During any school year, teachers – and later parents – may realize a child is just angry. A single outburst doesn’t make an “angry child” but, left unchecked, anger does signal a problem.
What underlies the symptoms? Usually there’s some unmet need, a trigger emotion like jealousy or worry, an injustice, or an irrational thought that makes perfect sense to the child but only feeds his or her anger. Usually, it’s something close to home – or the classroom.
Anger’s often the root of bullying: Both the bully and the victim are filled with emotional triggers. Teasing is common in any school setting, but teachers, school administrators and parents should be alert for too much or when the content is cruel. The teaser usually feels good, at least momentarily – which could be an unmet need. It’s important to get to the issue before it worsens.
All kids should be taught strategies to deal with difficult people. A child could laugh off a snide remark, to disarm a teaser – or simply ignore it or walk away. A bully feels powerful when another person gets angry; if you don’t let it show, it doesn’t work, and the bully may back off. When it gets out of hand, however, school staff or parents must intervene.
This isn’t a fun exercise. But if parents truly want to help their child, they must take a hard look at their home circumstances to rule out any causes.
“The good news is if a family is part of the problem, they have the power to be a part of the solution,” says Dr. Tim Murphy, author of The Angry Child and Overcoming Passive-Aggression.
Murphy has identified four types of families who even unwittingly add to a child’s anger at times:
- Families which struggle with grief, financial distress, marital strife, a parent’s addiction, mental illness or other struggles
- Indulging families that shower children with everything (making the child expect even more)
- Families where anger is the voice of power and control, and kids may learn that pushing, shoving or hitting solves problems
- Frantic families where parents discipline via cell phone or eat on the fly – i.e., constructive communication is low.
For school staff, such topics might be tackled face-to-face in a parent-teacher conference. If a kid comes to school without homework or his lunch, for instance, it might be this child is saddled with too many after-school activities. Simply stating the problem and inquiring when the child does his homework might be enough to get mom or dad talking about family routines.
If there’s a crisis at home, it’s certainly hard for kids to focus on schoolwork and good behavior. So often, we think of depression symptoms like lethargy, sadness and loss of appetite or interest in play. But irritation is another sign. Parents should consider visiting their pediatrician or inquiring about counseling for the child.
There are many causes of childhood depression, from trauma to biological cause to learned helplessness or recent changes (even a “happy” event like moving or a parent’s remarriage can play a roll). Appropriate intervention can turn a sad, angry child into a cheerful and polite child once again. Ignoring or avoiding the issue could have harmful, even fatal, results.
Finally, adults need to watch their behavior. A teacher who yells may incite students to yell at one another. The same holds for parents. Taking a deep breath, counting to three (or 10) before reacting helps you see it more clearly and avoid reactions you may regret.
In The Angry Child, Murphy outlines the stages of anger for parents and educators: the buildup, the spark, the explosion and the aftermath. The explosion tends to get all the focus, while the aftermath is overlooked. But it’s at this stage that underlying problems can be identified – and avoided.
Once things calm down, ask, “What went wrong here and how could we have solved it differently?” Watch for teachable moments, apologize, forgive. And be mindful of subtle meanness or passive-aggressiveness. Awareness is the first key to turning things around for angry kids in school.
This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated for 2016.