emotion flashcards for young children
- Tool: Feelings in A Flash – emotion flashcards for children and teens
- Tool: Mindful Kids – Mindfulness Activities for Kids
Nicole Alexander is an Infant and Toddler Specialist with a background in early childhood development and elementary education. She earned her Bachelors in Psychology from Christopher Newport University and a Masters of Education in Curriculum & Instruction from Liberty University. Nicole is a mother of two and loves bringing her roles together to help others impact the lives of children through child development training and professional development.
Katy Reynolds is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Trauma and Resilience Practitioner (CTRP-C). Katy is a Supervisor and Trainer for ChildSavers’ School-Based Services. Katy has worked with children and families in different roles for almost 15 years and has been licensed as a LPC since 2018. Katy has a background in fine art and is working toward becoming a Registered Play Therapist (RPT). Katy believes in the power of relationships, movement, and nature in therapy. She is passionate about working to prevent future trauma and helping systems become healthier.