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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