What's Underneath Your Child's Anger?

Everybody gets mad sometimes. Different people show anger in different ways—an angry child might yell, get physical, say hurtful things or all of the above—but it’s important to try to understand where they’re coming from.

Anger is a secondary emotion, which means there’s another (primary) emotion at the root of it. By digging deeper into what your child is really feeling when anger flares, you can give the comfort he needs and teach lifelong coping skills.

Getting to the bottom of anger

Think of anger as the bright orange part of a fire. At the center, something is burning, but what you see is the colorful flame.

According to our experts, these emotions commonly show up as anger:

  • Jealousy or disappointment. For example, a child may get “mad” that she lost at a board game or didn’t get a new toy and her brother did.
  • Loneliness. “Some kids lash out because they feel like they don’t have a single person on their team,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW. Kids need to socialize with peers and to have safe, stable, nurturing relationships with trusted adults so they have someone to confide in.
  • Sadness or depression. In teens especially, depression often shows up as anger and irritability. Or a child may be mad at a friend as a way to mask hurt feelings.
  • Shame. On the surface, a child may get mad when a parent disciplines him, but deep down he may be ashamed of his behavior. Or an embarrassing incident at school might prompt an angry outburst.
  • Fear or insecurity. People often channel fear into anger. A child who is scared of the dark may get mad when it’s time to go to bed. Bullies may be insecure about how they fit in.

How to help kids manage anger

“Kids don’t like to be angry. It’s a terrible feeling that takes a lot of energy, so helping them identify what’s fueling that is really valuable,” says licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN.

Here are some tips to help kids manage anger in the moment:

  • Wait until the child has calmed down to coach them about anger: ”When they are in a full-blown meltdown or rage, that is not the time to try to reason with them or process what’s going on,” says Baumstein.
  • Set limits on behavior. You can still validate their feelings while standing firm: “It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to throw things at me because I might get hurt.”
  • Give them options for calming down. Consider printing out a list of coping skills (taking deep breaths, going for a walk, painting, etc.) that they can keep in their backpack or on the fridge.

Here are some general tips to teach kids about anger management:

  • Help them label their emotions from a young age: “Parents can start introducing feelings long before their child can talk by using what is happening around them, what’s happening in storybooks and other interactions,” says Harlow-Parker.
  • Continue to label emotions as kids get older. Help your child understand her emotions by talking about them, normalizing them and showing that everyone has them. For example: “I wonder if you might be disappointed your dad couldn’t come to your basketball game. I know I was sad he couldn’t make it.” This empowers the child to confirm—or correct: “I’m not disappointed. I’m really hurt.”
  • Be a good listener. Make eye contact, hear them out and repeat back what they said (without judgment) to let them know you paid attention.
  • Set a good example. Cope with your own anger in healthy ways, and when you slip up, apologize. It’s good for kids to see that their parents are human and make mistakes, too.

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Download a list of coping skills.

It’s OK to be angry

Helping your child understand her emotions may prevent them from escalating to anger. But no one, least of all children, has complete control over his feelings. Correct any behaviors that are aggressive or hurtful, but give your child permission and space to be angry sometimes.

Anger is a common and normal feeling that everyone (including adults) experiences, but that doesn’t mean we need to live in that sometimes-painful place.

Help your child manage her anger and ultimately build resilience—the ability to handle life’s ups and downs—by:

  • Recognizing the emotion that led to the anger (the underlying emotion).
  • Dealing with it in healthy ways, by expressing it and coping with it effectively.
  • Modeling healthy expression and coping skills in your own life.