Anger in Children: What It Is and When We Should Worry about It

My child will not turn the tablet off when asked – even after ample warnings about the amount of time left to use it. When I finally have to take it away, my child screams and starts throwing books and toys. It’s not uncommon for me to be hit and told that I’m being completely unfair. I’m so tired of having this fight over and over again.

My student will not transition from free play to the class meeting on the rug without an argument. When I try to reason with them, I get yelled at in response and the rest of the class gets riled up. I can’t go the rest of the school year like this.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers sometimes find themselves in these types of situations. Something comes up that angers a child, and despite the earnest efforts of the adult, the child appears to become more and more consumed by their feelings of anger until the situation gets out of control.  Ultimately, the situation is upsetting and frustrating not only for the child, but for the adult as well.

What is anger?

“Anger is a natural emotion that alerts us when something has violated the natural order of how we think things should go (1).”  Not only is it normal to feel anger, but it is one of our oldest and most primitive emotions. It’s hardwired in our brain from millions of years ago. Our prehistoric ancestors became angry whenever they felt threatened or disadvantaged. This served as a survival technique and gave our ancestors the motivation and drive to compete for food and mates. While we may no longer become angry to compete for a piece of meat (thank you, grocery stores), our brains still can’t stand being treated unfairly (9).

When we feel threatened, the part of the brain that controls our emotions, called the amygdala, is responsible for sounding an alarm. The amygdala is incredibly speedy at this responsibility – as little as a quarter of a second kind of speedy. It sends signals to other parts of the brain to prepare our body for action. Our heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense up, body temperature and blood pressure rise. Stress hormones are released into our bloodstream, and blood flows to our limbs and extremities to prepare for physical action – our bodies are ready to fight (1)(4).

Nowadays, most times we don’t need to physically fight someone off when we’re angry. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic and gets to go through a yellow light while you have to stop at the line as the light turns red, you become angry at the driver of the other car. You might want to scream, or even ram your car into theirs. Thankfully, split seconds after the amygdala sounds the alarm, the prefrontal cortex gets activated as well. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls judgment and reasoning, and is responsible for determining how to respond to the triggering event that was recognized by the amygdala. This entire neurological response takes less than two seconds (3). Your prefrontal cortex tells you to take a deep breath, let it go, and keep driving.

If anger is normal, when does it become problematic?

The emotion of anger is present in human beings since infancy. Research shows that infants begin expressing anger during the last half of their first year due to the maturation of their cognitive abilities (9). Babies can become frustrated when an adult intervenes in an activity they are trying to do themselves, or when a favorite toy or object is taken away from them.  At ages 3 and 4, having to share toys and personal space is a source of frustration.  Increased expectations in kindergarten can result in anger (6).

As we explained earlier, our brains alert us when there is something to be angry about, then figure out how to respond to that trigger. In short, our brains are wired to react to an event before determining the sensibility and consequences of our actions. Learning to respond to our feelings of anger appropriately is a skill that has to be learned, not something we’re born knowing how to do. Thus, when babies get angry they respond by screaming and crying, and we have to do the anger management work for them. All through the toddler and preschool years, children are learning to manage their emotions (including anger) in socially acceptable ways. We help young children develop this skill by encouraging them to use their words, helping them identify their emotions, and providing them with strategies such as counting to 10 when angry.

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Social Thinking: Helping Children Navigate Social Interactions

“I know my son wants to make friends, but when he plays with others, the kids complain that he is being bossy.”

“My daughter came home from school and told me that she has no one to play with during recess.”

“I think my middle-schooler doesn’t know how to begin a conversation.  He’ll say ‘Hello’ to his peers and then look down at his shoes.”

These children, along with many others, likely have trouble navigating social interactions.  They may have difficulty understanding other people’s point of view and recognizing how their behaviors impact the way others feel about them.  Although some of these children have specific disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, many typically developing children also struggle with mastering age-appropriate social skills.

We used to think that social ability was a fixed trait, and that some people were naturally better at navigating social interactions than others.  Thanks to the pioneering work by Michelle Garcia Winner and her colleagues, we now know that social  skills can be learned with guidance and repeated practice.  The process called Social Thinking (1) helps people realize that during their interactions they have the power to affect the thoughts and feelings of others.  In this article, we will explore the concept of Social Thinking further.

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Gifted Children: Navigating Peer Relationships

The term “gifted” can be misleading.  Some people may think that since gifted children possess the special “gift” of high intelligence, they do not need any extra help and will succeed no matter what.  This line of thinking does these children a disservice. While it is true that many gifted children do very well both academically and socially, it is important to remember that giftedness can bring with it its own set of social-emotional challenges that require understanding and ongoing support from adults.  In this article, I discuss the challenges in navigating peer relationships that some gifted children face.  I also explore possible ways to address these challenges. Continue reading Gifted Children: Navigating Peer Relationships

Not Lazy or Forgetful: Adolescents with Executive Functioning Difficulties

A middle school girl laments, “I really can’t make decisions. It’s very hard for me to make up my mind.”  A ninth grader asks his teacher, “Can I start over?” as he erases all of his work. “I messed up on this problem.” A young adolescent boy explains, “I look at the amount of work I have and I feel overwhelmed.  I just don’t know how to get started.”

