Helping your child with anger outbursts

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
03 February 2020
Next review due February 2023

It can be very distressing if your child is showing signs of anger. While anger is a normal and useful human emotion, there are times when it might be a problem. Here we’ll explain what could be going on and how you can respond to your child in a way that will help you both.

About anger

Like all our emotions, anger is normal. It helps us know when we are hurt by something and to recognise if we need to make some changes to the situations that are affecting us.

We tend to feel anger when we are frustrated, feel powerless, lied to, or if we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. So, most of the time if your child is angry, there could be a real reason behind it. But if your child’s anger is getting out of control and becoming harmful to themselves and others, there are ways to help your child manage it.

This is important because anger that isn’t addressed can lead to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Tackling it early on is the best approach. Providing strong family support can really help children manage their feelings and behave in healthier ways.

Causes of anger

As a parent, it’s natural to be upset and to want to understand why your child is angry. There can be a whole host of reasons and triggers that can be different for everyone.

Some of the situations and reasons that can trigger anger in children include:

  • problems at home – seeing other family members arguing for instance
  • falling out with a friend at school
  • being bullied
  • being afraid or anxious about something
  • feeling misunderstood
  • confusion about their emotions and being unable to express themselves

Signs of anger

Some of the signs that your child might need some help and support with their anger include the following behaviours. Some might be obvious – easily recognisable as aggressive behaviour – such as:

  • shouting at you or other people
  • breaking things
  • hitting you or other people

Other expressions of anger can look a little different to what you might expect. For example, your child may show anger by:

  • ignoring you or other people
  • not talking to you or others
  • not doing things you ask them to
  • not wanting to go to school
  • being sarcastic
  • being sulky

Or you might be seeing signs that your child is turning their anger on themselves. They might be withdrawn, denying themselves nice things, or even self-harming.

What anger feels like

It can help to understand more about how your child is feeling when they experience anger.

There can be a range of physical and mental effects. When people get angry, they may feel their heartbeat speed up, have sweaty palms, feel lightheaded or weak, have a funny feeling in their tummy. They might feel very tense, or they may shake. It’s common to need to go to the toilet too.

The emotional effects can trigger feelings of resentment or guilt, feeling ashamed or very irritated.

As you child’s brain develops, they might have stronger emotions more regularly. The physical and mental effects can be difficult for children to process and cope with. It can be frightening for them, especially for younger children who may not understand their feelings.

If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it’s important to get your child the support and help they need. If you think your child is hurting themselves, speak to your GP or if you’re worried about their immediate safety, call 999.

In terms of how to approach your child and talk to them about their anger, these are some techniques that can help.

Four key tips to help reduce anger

It’s important that your child feels supported when dealing with their anger. By working together, you can help your child understand that anger is the problem – not them.

Stay with your child

Restore a sense of safety for your child by staying with them when they are distressed. You’ll show your child that they are not alone when they’re experiencing difficult feelings. By taking this approach, you can support your child to use positive self-soothing techniques to help reduce feelings of frustration and anger.

Stay calm and in control

When your child shows signs of anger, they need to know that you understand how distressed they are. If you can, find out the root cause of what’s upsetting them. When your child expresses anger, take a calm approach in helping them regain control over their feelings. Encourage your child to sit down and talk to you. You’ll help them to see that you are there to listen and provide support in helping them work through their distress in a safer way.

Plan for challenges

Planning can play a key role in managing challenging situations that have raised difficulties for your child and you previously. By identifying these situations, you can think about how to manage them differently in the future to help your child cope better.

Sit down with your child and let them know in advance what the expectations of them are and the reasons for this. This can help prepare your child for what’s to come and reduce any unexpected feelings of unease which may come out as outbursts of anger at a later stage.

For example, say: ‘In 15 minutes we will be going to be going to the shops, so you will need to stop what you’re doing at this time’. This lets your child know what’s expected of them, which can help them feel more in control and stay calmer.

Give your child praise

Praising your child is extremely important as it plays a vital part in nurturing and developing your child’s confidence and self-esteem. Remember that the quality of praise is much more powerful to your child than the quantity. Where you can, focus the praise on your child’s actions rather than solely on your child’s attributes. For example, say: ‘You’ve done such a good job of putting your toys away, well done’.

Techniques to help prevent angry outbursts

Self-soothing techniques can be effective in helping reduce anger in young children. You can use the following techniques both inside and outside of the family home.

Make a self-soothe box

Work together with your child to make a ‘self-soothe box’. This is a box made up of items that your child can turn to at times of distress. Items need to be things that your child can enjoy and engage with, and things that will soothe them during times of strong emotion. Some examples to put in there might include colouring books, jigsaws, pictures of things which interest them, fidget toys, comforting toys or smells.

Self-soothe boxes can be used both inside and outside of home. For example, you could create a travel self-soothe box to take out with your child. Over time this can become an effective technique that your child can turn to and use on their own.

Use a worry jar

A worry jar is a technique that can help your child address and manage their worries in a productive way. Make time in the day to talk about any worries that you have noticed in your child. This can encourage them to talk about worry in an open and honest way. Write the worry down and place it in a jar. Tell your child that now it’s been put in the jar, the worry has now been dealt with; it’s out of your child’s head and will stay inside the jar.

‘Worry monsters’ are a similar idea in which you encourage your child to let the monster eat the worry and get rid of it.

Keep a diary

A useful way to learn about your child’s behaviours is to keep a diary of any outbursts.

Record times and dates, what happened before and after, and what worked well and not so well in trying to calm your child.

This is a way to learn about the circumstances that led up to the angry outburst. It can help you identify any triggers or patterns in behaviours, which may help you to prevent, prepare for or manage future outbursts.

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Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when they need it.

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa

    • How to cope with anger. Mind., published July 2018
    • Anger. Young Minds., accessed 10 December 2019
    • Anger/behavioural difficulties. Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services., accessed 10 December 2019
    • Responding to anger. Young Minds., accessed 10 December 2019

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