Supporting Your Child with Anger
If you need support to respond to your child’s anger or aggression, here’s our advice on what you can do and where you can find help.
We all feel angry at times, it’s part of being human. Anger is a normal and healthy reaction when things don’t go the way we expected, life feels unfair or people upset or hurt us. It can be a helpful thing – acting as a positive force for change, or letting us know that something is wrong or not okay with us. It’s also normal for children and young people to find it difficult to manage their angry feelings sometimes, and it’s helpful to remember that the part of our brain that helps us do this doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our mid-20s.
But anger can become a problem for your child if it feels overwhelming or unmanageable, makes them unhappy, affects their relationships or is expressed through unhelpful or destructive behaviours – towards either themselves or other people.
Angry feelings and aggressive behaviour can be really hard to deal with as a parent, and can have a huge effect on family life. If you’re going through this, remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel – there are things you can do to make the situation better, and places where you can find support if you need to. Here, we’ve got strategies you can use to help you respond and advice about when and where you might want to seek further help.
What is Anger like for Young People?
If your child can't tell you in words, they will often use their behaviour to let you know how they’re feeling. A young person who is feeling angry may:
- Be outwardly aggressive – acting aggressively towards other people, including shouting, hitting or breaking things;
- Be inwardly aggressive – hurting themselves, for example by self-harming, or being very self-critical;
- Be passively aggressive – withdrawing, ignoring people, being sarcastic or sulking;
- Feel things in their body like a racing heart, feeling hot, or tensing their muscles – for example clenching their fists;
- Seem tense, unable to relax or easily irritated;
- Find it difficult to concentrate.
Underneath these behaviours, a young person who seems very angry may also be feeling things like fear, stress, sadness, hurt or worry – or might be struggling to cope with a difficult experience at school, at home or in another part of their life that they feel unable to talk about. It can be helpful to remember that a person who’s feeling angry a lot of the time probably isn’t feeling very happy – and while it might not be obvious, what they often need is support. Supporting children and young people to put their feelings into words can help them to feel less overwhelming, making it less likely that they will need to act out.
For some young people, feeling more irritable or angrier than usual can be a sign that they are struggling with low mood, depression or anxiety – especially if it goes on for a long period of time without changing.
How Can I Respond to My Child When They Get Angry?
- Try to separate your child’s feelings from their behaviour, remembering that all feelings are okay, even though some behaviour is not. Make it clear that you’re not dismissing their anger by letting them know that it’s okay to feel however they feel, and that it’s normal to feel angry sometimes.
- Try not to get angry yourself, as this will only escalate the situation. Focus on staying as calm as you can – using a calm voice and open body language, for example by not folding your arms.
- Avoid asking them lots of questions when they’re feeling very angry or distressed. Acknowledge that they’re feeling angry, and let them know that you’d like to talk with them about what’s going on when they feel ready.
- If it feels appropriate, offer them some time and space to calm down. Especially with older teenagers, sometimes just having half an hour to listen to some music, go for a walk or do an activity they enjoy can help them feel calmer – making it more possible to have a conversation about what’s making them feel this way.
- If you need to, explain why their behaviour is not okay so they understand – and hold consistent boundaries around consequences. For example, you might say that while it’s normal to feel angry, it’s not okay when they shout at you. Remember that while your child might resist boundaries and consequences, they can actually help them to feel safe, contained and cared for.
How Can I Help My Child to Manage Their Anger?
- Talk to your child about what’s going on. In a calm moment, try to explore what’s making them angry, focusing on letting them talk and listening to what it’s like for them. Trust your instincts about picking the right moment, and remember that you know your child better than most people. You can find more tips on starting a conversation with your child here.
- If your child doesn’t want to talk, see if you can find other ways to communicate. It might help to text, write a letter, go for a walk together or do an activity while you’re talking to help them relax. You can have a look at our activity ideas here. You could also try spending five or ten minutes checking in with them each evening to encourage them to open up.
- Help them to identify triggers. Recognising the triggers and patterns that alert them to the fact that they’re getting angry can help them to take action before it becomes overwhelming. Keeping a diary or journal may make it easier for both of you to think this through – and apps such as ThinkNinja (for 10-18-year-olds) and HeadSpace can help them to track their feelings. This video by Braive might also help you to understand how stress and overwhelming feelings can build up in a person's life.
- Support them to find ways of channelling their anger, remembering that different things will work for different people. Some young people will find relaxing techniques useful. This could be things like meditating, listening to music, colouring or drawing, taking deep breaths or doing a breathing technique. Teenagers might like to do this using a mindfulness or meditation app such as Headspace or Calm. Often, people who are feeling angry breathe in more than they breathe out – so a good trick is to focus on breathing out for a few counts longer than they breath in, which can help their body to relax. Some young people will find active techniques useful. This could be things like punching a pillow, throwing a ball, ripping or screwing up newspaper, playing sport, running or going for a walk.
- Create a plan of action together. When things are calm, think together about what happens when they’re angry, how they’d like you to respond, how they might be able to express their anger and what the consequences will be for any behaviour that crosses a boundary. Your child may have ideas of their own, and the more involved they are in discussing this, the more likely they are to engage later on.
- Keep to the rules. While boundaries do need to adapt as your child gets older, it’s still important to keep a stable foundation in place, particularly if things are feeling unsettled. Hold appropriate boundaries and be consistent with consequences – remembering that when young people are angry they can also feel frightened about how out of control things seem. While they might not like it, they do need stability and consistency from you, and consequences will help them to understand what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
- Model the behaviour you want to see. Your child learns more from you than you may realise. None of us are perfect and that’s okay, but if you lose your temper you can show your child how to respond afterwards. For example, when you’re feeling calmer, apologise, explain what was going on and then let it go. You might say, ‘I’m sorry I got angry earlier, I was getting upset about the situation. I want to be able to help. Is there anything I can do to make things better for you?’
- Reassure your child and don’t lose hope. If they’re struggling, there are places where they can find help and support – and you can find out more about this below.
Young People Tell Us it Helps To:
- Think of the bigger picture: will this bother me in a year?;
- Try and say why you're angry, and remember that time alone to calm yourself down is okay;
- Take some time to think about how your actions are affecting others, and try to remember people are usually trying to help you!;
- Apologise if you have harmed someone – and if you have hurt yourself, apologise to yourself;
- Figure out why you reacted like that so you can recognise it next time before it's too late;
- Tell someone if they’ve made you angry, or talk to someone else about it;
- Remind yourself that the emotion is valid.
Preventing and Managing Conflict
There may be times when we feel worried and stressed and this can lead to family tension, arguments and conflict. When children see parents/carers communicating well and staying calm, it can help them cope with their own big emotions. These four short learning sequences are an introduction to restorative and relational thinking - a few techniques that can help us to better manage emotions and stay calm, and to keep communicating with each other in positive ways. These lessons will support you to:
- Reconsider positive relationships;
- Think about all behaviour as 'communication';
- Start to use a line of questioning that will help you (and others) through problems and will help to maintain positive mental health;
- Deal better with stress.
This is a 3 part animation designed with the help of Educational and Developmental Psychologists, to convey, in easy to understand English, why we need to think about our emotions, the science of emotions and how to emotion coach.
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