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Dealing with Anger & Aggression in Children

Sep06

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Hi, Amalah — Love your advice and have been following your column for years. Here’s my situation. I have a 5-1/2-year-old son who has recently entered a sort of aggressive phase. We had some issues when he was 3 or so with him hitting (usually only me) out of anger, and we worked on that for a few months, and it got a lot better, to the point that he hadn’t hit at all for more than a year. Then recently, blammo, he is showing all these aggressive behaviors — shouting, screaming, hitting, threatening, etc.

The least little thing sets him off — he gets frustrated doing a task he hasn’t quite mastered, and I *dare* to make a mild, supportive comment, and he is in a RAGE all of a sudden. Or it’s teeth-brushing time, and he’s stalling and dragging his feet and not responding to my repeated prompts, and then he goes all rebellious and cries and says I’m being mean and gets the rage-face and so on. He has hit me a couple of times, kicked me once, and several times threatened me with various gruesome fates (“I feel like I want to throw this chair at you,” or “I could knock this bookcase over onto you,” etc.). It’s shocking because he’s typically pretty even-tempered and sweet/affectionate.

So far we have been trying to be very calm in responding to these outbursts, telling him he needs to get his control back, working with him on deep breaths or “cool down” times where he can walk away from the situation (or we can), repeating all the stuff he knows about why hitting isn’t OK. When it first started happening, a couple of weeks ago, we were so shocked that we didn’t get right on board with giving out consequences, but now that it’s been happening more regularly (as in, at least once or twice a day), we have been issuing consequences particularly for the hitting (e.g. losing toys, losing extra playtime before bed, etc.).

I just am not sure if we are handling this correctly, if this is just a phase we need to patiently wait out, if there’s some root cause I need to be worried about (e.g. too much exposure to superheroes? Too much video game time? Picking up on stress from me and his dad?). It’s… distressing, frankly, to have him act this way and say such ugly things. I try not to let my own emotions play into how I handle it — I would like to be very matter-of-fact in my response — but I’m not sure I’m really achieving that. Any advice?

Thanks.

Lots of kids struggle with anger, particularly around your son’s age for all the “reasons” you listed. Which basically boil down to being a little kid who is not in charge of anything or anyone.

They try to do something and fail at it — their drawing doesn’t look like the picture they had in their head, for example, and suddenly crayons are getting hurled at the wall and accused of being “stupid.” They want to master new things immediately but instead we’re telling them about this whole thing called “practice,” which is frustrating and long and boring. They want to eat a bag of chocolate chips for breakfast — I mean, the bag is right there in the cabinet, I can totally reach it, I’m big enough now — and get promptly shut down by Mom, who maybe even LAUGHS, even though chocolate chips are DELICIOUS and your idea is AWESOME and FUN. And THEN Mom piles on this crushing disappointment by demanding you put on your shoes because you have go somewhere that you don’t even want to go, RIGHT THIS SECOND SHE MEANS IT, completely screwing up YOUR morning plans to build a roller coaster out of your toy train tracks.

Think about the last time you lost your temper. Did you direct the anger at the actual source of your bad mood, or was it more of a sneaky hate spiral, with a string of frustrations and slights that simmered all day until you dropped a coffee mug while unloading the dishwasher and OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN STUPID MUG/UNNECESSARILY HARD FLOOR/I HATE THIS ENTIRE KITCHEN?

(And then your husband dares to say something like, “Whoops, that sucks.” And suddenly allllll the rage goes flying out of your body in his direction because SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP.)

Basically, that’s the emotional spectrum your son is running on right now. It’s hard to be a little kid. He’s just past the age of the toddler/preschooler style of tantrum (i.e. flipping out and going boneless 29 times a day only to forget what he was mad at 15 seconds later because he’s easily distracted), but he still doesn’t really have a good grasp on his frustrations at life or proper anger management skills. Maybe he was able to not throw a tantrum over that bag of chocolate chips at breakfast, but a couple hours later he’s still really angry and doesn’t know how to move past it. Thus, the rage boils over at something you perceive as tiny or no big deal. There’s also a social aspect to acceptable expressions of anger: he probably knows it’s not really okay to hurt someone with a bookcase; he’s yet to figure out that you also can’t really go around telling people you want to hurt them with a bookcase.

That said, the LAST thing you want to do is teach a child that anger is a “bad” feeling to have and that he should continue to mercilessly mash any and all expressions of it back down inside. Because going around thinking about how he’d like to crush you with a bookcase with a forced, creepy smile on his face isn’t really an improvement, and also sounds like the origin story of every horror movie villain ever. Anger is a feeling like all our other feelings. It’s natural and normal and inevitable. He is not a “bad kid” because he gets angry and loses his temper. Hell, it’s not even 9 a.m. here and I’ve already been angry at like, 17 things. None of which I hit or kicked or crushed with a bookcase. Go me. Where’s that bag of chocolate chips?

You want to teach him to recognize when he feels angry and help him navigate through it in an acceptable, consequence-free way. (Which means: No hitting, kicking, biting or other physical aggression. That sort of thing SHOULD and DOES have consequences, like you’re already doing.) Try to watch his emotions and see if you can spot the next rage-face trigger. Give him the words before the explosion, if possible: I see you are getting angry right now. Then give him permission to feel that way: It’s okay to feel angry. I feel angry sometimes too when I have trouble doing something, or when I have to do something I don’t want to do. Think Mister Rogers: Use a kind, sympathetic voice but don’t patronize or “talk down” to him.

If he’s still listening (and not raggggggging), keep going: What sort of things make you feel better when you’re angry? How can we make you feel better right now? If he answers with “hitting” or “saying mean things” or “BOOKCASE FIGHT,” don’t act shocked or scandalized. Okay, but how can we make you feel better in a way that won’t get you sent to you room (or other set consequence for aggression) or hurt Mommy’s feelings? Could we take some deep breaths? Count to 20? Have a pillow fight or go outside and throw a ball as hard as we can?

If he continues with the anger = aggression pattern, you will have to continue doling out the consequences. Try to make the consequence something immediate and concrete, and be consistent (i.e. don’t cave and give him “one more chance” to avoid the punishment because you took away something that kinda makes YOUR life easier, like a playdate or TV show when you need to make dinner). (OH HI SELF, READ YOUR OWN ADVICE COLUMN MUCH?)

As for a single “root cause” of the anger, that is worth exploring. I’m not usually the “blame TV/video games” sort at all but yeah, maybe turn a critical eye toward the media he’s consuming and try to dial back on the games/movies/shows that are fighting/aggression heavy if you feel like he’s getting conflicting messages about what’s okay, or having trouble distinguishing fantasy/reality. Which his choice of heavy, too-big-to-hurl furniture-related threats might kinda indicate? (Though it’s super likely that he really doesn’t understand what he’s threatening you with — cartoony violence and video game respawning after “death” mean someone who gets crushed with a bookcase is gonna be just fine, after all.) My kids have seen Star Wars and The Avengers and all that, but then we take loooong breaks where it’s back to nothing but calming Mister Rogers and Blue’s Clues and nothing too frenetic. The occasional media reset seems beneficial for them.

Other questions to ask: Any big shifts in his life or routine happen recently? A move, new sibling, new school? How are his language skills overall — is he capable of expressing other emotions/wants/needs at a developmentally appropriate level? Any chance he’s being picked on by a peer? Or sensing some deep tension between you and his dad? You mention stress which ALSO is a normal, inevitable part of life, so maybe look at your own coping mechanisms and how you’re expressing it. Talking too much about work problems or money openly with him in the room? Snapping at him five minutes after you’ve walked in the door because God, give me a minute to sit down?

