Let's talk about anger, frustration and acting out. 

Outbursts of anger are common for many different reasons throughout childhood. A child’s ability to understand, express and manage their emotions is a skill that develops over time, with some children mastering these skills earlier than others. Why do some children have anger outbursts? What is a parent or caregiver’s role in teaching them how to best manage their anger? How do we respond to outbursts when they happen?

You’ve heard of the terrible 2s (and 3s!), and you probably expected some anger outbursts from your young children, but these don't necessarily stop once the preschool years are over. Most children don't have as many outbursts as they get older, but some children just have a more difficult time keeping their cool than others. It can be especially challenging when these outbursts happen at school, in public or with friends. Some outbursts might be accompanied by aggressive behavior, which can pose a risk to the child and those around them.

First, it is important to acknowledge that our behavior, especially for younger children, is a form of communication. Children act out their feelings in the absence of a better way to express themselves. Many of us know adults who do that from time to time! If your child continues to have frequent anger outbursts as they enter school, consider some other causes. Outbursts might occur because of problems with impulsivity, built-up anxiety, depressive symptoms, learning problems in school or other underlying issues.

Tips for How to Respond to Anger Outbursts When They Happen

  1. Model calmness. If adults become angry and yell back during an outburst, it will almost certainly not help the situation. Instead, try to model calm behavior by taking deep breaths, talking in a low tone or even walking away if necessary. Don't add fuel to the fire.
  2. Talk afterward. Avoid trying to rationalize or talk through the issue during the outburst. You are unlikely to have a productive conversation when your child is feeling angry and out of control. Wait until everyone is calm to have a discussion.
  3. Listen and reflect. Many times, the most helpful thing we can do as adults is listen to children and encourage them to talk about strong emotions they are feeling. Behavior may come before words, but if you can encourage them to talk through the situation before giving advice, it can help frame the conversation.
  4. Punish behavior, not emotions. If a consequence is required due to an anger outburst, make it clear that it is due to the behavior and not the angry feelings they have. Once everyone is calmed down, talk about the behavior and give advice on how to express the same feeling in a more acceptable way. Set clear ground rules about unacceptable behavior and stick to it.
  5. Praise good behavior. Although bad behavior gets our attention more often, make sure to praise and highlight times they manage strong emotions well. If they try out some coping skills or talk with you about it, tell them how proud you are they are learning these skills!
  6. Be proactive. Teach the children in your life important skills to help manage strong emotions so they can rely on them when needed. Don't wait until an outburst happens to encourage coping.

Tools for Helping Kids Manage Anger

Teach Them Emotional Skills

This is a big task, but there are steps to take in teaching children how to manage their emotions.

  • Name them. Encourage children of all ages to name the emotions they are feeling which promotes better discussion about how our emotions affect us.
  • Express appropriately. Tell them ways to express their emotions that are developmentally appropriate. Although preschoolers can't yet sit down for a chat about their anger, they can choose to yell and stomp to their room rather than hit and throw toys. The older children get, the more advanced their strategies can be for expressing emotions.
  • Manage strong emotions. The best time to teach kids how to relax or use other coping strategies is when they are not experiencing strong negative emotions. The more we can practice these skills with kids when they are calm, the more likely they are to use them when they feel upset. Practice things like deep breathing, slowly counting to 10, stop-think-act, and other strategies as a regular routine. Doing this right before bedtime can be helpful for sleep. Then, when the big emotions come and you encourage them to use deep breaths, they have experience and know what to do.

Behavioral Interventions

The goal of using a behavioral intervention is to teach kids a more appropriate way of behaving when they feel upset.

Time-Outs

When used consistently and sparingly, time-outs can be a helpful tool for teaching self-control during anger outbursts. It also helps to avoid the conflict and aggressive behavior that can ensue. That is likely a different description of time-outs than you might have heard or experienced. Contrary to how many parents use time-outs as a punishment when children act up, the purpose is to remove kids from a volatile situation and give them time to practice the coping skills they have been learning. Here are some steps to take:

  • When you start seeing the signs of an outburst (or right when it starts), have your child move to a different area where it is quieter, if possible. Tell them the reason you had them leave the situation: "It seems like you were getting really upset and I wanted you to have a chance to calm down."
  • Tell them your expectations, such as taking 10 deep breaths, or sitting quietly for one-two minutes before rejoining the activity.
  • Provide some coaching if necessary but encourage independence when you can. Parents can't be around 24/7 to guide children through every difficult situation.
  • Once the time-out is over, talk with them about the situation. Help them understand how to better manage similar situations in the future.

Calmness Coins

As children get older, try to give them lots of praise when you notice them using the skills they have practiced to appropriately express themselves. If needed, you can give them a small incentive as a reward when you notice them taking deep breaths or using emotional words instead of yelling/hitting. Use pennies or plastic coins and a small jar or container to keep them somewhere everyone can see.

  • Each time you notice your child using any of the activities you have practiced with them, they earn a coin.
  • Coins can be turned in for special rewards that parents or teachers decide on.
    • Extra screen time or a movie.
    • Toy from the dollar store.
    • Choice from a prize bin.
    • Trip to their favorite park to play.

No matter their age, learning how to manage anger and frustration is an important process throughout a child's development. When parents and other adults focus on these skills, children learn the tools to express themselves appropriately and regulate the strong emotions they feel. If your child continues to have frequent outbursts, especially if they have aggressive behavior, seek guidance from your child's school counselor or teacher, pediatrician or a mental health professional.