Most children have occasional tantrums or meltdowns. They may sometimes lash out if they’re frustrated. Or they may be defiant if asked to do something they don’t want to do. But when kids do these things repeatedly, or can’t control their tempers a lot of the time, it may be more than typical behavior.
Here are some signs that outbursts might be more than typical behavior:
- If your child’s tantrums and outbursts are occurring past the age at which they’re developmentally expected (up to about 7 or 8 years old)
- If his behavior is dangerous to himself or others
- If his behavior is causing him serious trouble at school, with teachers reporting that he is out of control
- If his behavior is interfering with his ability to get along with other kids, so he’s excluded from playdates and birthday parties
- If his tantrums and defiance are causing a lot of conflict at home and disrupting family life
- If he’s upset because he feels he can’t control his anger, and that makes him feels bad about himself
When children continue to have regular emotional outbursts, it’s usually a symptom of distress. The first step is understanding what’s triggering your child’s behavior. There are many possible underlying causes, including:
ADHD: Many children with ADHD, especially those who experience impulsivity and hyperactivity, have trouble controlling their behavior. They may find it very hard to comply with instructions or switch from one activity to another. That makes them appear defiant and angry.
“More than 50 percent of kids with ADHD also exhibit defiance and emotional outbursts,” says Dr. Vasco Lopes, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Their inability to focus and complete tasks can also lead to tantrums, arguing, and power struggles. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, ADHD is sometimes overlooked in kids who have a history of severe aggression because there are so many bigger issues.
Anxiety: Children who seem angry and defiant often have severe, and unrecognized, anxiety. If your child has anxiety, especially if he’s hiding it, he may have a hard time coping with situations that cause him distress. He may lash out when demands at school, for instance, put pressure on him that he can’t handle. In an anxiety-inducing situation, your child’s “fight or flight” instinct may take hold. He may have a tantrum or refuse to do something to avoid the source of acute fear.
Trauma or neglect: A lot of acting out in school is the result of trauma, neglect or chaos at home. “Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home can act like terrorists at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior,” says Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in a school setting. Most at risk, she says, are kids with ADHD who’ve also experienced trauma.
Undiagnosed learning problems: When your child acts out repeatedly in school or during homework time, it’s possible that he has an undiagnosed learning issue. Say he has a lot of trouble with math, and math problems make him very frustrated and irritable. Rather than ask for help, he may rip up an assignment or start something with another child to create a diversion from his real issues.
Sensory processing issues: Some children have trouble processing the sensory information they’re getting from the world around them. If your child is over- or undersensitive to stimulation, things like scratchy clothes and too much light or noise can make him uncomfortable, anxious, distracted or overwhelmed. That can lead to meltdowns for no reason that’s apparent to you or other caregivers.
Autism: Children on the autism spectrum are also often prone to dramatic meltdowns. If your child is on the spectrum, he may tend to be rigid. He may need a consistent routine to feel safe. Any unexpected change can set him off. Sensory issues may cause him to be overwhelmed by stimulation. He could short-circuit into a meltdown that continues until he exhausts himself. And he may lack the language and communication skills to express what he wants or needs.
How You Can Help an Angry Child
Medication won’t necessarily fix defiant behavior or aggression. But it can reduce the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety and other disorders. And it can improve the conditions for working on those behaviors. Behavioral approaches in which parents and children work together to rein in problem behavior are key.
Find the Triggers
The first step in managing anger is understanding what triggers a child’s outbursts. Is getting out the door for school a chronic issue for your child? Solutions might include laying out clothes and showering the night before, waking up earlier and using time warnings. Some kids respond well to having tasks broken down into steps and posted on the wall.
The parent or caregiver’s response to outbursts affects the likelihood of the behavior happening again.
If a child’s behavior is out of control, or causing major problems, it’s a good idea to try step-by-step parent training programs. These programs (like Parent-Child Interaction Therapy and Parent Management Training) train you to positively reinforce behavior you want to encourage, and give consistent consequences for behaviors you want to discourage. Most children respond well to a more structured relationship, with calm, consistent responses that they can count on.
Here are some of the key elements taught in parent training:
- Don’t give in. Resist the temptation to end your child’s tantrum by giving him what he wants when he explodes. Giving in only teaches him that tantrums work.
- Remain calm and consistent. You’re in a better place to teach and follow through with better, more consistent consequences when you’re in control of your own emotions. Harsh or angry responses tend to escalate a child’s aggression, whether verbal or physical. By staying calm, you’re also modeling—and teaching—your child the type of behavior you want to see in him.
- Ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior. Ignore minor misbehavior, since even negative attention like reprimanding or telling the child to stop can reinforce his actions. Instead, lavish labeled praise on behaviors you want to encourage. (Don’t just say “good job.” Say “good job calming down.”)
- Use consistent consequences. Your child needs to know what the consequences are for negative behaviors, such as time-outs, as well as rewards for positive behaviors, like time on the iPad. And you need to show him you follow through with these consequences every time.
- Wait to talk until the meltdown is over. One thing you don’t want to do is try to reason with a child who is upset. As Dr. Stephen Dickstein, a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist, puts it, “Don’t talk to the kid when he’s not available.” You want to encourage a child to practice at negotiation when he’s not blowing up, and you’re not either.
- Build a toolkit for calming down. Both you and your child need to build what Dr. Dickstein calls a toolkit for self-soothing—things you can do to calm down, like slow breathing, because you can’t be calm and angry at the same time. There are lots of techniques, he adds, but “The nice thing about breathing is it’s always available to you.”