If you are concerned that it’s NOT just garden variety “I’m a little kid and being a little kid sucks sometimes” frustrations that are just building and exploding, there is absolutely NO SHAME in letting him talk to someone. Get a recommendation for a good kids’ therapist from your pediatrician and talk to them about your concerns. Schedule a play session and get their opinion. Again: NO SHAME. No “omg my kid needs a therapist he’s going to be a sociopath I’ve faaaaaailllled” feelings here. Anger is natural, but anger is hard. Helping a small, still-developing person deal with their anger (especially when it’s directly so forcefully at YOU) is also really hard, and there are experts who can help. No biggie.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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10 Responses to “Dealing with Anger & Aggression in Children”

  1. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel Kallman Sep 06 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

    My recommendation would be to also increase the praise and focus on his positive behavior:  

    1) You say that your son is sweet, then increase the praise  when he is kind and compliant with your requests.   

    2) if you see that some of the outbursts are tied to requests for him to do something, consider instituting a “reward” system that allows him to earn screen time/ tv time (privileges he’s already getting) only upon his compliance.  When you have done this and this, then you get that.

    3) Also consider doing the same reward system for expected behaviors.  If he was polite and spoke to adults and siblings respectfully in the morning, then he can get his privilege (again it doesn’t need to be something new, but things he’s already doing). 

    This way instead of just consequences for bad behavior, he’s getting praised and “rewarded” for compliance and being respectful of other and their things.    

  2. CMC Sep 06 at 2:14 pm Reply Reply

    Amy and Isabel’s advice is spot on. My stepson had anger issues when he moved from his mom’s house, out of state, to our house, (obviously stressful!) He was 7 at the time, and had crying fits that turned into angry outbursts.
    Is your son in a school with a counselor or school psychologist? We set up our son with a weekly
    guidance counselor meeting that helped a TON. A third party that wasnt mom or dad or step-mom. Another thing we used was a sockem bopper inflatable thingamajig. That he could punch if he
    felt mad.
    Like this:
    Spiderman 36″ Inflatable Bop Bag
    http://amzn.com/B003WYOTH6
    You sound like a great mom! Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  3. Amelia Sep 06 at 2:34 pm Reply Reply

    My son (almost 5) responds badly to screen time, by which I mean, his behavior changes the more tv/computer time he gets.  It doesn’t seem to matter WHAT he watches, from Spiderman cartoons to iphone games to Sesame Street, he just turns into a little monster after a show is over.  We see incidences of hitting and throwing things and acting out and tantrums increase in direct relation to how much screen time he has.  So now he gets none unless he is sick.  End of story.  It might not work for you, but you might try giving him some puzzle books (my son likes mazes) or other activities in place of TV and video games and see if that has an effect.

    My 2-year-old son?  Could not care less about TV or the computer and it doesn’t affect his behavior at all.

  4. Ally Sep 06 at 2:38 pm Reply Reply

    My oldest just turned 6 and has always had trouble with anger and aggression. When he was about 4.5 it was happening very frequently and he was almost kicked out of preschool. He got so mad at school all the time and hit a lot of the other kids. We did take him to see a therapist. One thing we tried to work on was finding triggers. Unfortunately it was never the same thing that would set him off. He just has a very low threshold. He goes from 0-10 VERY easily. We have worked a lot on expressing emotions. He know I will never get upset when he says he is angry at me or someone else. Things got better for a while and the last few weeks have been disastrous. He started kindergarten and it’s been a challenge. He does do really well with rewards so we have increased that a lot. It’s so hard to deal with this, and I do hope as he matures he will continue to be able to control himself. 

