Anger, irritability and aggression in Children

Anger that derives from frustration seems to be the most common issue that has been identified by psychologists. This happens for example, when a child does not get what he/she wants or if asked to do something and the child is not in the mood for it.

Sep 30, 2022

Christine Fernandez

In my last article (Adolescence and Mental Health, HERALD Sept 11), I mentioned that there is no escaping the stressors and distractions of modern society with mental health issues on the rise. In this article, I want to delve deeper into some common challenges that children face in their lives as they move into the big modern world.

According to clinical psychologist Dr Denis Sukhodolsky, it is not unusual for children to have as many as nine tantrums a day. However, for children whose tantrums continue as they get older and become something that is not developmentally appropriate, it calls for professional help.

Anger that derives from frustration seems to be the most common issue that has been identified by psychologists. This happens for example, when a child does not get what he/she wants or if asked to do something and the child is not in the mood for it. Everyone gets angry, both child and adult alike but the anger is an emotion that can range from slightly irritated, to moderately angry and full blown rage. When this happens, we as parents get angry at their anger, either by “bringing down the hammer” or punishing the child. The fact of the matter is, children will experience situations that trigger anger and you cannot stop it. However, you can be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to answer” (James 1:19). Furthermore, you can only give them tools to understand their anger and manage it before it warrants professional help.

So, if you are faced with a supernova explosion of anger, how are you going to address it? Firstly, remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath but a harsh answer stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Secondly, do not try to appease your children, give in to their demands or avoid situations so that their anger goes away. Just help them to recognise when anger is building and deal with it appropriately.

Here are some tips that can be useful for parents and carers when dealing with children with anger issues. Think of your child as your neighbour’s kids. This can give you a little emotional distance. Reason being, your child’s rage will often trigger your own emotions. Therefore, try and control your own emotions by taking a deep breath, count to ten and take a step back.

Besides understanding where you are at, the ability to control your emotions can give you empathy about where your child is in developing this skill. Whatever responses you make, just try not to escalate the situation by arguing. This does not mean that you are giving in but just giving them some space to cool down so that it doesn’t become an emotional “tsunami”. You can always hold your child accountable when the situation is calmer. When anger is building up, help your child recognise it. Physical signs that your child can tune into are: stomach clenching, a feeling of tension, feeling flushed, clenching teeth and even holding the breath without realising it. Once these signs are detected early on it can prevent anger from escalating to rage which is worth a pound of cure.

In Genesis 4:6 God never asked questions to gain, but to help the person to think about the situation from God’s perspective. In the same way, as parents and carers with your purposeful parenting, ask your child why he/she is angry and talk about it when you are both calm. In most cases, children will express genuine remorse after a major meltdown.

I remember a child telling me after a rage that she did not know why she did that and felt that something was wrong with her. Therefore, if your child is open to talking and willing to learn, teach them anger management skills by helping them work backward from the incident. That would entail - what happened right before the rage was triggered / what was said / what he/she was feeling/was there disappointment, embarrassment, frustration, fear or anxiety?

We need to remember that there is always another emotion underneath the anger and recognising these underlying emotions can be a powerful tool throughout your child’s life. However, if your child’s anger is extreme, seek counselling. Even if the child resists participation, go as a parent/carer to get support and guidance from the counsellor.

Managing emotions does not happen overnight for all of us. But, as a parent or carer, you can help your child/children improve their coping skills with consistent support and encouragement. If you are seeking help from a professional, behavioural intervention would be the first line of treatment for childhood anger and aggression. They can be helpful as they focus on changing the interpersonal dynamics that lead to results from angry outbursts. They also address the child’s behaviour problems from different directions. The ones I use in my sessions and am comfortable with are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Parents Management Techniques (PMT).

CBT is an approach which helps a child acquire new and more effective strategies for regulating emotions, thought and behaviours. It is a three-pronged approach that teaches regulation of emotion, ways to express and address frustration, and develop new communication strategies. The beauty is, parents can actively participate and support their child’s progress.

PMT, on the other hand, helps parents limit outbursts by teaching alternative ways to handle misbehaviours. Positive reinforcement is the focus here for what your child did right, rather than punishment for transgressions. With this technique we help families spend time together.

There is a wide range of mental health services for children and parents alike. Please do not be embarrassed to access it or even seek help if you really need it for yourself or your children. As Scripture says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

(Christine Fernandez is a social worker, counsellor, chaplain, parent and grandparent. She would love to hear your parenting stories. Do drop her a line at:

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