We were watching old videos of my children the other night. In one scene, my then 2-year-old daughter became upset because she didn’t have a ball her baby brother was playing with. She was angry! So she marched over to him, grabbed the ball, and threw it across the room. Wow! My husband and I looked at each other and were thinking the same thing, “That’s the famous temper we grew to know so well!”
Over the years, she’s gotten a lot better, but I wish we would have had these 15 questions to ask to see if your child has an anger problem. Take it with your children in mind, and then follow the suggestions for dealing with children with anger issues.
Take the Test
The following inventory covers the more common signs of anger in children. All children manifest these signs, but if several of them are persistent or if your child evidences many of them, you may have a problem.
Rate each statement according to the following scale and enter the rating in the appropriate space:
0= My child never or rarely does this
1= My child occasionally does this (no more than once a month).
2= My child often (once or more a week) does this.
3= My child does this frequently (daily or several times a week).
_____1. My child blames others for his or her troubles.
_____2. My child throws or breaks things whenever he or she feels frustrated or irritated.
_____3. Whenever my child gets angry, calming him or her down takes a lot of placating.
_____4. My child does not like change of any sort and becomes angry when change is forced on him or her.
_____5. My child changes the rules of games when playing with other children.
_____6. My child says spiteful or hatful things whenever he or she is thwarted.
_____7. My child is negative, deliberately slow and resists doing what he or she is told to do to the point that discipline becomes a standoff.
_____8. My child seeks out arguments or reasons to become upset, even when everything is at peace.
_____9. My child ostracizes, scorns, and complains about others.
_____10. My child loses control when she or he is angry and shows it with facial expressions or body language.
_____11. My child uses foul language whenever he or she gets angry.
_____12. When my child is learning something new, he or she easily becomes frustrated and wants to do something else.
_____13. My child is stubborn and refuses to do what he or she is told to do unless you use the right tone of voice or approach.
_____14. My child’s friends don’t like to play with him or her because he or she is such a bad sport.
_____15. My child gets into fights with other children and has great difficulty controlling his or her temper when teased.
0-5: Your child is remarkably free of anger and is not prone to frustration. If anything, he or she may be a little too passive- but don’t try to change this!
6-10: Your child is showing a normal degree of anger and irritation, but a higher score (nearer 10) is more appropriate for younger children ( under 6) and lower score (nearer 6) is more appropriate for older children.
11-15: Your child is beginning to show an above-normal degree of anger response. Again, a higher score is more appropriate for younger children. Some attention to your child’s response may be needed.
16-20: Clearly your child has a problem with anger and should receive your attention.
Over 20: Your child has a serious problem with anger, especially if he or she is already of school age. Take immediate steps to help your child cope with his or her anger, and seek professional help, if necessary.
What You Can Do
1. Help your children become aware of their anger.
Justin would not be considered an angry child. He rarely appears to be angry. One of the many myths regarding anger is that if a person doesn’t look or appear to be angry on the outside, then he or she doesn’t have a problem with anger; he or she is clearly not an angry person. But while Justin does not appear to be an angry person on the outside, he is like a battlefield on the inside.
If he has had a difficult day at school, Justin is more quiet when he comes home and tends to isolate himself in his room. He is more likely to be negative and critical of everything and everyone. His mom has learned to watch for these symptoms. When she sees them, she knows that this is frequently the way Justin acts when he is angry.
How often are you aware of your children being angry? What situations do they encounter that might make them more vulnerable to anger? How do their bodies respond to anger? What are their physical manifestations of anger? How do they treat others when they are angry? What is unique about the ways in which each of your children experience and express anger?
2. When your children are aware of their anger, help them process it.
When your children are feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions, it is tempting as parents to jump in and want them to get over it. This is especially true with the emotion of anger. Even the best parents are tempted to give their children advice and tell them what to do.
However, when our children are in the midst of powerful emotions, they have a hard time listening to anyone. The last thing our children want is advice or criticism; they want to be understood. They want us to understand what they are feeling. Many parents have found that simply taking the time to sit down and listen to the child is enough to release his or her angry feelings.
Make sure you pick the right time to talk to your children. Take into account their personality types, most extroverts like to process things externally. They like to talk about things right away. Most introverts prefer to process things internally. They like to think about it before they talk about it. Being insensitive to your child’s preferred way of processing anger could only increase frustration and thus increase his or her anger, making it more difficult if not impossible to deal with.
Eventually, you will be able to help your children develop other words for their anger. When your children say, “I’m angry,” you can respond by asking, “Do you think your anger is from being afraid, hurt or frustrated?”
3. Help your children admit their anger and accept responsibility.
We live in a society of victims. Nothing is ever my fault; it’s always somebody else’s fault. When “everyone else” is responsible, then no one is responsible. One of the characteristics of a godly person is the ability to take responsibility for his or her actions. If sin was involved, the person should confess it and seek to make it right. This is especially true with the emotion of anger.
