How to Help Your Child Cope With Anger

Feb 9, 2022 | BrightHouse Essentials

A common area of concern I hear from parents is that their child struggles with regulating anger emotions. This can be really challenging for caregivers to navigate because with pre-teens and teenagers, anger can look like physical outbursts, hurtful speech, crying, and even withdrawal, which can make caregivers feel helpless and frustrated. There are several factors that impact a child’s ability to regulate emotions, and the first step to helping your child manage their anger is to get a better understanding of these factors.

Emotion regulation occurs in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which is the front part of the brain (right behind the forehead). The prefrontal cortex is like a control center that helps with executive functions like time management, impulse control, and future planning. Since the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until approximately age 25, pre-teens and teens are not benefiting from the full capability to manage emotions. This is compounded by any learning or attention difference, as conditions like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also cause the prefrontal cortex to take longer to develop. And let’s not forget the surge of hormones that overtake the teenage brain and body during this stage of life – it’s rough for a kid out there! It’s important to keep in mind the biological challenges your child is working against just control the impulse to lash out in anger. While this can seem daunting, there are some things you can do with your child to facilitate healthy growth in managing their anger.

  1. Make expectations clear – Set rules and boundaries for things like completing chores, limiting electronics time, appropriate use of language, etc. by clearly stating what your expectation is. Give your child specific time limits, deadlines, and examples of appropriate ways to communicate. Setting these expectations allows your student to learn planning skills and minimizes their negative reaction when they receive a consequence for not meeting expectations (e.g., having their phone taken away).
  2. Understand that anger is a masking emotion – Much of the time, anger masks a deeper feeling like fear, guilt, rejection, or sadness. Feeling anger can “save” a child from having to feel the more complicated emotion, and it allows them to be less vulnerable and take the defense position. Try to peel back the layers to discover what may be lying under the anger surface; this is where healing can happen.
  3. Share your observations – Let your child know in a non-judgmental way that you notice a change in their mood or behavior, and give them an opportunity to talk about this. They may respond just from simply being noticed and acknowledged (this is oftentimes what they need). If their hurt goes a little deeper, they may be despondent, to which your response can be to offer them space and let them know you are available to talk when they are ready.
  4. Empathize and acknowledge – When your child is ready to share how they are feeling, keep an open mind and validate their experience and perception. It’s important not to minimize or dismiss their feelings, but instead to name what they are feeling and let them know that it is okay to feel anger. The goal is not to never feel angry; the goal is to feel anger and learn how to manage it in an appropriate way. Problem-solving may or may not be helpful during this stage; it may be best to wait until your child feels sufficiently validated and supported in their feelings.
  5. Model healthy emotional regulation – Sometimes we forget how much children observe and absorb from our words and actions. They watch to see how we handle frustrating experiences, so you can think of these as opportunities to model how to process and cope with anger and underlying feelings. Start by stating how you feel (“I’m feeling pretty frustrated right now.”), avoid venting and prolonging feelings of anger, and use a coping skill that works for you such as deep breathing, listening to music, going for a walk, etc.
  6. Catch their wins – Recognize and verbally acknowledge when you notice your child actively trying to manage their anger in a healthier way. Keep it short and sweet, and let them know you see a change in their ability to cope with their frustration or disappointment. You can do this by saying something such as, “I like how you let me know you were feeling frustrated and asked to listen to your favorite song.”
Helping your child work through old patterns of expressing anger may take some time, but patience and consistency will pay off. As your child’s brain develops, they will be learning emotion regulation and integrating that into their arsenal of coping skills. Now, instead of perceiving this area as a deficit, it can become a personal strength!

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