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Explosive anger management for children and teens

Explosive anger management for children and teens
Every parent has experienced the frustration of navigating a child’s anger when it is disproportionate and explosive. The situation becomes even more challenging when the parent or carer is with company or is out in public. Parents may deal with anger so often that they start to wonder if it’s normal or signals an underlying mental health condition or disorder.

Fortunately, anger is a normal human emotion and is typical and expected in children and teens. The factors contributing to angry outbursts range from tiredness and hunger to an overwhelming environment or challenging situation that the child is not yet equipped to deal with themselves, explains paediatric nurse Ariella Lew.

“The outbursts can come over as disproportionate as this feeling is probably the last straw in addition to them feeling frustrated overall with something else which they haven’t reacted to. Or can be the culmination of not fully calming down from tantrums that were diffused earlier in the day.”
As children get older, the outbursts can become more problematic to manage, says Ms Lew, and can be due to sensory issues, anxiety and changing hormones.

“The world is non-stop, and the demands on kids can seem to them relentless, especially when they feel out of control for much of their day and schedule.

“The lack of control felt by many kids can often be expressed by inappropriate angry or aggressive outbursts to events of triggers seemingly unrelated.

“Life changes that weren’t predicted can be another cause of anger, causing angry flare-ups as they process whatever it is that has upset and shifted their reality.

“This can be a trigger for anxiety for those who are already prone to it and also can be a cause of anxiety which hasn’t manifested before. Anxiety can present as anger often aimed at things or topics unrelated to what has prompted the anxiety.

“In tweens and teens, the effects of changing hormones cannot be underestimated, even when the physical signs of puberty aren’t seen. I often hear of parents seeing a personality shift overnight to a child who is seemingly angry and volatile all of the time and can’t pinpoint why.”

How should parents respond to anger?

Ms Lew has seven tips for parents who are dealing with explosive anger in their child and teen:

1. During the outburst of anger, provide the child or teen with space rather than try to engage. They are unlikely to be able to respond rationally until they have calmed down.

2. Don’t revisit the trigger that caused the anger too quickly, as it’s likely to cause another explosive outburst.

3. Validate your child’s frustration – don’t just try to solve their problem immediately.

4. Track patterns and triggers that lead to explosive angry outbursts

5. Equip yourself (parents) with strategies to keep yourself calm when the situation with your child is volatile.

6. Source outside assistance from a professional to help you and your child to understand the anger.

7. Find a safe space in your house that can be a ‘meltdown zone’ where your child can be separate but safe. You can include equipment, such as a punching bag or other gym equipment where the aggression can be directed.

Paediatric psychologist Deirdre Brander says anger masks other deeper emotions and issues, so finding the root cause of a child’s behaviour is helpful.

“Anger is a secondary emotion – there is always another feeling underneath such as fear, disappointment, frustration or sadness.

“Anger and irritability can also be symptoms of anxiety and fear.

“Children and teens’ brains are going through immense periods of change and development.

“At times, they are overloaded and are unable to express what is going on for them.

“Being able to self-regulate and use words to describe the intensity of their feelings is difficult.

“At times, children believe they are communicating their feelings but become frustrated and angry at our lack of understanding.”

Helpful anger management strategies for children

These helpful yet simple strategies can help defuse your child’s anger and understand the root cause, explains Ms Brander.

Get calm
Saying “calm down” does not mean a child will calm down. If your child knows what can help them feel better in these times, then they can action this or we can remind them.

• A glass of cold water
• Run outside
• Bounce a ball hard
• Squeeze a pillow
• Write or draw angry thoughts and rip them up

Take a break
It’s important to get away from the triggers that can make things worse. It’s not a time out. It’s a break to allow everyone to get calm – including the parents.

Talk it out
Talking can only happen when things are calm. The focus is on problem-solving and finding ways to do this better.

Watch for grumblings
It is great if children become aware of their ‘annoyed mode’ and can do something different before an explosion occurs.

Tiredness, hunger and overload contribute to anger outbursts. Make sure the balance is right…for the child and the parent.

Helping teens with anger

When it comes to supporting teenagers to manage their anger, Dr Karen Phillip recommends modelling appropriate behaviour, counselling and developing trust.

“Model the behaviour you want your child to emulate. Then discuss with the child the reason for their behaviour and ask what help they need or how you can help them achieve a different result.

“Counselling is also a great method to allow children to safely open up, vocalise their anger or frustration and disclose issues they may not want the parent to hear. Sometimes they just don’t want to disappoint their parent.

“Teens normally tell me trust is their biggest issue with parents. They want to be trusted even though they know they may ‘stuff up’ sometimes. They want their parent to believe in them.

“The other thing they say is they want their parent not to yell, just guide and direct.

“Even if they don’t like the rules or direction, they will vocalise their dislike, but comply if made to.

“All the teens I have worked with want their parent to be the parent in a considered and thoughtful manner. Parents are often amused and confused at this!” 

When anger is outside of typically ‘normal’ behaviour, there may be a more serious mental health disorder at work, including intermittent explosive disorder.

What is intermittent explosive disorder (IED)? 

Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is a mental health disorder that results in children having short periods of intense, unexpected anger and violent behaviour. The feelings seem to come out of nowhere, and the child has no control over the anger. The disorder usually beings in late childhood or the early teen years.

The cause of IED in children could be a combination of genetic factors, environment and co-morbidity with other mental health disorders. The condition can be supported by medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, explains Ms Brander.

“Research suggests there may be some traits that are passed genetically from parents to children.

“The environment can play a critical role in causing rage anger. Children who grow up in an environment where there is physical and verbal abuse are more likely to exhibit signs of this disorder as they develop.

“A history of other mental health disorders also increases the risk of IED.  

“If parents have concerns about their child’s behaviour and the usual strategies are not working, seek support from a GP and a referral to a paediatrician or child psychologist.”

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.