Dealing with Anger & Aggression in Children
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?
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.