            These statements are common among adolescents with executive functioning difficulties.  Executive functioning (EF) refers to the cognitive processes that are necessary to think, manage the self, evaluate and solve problems, and achieve goals (1).   Adolescents with executive functioning difficulties often have trouble initiating, completing, or turning in their class assignments; they may struggle to stay engaged in lessons or classroom tasks.  At times, these students may be labeled as ‘lazy,’ ‘forgetful,’ or ‘lost’ (2).

When the concept of executive functioning was first examined in the 1970s, it referred to the front of the brain acting as the control center or the “executive” (3) of the brain.  Originally, executive functioning was defined as a concept that related closely to selective attention, or the ability to focus on one thing while blocking out distractions. In the past two decades, this notion has evolved.  We now think of EF as consisting of numerous cognitive functions that are needed to assist with learning and self-regulation (3).  The current research on executive functioning is summarized below.

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Gifted Children: A journey to meet their educational needs

“They never talked about how far ahead he was in reading or other subjects,” said one parent of her son’s experience in first grade. “They never named it.  It seemed like there was an invisible line, and the teacher’s job was to make sure that all the students reached that line.  But anything that was above that line, they just didn’t notice.”

The first step that parents and educators can take towards meeting the needs of a gifted child is to acknowledge that the child is gifted. With this acknowledgment should come the understanding that this child has unique cognitive, educational, and social-emotional needs. “It takes a while to come to the understanding that really, it is a question of needs,” says a parent of two children who have been identified as gifted. “It is not a question of wants; it is not a question of ‘it would be nice if…’. As a parent, you have to keep looking for opportunities to address their needs.” In the publication, A Nation Deceived: How schools hold back America’s brightest students, leading researchers in the field of gifted education,  Colangelo,  Assouline, and Gross (2004), agree. “Doing nothing is not the same as ‘do no harm,’ they write of educating gifted children. “The evidence indicates that when children’s academic and social needs are not met, the result is boredom and disengagement from school” (1).

In order to keep a gifted child excited about learning, parents and teachers must work together to figure out how to best meet the child’s academic needs. When appropriate, the child herself can also participate in this conversation. The goal of the conversation is to create an educational plan that would keep the child appropriately challenged and engaged in the learning process.

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Gifted Children: Who they are and why we should talk about it

Parents bring their children into my office for a variety of reasons, but usually the children are there because somehow their cognitive, academic, or social-emotional needs are not being met by their current environment. Sometimes, after I get to know the child and conduct an evaluation, it becomes clear that the child is gifted, and that giftedness is part of the equation of this child’s unmet needs.

One 12-year-old boy told me his reasons for wanting to be evaluated:  “I want to find out how many people in the world have a personality like me, because I want to know: where do I fit in?”  He then poignantly added, “at lunchtime, all the boys want to talk about football, and I want to talk about physics!”  A 16-year-old I tested shared with me that middle school had been the hardest time for him, because that’s when he “had the most disagreements with teachers on the worth of what we were doing.”  A mother of a 6-year-old girl told me that her daughter comes home from school looking dejected, and described what she termed as her daughter’s “nerdy acting out.”  When the girl’s first grade teacher asked the children to write down different ways to make the number 6, the girl wrote “2×3” and “-1 + 7”. The teacher then told the girl that “that’s not what we are doing right now.”  After that incident, this child became even more disengaged from school.

When I share the results of the evaluation with parents and with the child, we discuss how being gifted is an important part of the child’s unique learning profile and of the unique way this child relates to the world.

At this point, it becomes important to clarify:  what does “being gifted” mean?

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Understanding Math Disability

Does your eight-year-old still count on her fingers? Is your fourth grader having a tough time with simple addition problems? Is math homework a daily battle with your middle schooler?

According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, between 58 and 75 percent of school-aged students in the U.S. perform below proficiency levels in mathematics (1) (2). A variety of factors are contributing to this alarming statistic: cultural attitudes, low academic self-confidence, poor instructional methods, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders that affect learning across the board. However, up to 10% of students struggling with math have a specific learning disability known as dyscalculia. Children with this learning disorder have a difficult time making sense of numbers and math concepts.

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Anxiety in Young Children: What Parents Can Look for and How They Can Help

My daughter has been at her preschool for over three months and still cries at drop off. Is this normal or should I be concerned?

My four-year-old son used to sleep through the night, but all of a sudden he is scared of the dark and cannot sleep alone. What can I do?

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Does Your Child Need a Neuropsychological Evaluation?

At every age, a child is working on mastering a particular set of skills or developmental tasks. Thus, every age, every stage of development, brings with it its own set of challenges. Difficulties in mastering age-appropriate developmental tasks will likely manifest as behavioral problems, academic struggles, or challenges in interacting with family members or peers. Parents can see that their child is struggling, but are not always sure what is going on and how to help. In order to better understand the nature of a child’s difficulties and to chart the most appropriate course of action for addressing the problem, parents might choose to bring their child in for a neuropsychological evaluation.

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Bilingual Children: Dispelling the Myths of Language Acquisition

In my practice, I often see children who are growing up in a bilingual environment. Parents of bilingual children often wonder if, and how, bilingualism affects the process of language acquisition. “My child is behind in his speech, could it be because he hears two languages?” parents often ask. To clarify the facts and dispel the myths about the effects of bilingualism on language acquisition, I will take a closer look at the research on this topic. In thinking about the path of a bilingual child’s language development, here are some things to consider:

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