  5. MR Sep 06 at 6:53 pm Reply Reply

    I feel you! My dd is 5, and we go through this too, albeit not as frequently. She tends to throw things at me, yell “I’m not your child!!” or “You are a MEAN Mommy!!” and “I don’t LIKE you!” These are all very normal behaviors at this age. For us, I notice that this happens only when she is either overtired or she watches TV. And she is watching pretty benign stuff, but tv screen time absolutely plays a role in her defiance and outbursts.
    That your son is saying “I want to tip a bookcase over on you!” in some ways is good. He is expressing his anger verbally, but obviously NOT acting on it. Once he has calmed down, I hope you are praising the heck out of that!!
    We do a lot of talking about appropriate ways to channel anger with my dd (done when she is calm). We talk about hitting a pillow, stomping hard, even going to her room and screaming. I also saw a thing on Pinterest about making a bottle with liquid and glitter (like a snow globe). Instead of timeout, they shake the bottle, then have to sit there and watch it settle. The angrier they are, the more stirred up it gets and they have more time to watch it fall. Plus, there is something oddly hypnotic and soothing about watching a snow globe settle. Something like that might help.
    When my dd starts yelling things like “I hate you!”, I respond with, “That’s ok. I love you anyways.” or “I am not afraid of your anger. I love you anyway.” Her “I am not your child!” comments usually just get a shrug and an “ok.” “You’re a mean mommy” gets a “Yep, I AM a mean Mommy!” Another you can use when he makes his comments that seem like threats is “I am not afraid of your anger, but I will not let you hurt yourself or anyone else.” All of these show that his anger is not scary or bad to you. It validates their feelings and reassures them that they are not bad for feeling that way.
    But, please rest assured that these things do NOT mean your child is a psychopath or something. Definitely try to identify the source if there is something causing it. Try cutting out tv, think if he started hanging out with someone new or if some other event happened a few weeks ago. Be on the lookout for a common thread.
    I learned these affirmations from my mom, who took a parenting class a long time ago by Jean Illsley Clarke. She wrote “Self-esteem a family affair” and “Time-in: When Time-Out Doesn’t Work”. Both are a available on Amazon and may even be at your local library.

  6. Kat Sep 06 at 7:55 pm Reply Reply

    We are still in the toddler tantrum phase, but it’s great to see someone posting about this stuff. The random collapsing into puddles of mush are kind of an inconvenience but at this point so much of our communication/solution is non-verbal that I haven’t thought about trying to verbally work through a tantrum/outburst with an older child and what that might look like.

  7. MR Sep 06 at 8:23 pm Reply Reply

    Remember too, at this age, when a child is mad, they get that red hot searing anger, just like a toddler. Only by now, they understand that they can’t just throw themselves to the floor and cry and hit. They know they have words to express their anger, but that still doesn’t let the actually vent it. They may still need a safe physical way to vent anger. Think of it as getting into a car after a particularly hard and frustrating day. You might scream and bang on the steering wheel. The bop bag the previous poster mentioned may be a good outlet. Try to think of this not as a problem to fix, but purely another teachable moment. You are simply showing him the appropriate ways to handle his anger. It IS ok to be angry. We all get angry. Most adults have learned how to handle it, but we all had to be taught that. You might also think about how much physical activity he is getting in general. Regular physical activity helps vent stress and anger for kids too, just like for adults. ((Hugs)) You’ll get through this! You are doing great!!

  8. Em Sep 07 at 12:09 pm Reply Reply

    I highly recommend the book “What to Do When Your Temper Flares.” It’s a workbook based on cognitive behavior therapy techniques that you can do with your child. It has lots of calming down techniques and the language really appeals to kids. My son still has a temper but has learned to manage it somewhat with the help of this book.

  9. Heather Sep 08 at 5:19 pm Reply Reply

    I think you have some great comments here. I’d like to add that I find the book The Explosive Child to be very helpful. I’m an educator and I re-read it about every two years. The author’s premise is that all behavior has a purpose, the idea is to find the purpose and solve that problem. I don’t know if you have a childcare or school situation that is observing some of the same behaviors. I help teachers plot out an hour by hour or activity by activity scatterplot of when problem behaviors are occurring. It seems so simple, but often it takes up to two weeks for a clear pattern to emerge about what’s going on that triggers the behaviors (a class that is being avoided, difficulty transitioning from one class to another, etc.). Best wishes to you — this age is a hard one with the verbal and reasoning skills on the cusp of some big leaps and it can be a challenge for everyone!

  10. Olivia Sep 10 at 4:56 pm Reply Reply

    I feel like there must be something that has happened recently to set him off? Has the OP asked her son why he gets so mad? If OP and get husband are fighting a lot I would bet that’s the reason. My parents always thought they could mask their martial problems but they were wrong.

    I’d highly recommend the OP (and all posters and Amy!!) read “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn.

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