One of the characteristics of a godly person is the ability to take responsibility for his or her actions.
We can teach our children that when we are angry, it is easy for us to blame someone else and say, “It’s your fault; you made me angry.” This is especially true with brothers and sisters. If your child has a brother or sister, that child has a built-in cause for all of his or her problems.
But as our children see us take responsibility for our anger, as they see us be angry and yet not sin, as they see us speak the truth in love, it is more likely that they will follow our example. Over time we can teach our children that though other people can say or do things that cause hurt or frustration, we are responsible for how we choose to respond. If we are angry, the anger is ours, and choosing how to express it is our responsibility.
4. Help your children decide who or what will have control.
This is a very important step for both children and adults. However, it’s a bit more difficult for children. They haven’t had the time to develop some of the discipline and control that we adults have. They don’t have the understanding of consequences that we do. But this is their opportunity to learn discipline and control.
When our children become aware that they are angry, we can help them learn that they are faced with a choice. They can either allow the emotion of anger to dominate and control them, or they can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to control the anger and invest the anger-energy in healthy ways.
A simple yet powerful response can be, “Honey, I can tell that you’re feeling a lot of anger right now. It’s OK to experience anger, I’m glad you are able to talk about your anger. It sounds like you’ve got some good reasons to be angry. Now you need to decide: Are you going to let your anger control you, or do you want to control your anger? Do you remember what happened last week when you let your anger get out of control? Do you want that to happen again? Would you like me to pray with you to ask God to help you deal with your anger in a healthy way?”
Obviously, the way you talk to your children depends on how old they are and where they are in the process of their individual emotional development. But however you choose to express it, your children can be helped to understand that as soon as they are aware of their anger, they can and need to make a decision to either control their anger and deal with it constructively or let their anger get out of control and lead to more problems.
5. Help your children identify and define the source.
Children get angry for many of the same reasons adults get angry. Anger is a normal response to all kinds of daily events that can produce fear, hurt, and frustration. Be careful not to overreact to your child’s anger. Remember that anger is a secondary emotion.
Ask yourself these questions: Where is the anger coming from? What’s the real issue? What is his or her anger about? Often a child’s anger is communicating a need that he or she may not be aware of. Your son or daughter may be frightened, sad, insecure or confused and it comes out as anger.
Once your child has become aware of his or her anger and has had time to cool down, it’s often possible to begin exploring the cause of anger. When you begin this process, your child may be clueless about what triggered the anger response. But as you talk about fears, hurts, insults, rejection and disappointments, the door of awareness and recognition will often open.
Take time to explore what happened on that day or on the previous several days. Listen. Ask questions. Let your child ramble. As you take the time to understand, you will help your daughter or son understand themselves. At the same time, you will communicate your love, support, and encouragement.
6. Help your children choose their responses and develop their own solutions.
Anger can be dealt with in many ways. Some are constructive; some are destructive. Some of the destructive ways to deal with anger are to stuff, deny, suppress or repress it. One of the most destructive ways of dealing with anger is to ventilate it or dump it on someone else. Ventilating anger tends to increase rather than decrease it. That’s why it is important for us to help our kids move from a “what’s the problem?” mode to a “what can I do about it?” mode.
One way to initiate the sixth step might be to say, “Julie, now that you know your anger came from being frustrated with your brother, you can decide what you’re going to do about your frustration. What would you like to do?”
As much as possible, allow children to develop their own solutions to their problems. You may have to prime the pump a bit more with younger children, but as they get older they will develop their own wide range of responses to choose from. If Julie didn’t have any ideas, you could say, “I can think of four different ways you can handle frustration. If you want to hear them, I’d be happy to share them with you. Think about it and let me know.”
7. Help your children review their response to anger.
This is a step that many parents leave out. For years I was one of those parents. After a couple of days have passed, ask your child what he or she learned about dealing with anger from what happened. What went well? What would he or she like to have done differently? What did he or she learn? What would he or she like to do next time?
This conversation doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes. It should involve what the child learned and now what you as a parent think the child should have learned. The brief conversation can easily turn into a lecture; if that happens, you’ve undermined the process and robbed your son or daughter of a great learning experience.
Remember that learning how to understand and deal with emotions is a lifelong process. I know I am still working at understanding and dealing with my own emotions, and so are you. It takes time, trial, and error, but the product is worth the process. Encourage each little step your child takes and congratulate your child whenever possible. Praise him or her for even making an effort in a healthy direction.
During these times, remember that Romans 8:28 is true. God can cause all things to work together for good- your disappointments, your discouragements, even your mistakes. In fact, the act of being open and honest about your own emotions can provide a powerful learning experience for your children. It lets them know that you are human. It shows them in practical ways that what you are telling them really works. When you sow that you can learn from your mistakes, they see that can learn from theirs.
Used with permission from the book Raising Kids To Love Jesus by H. Norman Wright and Gary Oliver.
What types of anger problems have you had with your kids?