Does your kid seem to have “anger issues”?
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably dealt with your fair share of tantrums, meltdowns, and freak-outs. Regulating our emotions is a skill we all have to learn, and some kids take longer to master self-control than others. But how do you know when your child’s aggressive or violent behavior isn’t just part of their learning curve vs. getting out of hand? And what can you do to help?
It’s all about knowing what’s developmentally appropriate. “We generally expect toddlers to experience some aggressive behaviors,” says pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.
“At this stage, kids tend to resort to physical expressions of their frustration, simply because they don’t yet have the language skills to express themselves. For example, pushing a peer on the playground could be considered typical. We wouldn’t necessarily call that aggression unless it was part of a pattern.”
By the time your child is old enough to have the verbal skills to communicate their feelings — around age 7 — physical expressions of aggression should taper off, Dr. Mudd says.
If that’s not happening, it’s time to be concerned, especially if your child is putting themselves or others in danger or is regularly damaging property.
Watch for warning signs that your child’s behavior is having a negative impact, like they’re:
“These warning signs are cause for concern and should not be ignored,” notes Dr. Mudd.
Your child’s behavior may have an underlying cause that needs attention. ADHD, anxiety, undiagnosed learning disabilities and autism can all create issues with aggressive behavior.
“Whatever the cause, if aggressive behavior impacts your child’s day-to-day functioning, it’s time to seek help,” Dr. Mudd says.
Start by talking with your pediatrician. If necessary, they can refer you to a mental health professional to diagnose and treat problems that may cause aggression.
Dr. Mudd recommends these strategies for helping your child tame their aggression.
“When a child is expressing a lot of emotion, and the parents meet that with more emotion, it can increase the child’s aggression,” she says. Instead, try to model emotional regulation for your child.
For example, if your child is having a tantrum at the grocery store because they want a particular cereal, don’t give in and buy it. This is rewarding and reinforces the inappropriate behavior.
Reward good behavior, even when your child isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. If dinner time is problem-free, say, “I really like how you acted at dinner.” Treats and prizes aren’t necessary. Recognition and praise are powerful all on their own.
For example, you might say, “I can tell you’re really angry right now.” This validates what your child is feeling and encourages verbal, instead of physical, expression. Opening up the floor for conversation can help them find ways of getting their feelings off their chest in a healthy way.
Do tantrums happen every morning before school? Work on structuring your morning routine. Break down tasks into simple steps, and give time warnings like, “We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” Set goals, like making it to school on time four days out of five. Then reward your child when they meet those goals.
Don’t focus on financial or material goals. Instead, try rewards like half an hour of special time with mom or dad, choosing what the family eats for dinner or selecting what the family watches for movie night.
If your child is struggling with self-control, incorporating these strategies into your parenting should help you rein in those behaviors.
If the situation seems unmanageable, though, remember that you’re not the only one struggling with your child’s behavior. Pediatric psychologists are skilled at helping children and families solve emotional and behavioral problems. Ask your pediatrician for the names of mental health professionals in your area.