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Understanding Your Angry Child


All children, just like all adults, get angry or upset sometimes and that's normal. What isn't normal is when the behaviour that accompanies these emotions becomes regularly disruptive, causes harm or leads to a poorer quality of life.


Types of challenging behaviour may be:

  • Hitting, kicking, biting or other aggressive behaviour

  • Swearing and verbal aggression

  • Defiance

  • Destructiveness

  • Self-harm - not just cutting but biting self, hitting self, head butting, pulling out own hair etc

Even if your child is normally pretty laid back, you may have seen a change in their behaviour during Coronavirus and lockdown. This may be due to stress, anxiety or because the things that normally keep them happy, like friends and sports, have been taken from them.


How this affects the family


Continuous angry or challenging behaviour can be exhausting and depressing. It's easy to get stuck in a negativity rut where you can only see the challenging behaviour and nothing ever seems to go right. You may end up pouring all your time into the child who is acting up and not having the energy for other family members, or for yourself. You may feel like you've tried everything and nothing works. This may affect how you see yourself as a parent and affect your mental health.


The effect of anger on the child


Even the most angry of children that I work with tend to feel bad about it afterwards - sometimes very obviously by breaking down emotionally, and sometimes internally telling themselves what a bad person they are and thus damaging their self-esteem. This then leads to further 'bad behaviour' as they can't possibly imagine themselves to be able to do anything positive or 'right'.


So, how can you get your child to change?


Mostly by changing your own behaviour. This is good news because it's really hard to convince someone else to change just because you want them to. However, when you can influence someone else's behaviour by simply changing your own then you've got a real chance of making a difference.


Every behaviour happens for a reason


The first thing you need to remember is that every behaviour happens for a reason. The

child may not understand the reason, they may be just reacting to the feelings they have inside. Even teenagers and adults can act out due to underlying feelings such as being "hangry" or tired, both of which can make you grumpy and do or say things you may regret. The younger the child the less likely they are to notice when other emotions are making them act out, or be able to understand their emotions.

Children don't want to act out, get angry, hurt people and break things - an emotion (even if it doesn't seem to be a reasonable one to you) is behind the behaviour.

Is something going on?


The first thing to do is to think about whether there might be a reason behind the behaviour. Has there been a bereavement in the last few years? Have they moved school? Are they about to move school? Are they having friendship issues? Do they struggle to get on with a new step-parent or siblings? Are they anxious - don't forget they may be reacting to the 'fight' part of the fight-or-flight response (see below).

It's always worth having a think to see if you can find an underlying cause. Even if the child doesn't understand or acknowledge that one of these things is affecting them, you can bear it in mind and it may help you to have empathy towards the child.


Functions of challenging behaviour


The next thing to think about is what is the function behind the behaviour. What are they trying to get out of it? Whatever the behaviour is, it has a function. Here are some examples...

  • Social attention- to get noticed or acknowledged by others

  • Escape/avoidance - to get away from a situation or task the person finds difficult

  • Tangible - to get something they want (e.g. food, activities, etc.)

  • Sensory - because it feels good

  • Communication - to express their emotions to others

  • Pain/feeling unwell - to let others know about it or to manage their discomfort.

When a baby cries we instinctively know that it isn't just to be annoying but to try and communicate something to us. For some reason, we tend to forget this as our children begin to walk and talk. We forget that they still need us to interpret their emotions and regulate them, and we expect them to just understand them and be reasonable and calm, when we are not reasonable and calm ourselves all the time - and we're meant to know better!


Ask yourself some questions


If your child is "attention-seeking" it can be helpful to reword that as "connection-seeking".

Ask yourself:

Do we have enough quality or 1-1 time together?

In 2007, Unicef undertook research to try and understand children's wellbeing in the UK. One thing they found was that children consistently expressed that family time improved their wellbeing; in the same report parents said they didn't have enough time or energy to spend with their families. This meant that children were often given electronic devices to entertain themselves or keep them out of the parents' way.

Perhaps your child genuinely wants to spend more time with you? Think about how you can add even 15 minutes of time together with your child with no interruptions each day.


Is my child anxious?

Worries, insecurities, sudden changes, stress, social anxiety (such as public speaking) generalised anxiety or a specific phobia can all trigger the fight-or-flight response.

This is when acute stress readies the body to deal with something that is threatening it. In evolutionary terms, this would be to get a caveman ready to either fight the bear that's attacking him or flee from it. Your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen in the body, there's a rush of blood to the muscles, pumped around by your faster-beating heart. You're ready for action.

Some anxious children go into fight mode - they attack other people before they can be attacked. They feel anxious about doing their homework so they yell and tear it up to try and avoid the thing that is scaring them. They feel threatened by their siblings who they feel are so much better than they are so they attack them or try and get them in trouble.

If you shout at an anxious child you will only make them more anxious. They need to be able to talk about their worries and learn how to calm down so they can deal with them sensibly.


Are they trying to tell me something?

If you've already thought about the questions above and can't think of a then you might need to try and talk to your child about it.

When your child is caught up in any emotions, especially anger, they can't think. Part of the fight-or-flight response is to cut off the thinking part of the brain. Thinking is slow and the brain has gone into survival mode so wants to react as quickly as possible (don't forget, it's evolved from being attacked by a bear).

Check out my other post about calming tools to learn about how to talk to your child to defuse a situation and help them to open up to you but here are the headlines:

  1. Stay Calm

  2. Watch out for small cues they are going to blow

  3. Distract them - try humour

  4. Use calming tools if they haven't already lost it

  5. Name the emotion

  6. Validate the feeling (not the behaviour) "It's okay to feel angry, but it's not ok to hit your sister"

  7. Either: be with them in the emotion, or if they are being aggressive you may need to leave them to calm down in a safe space.

  8. Problem-solve when they are calm. Allow them to come up with ideas and support them

And always STAY CALM!


The moment you start to flip out too you are encouraging that behaviour. When you also start to shout or become aggressive (or smack) then you are telling your child that the correct way to act when frustrated or angry is to...shout and hit. That is confusing and hypocritical.

Be honest with yourself. Do you join in their chaos or are you the calm you want them to be. Sometimes by doing nothing but vowing to yourself to not shout for a week can completely change the dynamic in the house and knock a lot of the behaviour on the head! Try for a week and see if it makes a difference!


Subscribe below so you don't miss my next blog with practical tips on how to parent your angry child and create a calmer household, and please don't forget to share on social media x

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