What Your Child’s Anger Really Means

What Your Child’s Anger Really Means


Anger in a child can be baffling for a parent.  Where did it come from?  And why?  It can trigger your own anger as you see your child begin to spin out of control; lashing out at those closest without provocation or regret.  As a parent, I struggle to keep my angry feelings in check when I see the flares begin to fire from across the room.  I want to rescue one child and reprimand another.

But I do not.  Some of the time.  I’m not Mother Theresa, remember?  When I have it right; I stop.  I breathe.  I listen.  A small act of mental gymnastics saves me as I  jump to my memories as a therapist.  My favorite clients were those who showed fiery indignation at the slightest offense.  Anger always gave me something to work with.  It was something I could grasp and mold.  The silent children were the ones I found difficult and challenging.  Anger gave me a direction.  Silence did not.

Now as I parent I find myself wearing two hats when I really prefer one.  The parent in me is constantly working to improve and be less reactive.  In other words, I am trying- always trying- to keep my own emotions in check!  The therapist side of myself is continually contemplating my children’s behavior and feelings; seeking out a direction to guide the narrative of the day.  Then I remind myself again…anger is a path.  Anger is a tool.  Anger tells you there is something more going on below the surface.  I don’t have to wait for the answer.  I just know I need to be digging.

In psychology terms, anger is what we call a secondary emotion.  The primary emotions are fear and sadness.  Think about that for a bit.  Fear and sadness.  Heavy stuff, right?  Well, it is for most humans.  Instead of dealing with fear and sadness head on…we push those emotions below.  We don’t want to be perceived as weak or scared.    Children may feel overwhelmed by their big feelings as they are children and have not yet learned how to sort out all that is going on within themselves.  Realistically, how many adults can handle this maneuver?  I liken it to a mountain of laundry.  We all know it needs to be sorted but sometimes the pile is too much and you just want to bury your head in the dirty mess.

According, to psychology experts, “In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless.  Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.”

What can we do with this information now that we know what your child’s anger really means?  We can continually remind ourselves that our children, these beautiful little people, are doing the best they know how to do.  They aren’t really angry at all.  They are acting out from a place of vulnerability and, sometimes, terror.  They want to be reassured they are worthy; they are loved.  As parents, the very least we can do is remind our children they are safe; they are important and their emotions will be heard and validated.

If your own feelings of anger are getting in the way of helping your child deal with his or her own storm;  I strongly suggest you figure out what is going on in your own pile of dirty laundry.  If you need help sorting; seek comfort in a friend, family member or caring professional.

Tips On Managing Your Child’s Anger:

  • Check yourself first.  Attempt to remove your emotions from the situation before you react.
  • Role model calm behavior.
  • Listen attentively.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize.
  • Give your child a healthy outlet of expression and give your child a feeling vocabulary.
  • Remind your child all feelings are accepted in your home but all behavior is not.  Doing this allows your child to own his feelings while negating troublesome behavior such as threatening, screaming, or physically assaulting someone else.
  • Talk, talk, talk then talk some more.  A connected child is a happy child.

For more ideas on coping with your child’s angry feelings, check out Dr. Markham’s excellent article: