Childhood Anger Management
What is anger?
Anger is an emotional response to situations that are perceived as threatening or offensive to oneself or others close to them (Lazarus, 1991). Anger has an evolutionary purpose and can be a useful emotion because it motivates us for action and focus our resources towards the threatening or offensive event (Goleman, 1995). Anger is part of the “fight or flight” response as it creates arousal to attack the source of the threat. Unfortunately, many children can have trouble controlling their anger, and when it becomes intense and uncontrolled, it can lead to aggression and conduct problems (Lochman, Dunn, & Wagner, 1987).
Since anger is part of the “fight or flight” response, it is associated with certain physiological symptoms as well. The two most common physiological responses to anger are blood pressure and heart rate changes. Angry, aggressive children tend to have higher heart rates as a result of anger-provoking stimuli and higher resting blood pressure levels as well as high reactivity to stress. These symptoms have been linked to an angry, hostile, “Type A” temperament in both children and adults (Pine et al., 1996).
What causes anger in children?
A variety of contexts can affect children’s behavior, including the family environment, the peer group and the neighborhood context. Parenting practices have a significant effect on children’s behavior. For instance, parents’ physical aggression (i.e. spanking or punitive disciplining) later results in oppositional and aggressive behavior in their children (Stormshak, Bierman, McMahon, Lengua, and The Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2000). Uninvolved and cold parents tend to use more severe parental disciplining, which is related to aggression and behavior problems in children (Weiss, Dodge, Bates, & Petit, 1992). These children also have trouble with social interactions and information processing.
What are the risk factors for childhood anger and aggression problems?
There are four groups of risk factors to consider:
• Lack of social competence and inability to get along with other children
• Problems with self-regulation, self-control and impulse control
• Weak social bond with the school and academic failure
• Problems in the parent-child relationship including inconsistent discipline and lack of parental warmth and involvement (Lochman, Lenhart, & Wells 1996).
What strategies and coping skills can parents and teachers use to help children with anger problems?
Teach children about the nature of anger and its evolutionary purpose. Discuss when anger is a useful emotion and when it is damaging (when intense, frequent, uncontrolled and leads to aggression).
Read the thermometer
Teach children to become aware of feelings of anger and arousal. Use a thermometer to explain different levels of anger to children, then ask them to “take their own anger temperature”. Track temperature changes throughout the day.
Help children identify what triggers their angry feelings. This is best done by a finding out what situations, events, people, etc. generally lead to anger and then developing a plan to anticipate and deal with those triggers or figure out ways to avoid them.
There are many coping skills that can be effective with anger.
• Distraction is a way to take the child’s attention off of the anger and onto something else (e.g. play a game, read a book, watch a cartoon).
• Positive coping statements are things the child can say to themselves when feeling angry and overwhelmed. Examples are: “it’s going to be ok”, “I can handle this”, “I am strong and calm”.
• Relaxation skills are very effective when it comes to controlling anger and even preventing it. Taking deep breaths has a calming effect on our nervous system, and that, in turn, calms our emotions. Tensing and relaxing muscles (progressive muscle relaxation) is another way to release tension from the body and calm the mind. Guided imagery helps children by imagining their favorite place or memory and taking their attention away from their anger.
Teach children how to identify problems, brainstorm potential solutions, pick the best solutions, apply them and evaluate consequences in a systematic way. Children can use problem-solving skills to different kinds of problems including conflict with teachers, parents, making friends, peer pressure, etc.
Of course, in order to help their children, parents need to learn and utilize skills of their own. Areas of focus for parents are as follows:
Stress affects parents’ ability to parent effectively. Therefore, parents need to learn how to take care of themselves. Relaxation skills (see above) are just as useful for parents as they are for children. Taking time away from children can do wonders for parents’ stress levels, while physical exercise helps channel and manage stress in a healthy way.
Parents can learn how to strengthen their bond with their children by spending special time with them. Parents can also learn about how to set up a behavior management system, where they identify their children’s responsibilities and chores, as well as the rewards and negative consequences. Parents need to learn how to give good instructions and set up appropriate rules and expectations for their children. Almost every parent can benefit from learning about discipline and punishment, including time-outs, removing of privileges and work chores used as punishment. In addition, demonstrating problem-solving skills not only helps parents but also models effective behavior to their children.
To sum up, childhood anger can become problematic if it is intense, frequent, uncontrolled and leads to aggressive behaviors. In order to help children better manage their anger, parents and teachers can teach them about the nature of anger and its origin, taking their anger temperature, identify triggers and develop relaxation and problem-solving skills. Because childhood anger is often the result of less than ideal parenting practices, it is important that parents also develop their own skillset by learning how to establish behavior management systems, set up and enforce appropriate rules and responsibilities, develop effective discipline and punishment techniques and improve their relationship with their children.
Childhood Anger Management References
Lochman, J.E., Palardy, N.R., McElroy, H.K., Phillips, N., Holmes, K.J. (2015). Anger management interventions. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 1, 47-56.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Lochman, J. E., Dunn, S. E., & Wagner, E. E. (1987). Anger. In G. Bear, K. Minke, & A. Thomas (Eds.), Children’s needs II (pp. 149-160). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychology.
Pine, D. S., Wasserman, G., Coplan, J., Staghezza-Jaramillo, B., Davies, M., Fried, J. E., Greenhill, L., & Shaffer, D. (1996). Cardiac profile and disruptive behavior in boys at risk for delinquency. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58, 342-353.
Stormshak, E. A., Bierman, K. L., McMahon, R. J., Lengua, L., & The Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (2000). Parenting practices and child disruptive behavior problems in early elementary school. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29, 17-29.
Weiss, B., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., & Petit, G. S. (1992). Some consequences of early harsh discipline: Child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style. Child Development, 63, 1321-1335.
Lochman, J. E., Lenhart, L. A., & Wells, K. C. (1996). Coping power program: Child component. Unpublished manual, Duke University Medical Center.