Anger in Children: A Shift in Perspective

Children who struggle to manage their anger lack the skills to do so effectively – this was the idea we introduced in the first article of this series. The term “lagging skills” was coined by Dr. Ross Greene in his book, The Explosive Child, and it’s key to understanding WHY a child is behaviorally challenging, as well as how to help them. (1)

Take a moment to think about children you know who are considered behaviorally challenging. They may or may not have an official mental health diagnosis. However, knowing the diagnosis may not help you understand WHY and WHEN those children have outbursts. A diagnosis can validate that a child is different and requires support, but it also directs your focus to challenging behaviors rather than the reasons behind those behaviors.

Oftentimes when a child is behaviorally challenging, blame is incorrectly put on parents for being too lenient or inconsistent. Blame is also often put on the child for CHOOSING to be challenging. People might say, “He’s acting out just to get attention!” or “She’s trying to be manipulative!” As we will show later on, this line of thinking – whether true or not – may lead to ineffective interventions. The main premise of Dr. Greene’s book is that “kids do well if they can.” (1) Most children don’t wake up thinking, “I’ll make my parents’ lives miserable today!” or “I’m going to disrupt class today!” The book’s premise makes sense – no child wants to do poorly.

So, if “kids do well if they can,” why don’t they? This is where lagging skills come into play. Behaviorally challenging children are challenging when they do not have the necessary skills to respond adaptively to a particular demand. (1) According to Dr. Stuart Ablon of the Think:Kids program (2) at Massachusetts General Hospital, there are five categories of skills that are required to manage anger successfully:

  • Language and Communication Skills
  • Attention and Working Memory Skills
  • Emotion- and Self-Regulation Skills
  • Cognitive Flexibility Skills
  • Social Thinking Skills

What does it look like when a child is behind in any of these skills? Imagine your child comes home after school and you tell them that it’s time to do their homework. They take their backpack into their room, and ten minutes later you hear a loud thump and groans of frustration. You open the door to ask what happened, and see their book on the ground and crumpled up paper in front of them. You remind them that their homework needs to be finished before any screen time, and their response is a pencil flung across the room.

If you were to focus just on the challenging behavior, you might give your child a time out for slamming their book and throwing the pencil, or promise them a special dessert after dinner if they can turn things around and finish their work. However, solely relying on this type of punishment/reward system teaches you (and your child) nothing about why the child had trouble with their homework in the first place. Instead, let’s examine this example through the lens of “kids do well if they can.”

If the child is lagging in Language and Communication Skills, they may be having difficulty verbalizing what it is about the assignment that is difficult for them – hence the pencil throwing. If they are lagging in Attention and Working Memory Skills, they may be having difficulty sitting still long enough to focus on the assignment. It’s also possible that they don’t remember the directions for the assignment that were given by the teacher. If there is a delay in Emotion- and Self-Regulation Skills, they may be having difficulty handling their frustration about a difficult task; or they may be anxious about an upcoming presentation and lack the skills to handle anxiety effectively. Another possibility is that the teacher changed their expectations regarding the assignment, requiring the students to use a new approach. If your child is lagging in Cognitive Flexibility Skills, they may be having trouble adjusting to the change. Finally, let’s say the homework assignment is a group project and the other members of the group are complaining about your child dominating the conversation or continuously telling them they’re wrong. If the child is lagging in Social Thinking Skills, they may be having difficulty figuring out why the other children are mad at them.

If we shift our perspective from challenging behaviors to lagging skills, we can see that the reasons behind the same behavior (ex. slamming the book and flinging the pencil) can be quite varied. Understanding what about a situation is hard for a child and which skills are lagging helps us figure out how to address the problem effectively – and know which skills require practice. It also helps us to predict when a child’s outburst will occur, therefore allowing us to solve problems proactively. In our final article of this series, we will talk about how to address problems before they occur and solve them collaboratively with your child.


(1) Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: a new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. New York: Harper.

(2) Ablon, S., Ph.D. Think:Kids – Collaborative Problem Solving | Official Website of the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. Retrieved from

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This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Sarah Parenteau, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Sarah is passionate about understanding and improving the lives of individuals affected by various psychological issues, and specifically has a strong interest in child therapy. In her future endeavors, she plans to work as a psychologist to help children and families through assessment, consultation, and treatment.