Why Is My Kid So Angry? Expert Tips for Parents

A metro Detroit expert shares practical advice on identifying the underlying feelings behind your child's anger and helping them navigate their emotions with confidence and support.

This scenario is familiar to many parents. Out of nowhere, your child explodes — screaming, storming around and throwing things. They might even shout the dreaded “I HATE YOU!”

Outwardly, you see red-hot anger. But what’s going on inside that ball of rage?

A version of this has happened in my family. While my kids aren’t necessarily prone to outbursts of anger, my partner can be, on very rare occasions.

What’s the difference here? My partner experiences anxiety, while my kids generally do not. So, when I see anger bubbling up, I know there’s something more going on.

Anger can mask many feelings, says Sarah Emmerson, a metro Detroit psychologist with experience working with schools, at-risk youth, and children and families impacted by trauma.

Under the umbrella of “mad,” children expose a root feeling that isn’t anger at all. “Mad makes us say the things that we really are feeling inside. But it masks fear, mostly. It masks hurt, it masks shame and it masks sadness,” Emmerson explains. Anger also allows children to feel in control, even if just for a moment.

If you’re not yet to the teen anger stage, don’t stop reading. We address anger in little ones — including tantrums — below.

What’s the best way to respond to your child’s anger?

“People in general are very uncomfortable with anger,” Emmerson says, but the way you respond to your child is important. Your immediate reaction might be simply to send your kid to their room. A cool-off period might be appropriate, but not in every situation.

“In a time where they need us or they’re sorting through whatever it is they’re feeling, we send them to be alone,” she says. “When we see them being angry with somebody at school because of the way they were treated, we might think it’s not nice to be angry, but it’s normal,” she adds.

Your angry child may not be enjoyable to be around, but their reaction may be justified.

When you can show empathy and tell your child their feelings are valid, you’re encouraging them to trust themselves — and trust that the way they are feeling is right. “We really want to build that sense of trusting their intuition, because that’s how they gain confidence.”

How can you help your child get beyond anger, and why?

Kids don’t always know what root feeling is causing their anger. But you can help them uncover it and learn a valuable skill in the process. Work with your child to identify their fear, anxiety or sadness. An effective way is simply to ask.

“I’ll say, ‘yes, I know you’re mad, but what else are you? If you could pick any or one of these feelings?’” Emmerson says. What you may uncover is fear about a test, about being picked last in gym class — or one of many other worries your child may have.

Through this exercise, you are helping your child build the skill of listening to their anger, paying attention to it and learning more about it. Too often, though, we want the anger to just stop.

When we punish our child for their anger by, say, taking away their phone, “we’re colluding in power and control struggles with phones and everything else, and we’re giving this stuff power. But none of it really makes sense or helps your child to skill build,” she says.

Can your toddler control their rage?

At what age can you reasonably expect your little one to control their emotions?

According to a recent parent survey conducted by Zero to Three, 24% of parents believe their child should have enough self-control by age 1 to not have a tantrum when frustrated. Forty-two percent of parents believe that by age 2, their child should have this level of self-control. Research indicates that this type of self-control starts to develop between 3.5 and 4 years of age.

Emotional regulation is harder for younger ones, so as a parent, your job is to set boundaries and keep your child safe until their anger passes. You can remove a little one from the situation if they’re determined to knock over their sibling’s block tower. You can also remain present in the room while they flail around.

Then, when your child is calm, you can help them name their feelings. “Afterward, you can say something like, ‘Wow, you must have been really angry for your body to be doing all that,’” Emmerson says. Work to make feelings concrete for your child by asking them how big it was or what color it was.

“You might say that the anger was fire red, and they might say it was orange. They can start to describe it,” Emmerson explains. The ability to identify feelings is an important and empowering skill for children.

When to listen and when to help?

In middle childhood — especially around ages 9 to 12 — kids want to feel competent in all the social and academic demands they’re encountering. This isn’t always easy for kids, and you may notice anger creep in, along with a host of other changes.

“Our job is to be able to create a space for them where they can come to us and talk to us about it,” Emmerson says. Resist the parental temptation to fix everything for your child. “One of the things I’ll always say is, ‘Is this something you need me to listen to or do you need me to help?’”

If, at this stage, you are questioning whether or not you have set the foundation for emotional regulation, don’t worry. It’s never too late to adjust the way you respond, learn new skills — and help your child learn, too.

“When we have conflict, we’re going to have conflict. That’s inevitable. The process of repair is very important too,” Emmerson says. “So if we don’t respond well to something and just let it go, the child never learns the skill because we have never modeled it.”

favorite-parenting-resources-flinn-foundation

Even if you send your child to their room, banish their phone for a month and, well, lose your own emotional regulation, you can adopt a process of repair. You can say, “I didn’t handle that well. Let’s talk about what happened yesterday. Here’s what I wish I had been capable of doing at that moment.”

By attempting to repair the situation, you’re not saying that it was OK for your child to scream, “I HATE YOU!” You can still set a boundary around respect and appropriate speech from your child. But here’s where an understanding of child development will help, Emmerson says.

“Starting around age 12, your child is developing who they are and where they are going in life,” she says. “If we have no repair around anger, they just start identifying with it. Or, if parents say that they are just so angry all of the time, they start to believe they are just an angry person.”

When should you worry about your child’s anger?

Watch for duration, frequency and intensity, suggests Emmerson. If your child is expressing anger that lasts an hour or more multiple times a week — or if they are displaying behaviors that are new or that cause you to worry, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor to find out if something else might be going on.

Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Learn more at flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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