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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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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