Understanding Anger in Children and Teens

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Is your child or teen angry? If you have ever dealt with the angry outbursts of a child or had screaming matches with an adolescent, then you know how difficult it can be to respond positively to anger. Even the most patient parents may find themselves reacting emotionally and regretting what they have said. Ultimately, these difficult experiences can leave parents feeling like they have failed their children and can lead to a strain in the parent-child relationship. While friction between parents and children is a normal part of parenting, how we respond to our child’s anger can strengthen or weaken the relationship.

What’s Really Going on?

The first step in responding positively to anger is to ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?” While at times a child may simply be angry, more often than not anger is the outward manifestation of a more primary emotion such as fear, shame, exhaustion, or embarrassment. In these situations, younger children often display anger for different reasons than adolescents. Younger children may automatically throw tantrums, unaware that this is their response to a blocked goal. Adolescents on the other hand may be more aware of the root cause of anger, but not feel safe enough to exhibit the vulnerability needed to discuss sensitive experiences. 

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The Anger Iceberg

The anger iceberg, made popular by The Gottman Institute, provides parents with a great visual tool to help their child or adolescent better communicate how they are feeling. As the picture illustrates, anger is the portion of the iceberg that is readily seen. This is what parents and caregivers experience on a daily basis and may frequently misunderstand. Underneath the surface, however, are the many different emotions and experiences that may be taking place in your child’s life. Some of these feelings are largely physiological and stem from lack of sleep or proper nutrition. Other emotions are more intense and provide a look into predominant issues that your child or adolescent is secretly dealing with on a regular basis. 

Utilizing the Anger Iceberg

While the helpfulness of the anger iceberg can be immediately observed, using the tool to work through emotional outbursts requires more thought. The first step in utilizing the anger iceberg with your child is to review it yourself and gain clarity concerning your personal emotional reactivity. As parents, we often meet anger with anger because we are tired, stressed, or feel insecure concerning our ability to parent well. The best way that we can teach our children to gain emotional intelligence is by modeling it ourselves. 

After we have committed to regular self-reflection concerning emotional reactivity, we can then begin to work with and understand our children better. The manner in which we use this tool will largely depend on the age and developmental level of the child. For toddlers and younger children who have difficulty identifying any emotions other than anger, it is best to keep the concept of the anger iceberg in mind as you allow them to tell their story. Asking young children open ended questions leading to their narrative can help them and you understand the emotional experience. For older children and adolescents, having a picture of the anger iceberg or an emotion color wheel can help them better express how they feel. 

Ultimately be Your Child’s Safe Space

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If working through angry outbursts or lack of emotional intelligence becomes frustrating at times don’t fret! All parents make mistakes and react in a way that is unproductive at times. The twists and turns of cognitive, physical, and emotional development can throw even the most seasoned parents for a loop. When mistakes are made, be quick to ask your child for forgiveness and be vulnerable enough to share what emotions were fueling your angry response. This will provide a model for them and reinforce your presence as a safe space. 

Explore the Possibility of Counseling

If over the course of time you find that working with your child or adolescent concerning anger and emotional intelligence is stalling out, you may want to consider individual or family counseling that’s focused on children or teens. Oftentimes it is extremely helpful to gain the insight and tools provided by a professional therapist. Counseling can help bring clarity, strengthen relationships, and help you gain the bravery to deal with the difficult things in life. If you wish to know more, read about our team of experts or contact us today to learn how our Greenville, SC counseling office helps children and adolescents thrive.