Young children often experience intense emotions as they learn to regulate their big feelings. Anger is a healthy response to distressing situations, but it can become an issue when it negatively affects children's learning or quality of life.
What causes anger issues in children?
Childhood anger issues can be caused by mental health conditions, genetics, biological factors, and environmental factors, including:
- ADHD—Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with impulse control and have difficulty managing their responses to frustration and impatience, leading to irritability and angry outbursts.
- Autism—Children on the autism spectrum may have more difficulty managing their emotions than their peers. Communication difficulties, sensory issues, and disrupted routines are some of the challenges that can cause anger issues in children with autism.
- Tourette syndrome—Children with Tourette syndrome struggle to filter their thoughts and emotions. They may also experience emotional overload and explosive outbursts. Children who experience these outbursts may yell, throw things, or call people names in response to a change in routine or unmet expectations.
- Trauma—Children who have experienced trauma may have difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing their emotions. Past trauma may cause children to have frequent, powerful reactions to their environment and struggle to calm down when upset.
- ODD—Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a behavioral disorder caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors, including mood disorders, neurological issues, and inconsistent parenting. Children with oppositional defiant disorder lose their tempers quickly, have frequent angry outbursts, deliberately try to upset others, and actively refuse to comply with rules and requests.
How to deal with a child with anger issues in the classroom
When one of your children has a tantrum or angry outburst in the classroom, it can be difficult for you to teach and difficult for your children to learn. To manage your classroom effectively, you need to know how to de-escalate a child's tantrum by responding to the tantrum in a way that controls, diffuses, or calms the situation.
The mirror-and-match technique
One de-escalation technique to try is the mirror-and-match technique to validate children's feelings and de-escalate their tantrums. The mirror-and-match technique activates mirror neurons in a child’s brain to de-escalate their anger. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Show validation during a child's outburst.
Mirror your child's posture and volume to show them their feelings are important.
As you mirror your child's posture, validate their feelings by saying something like, “I can tell you’re having big feelings. I want to understand what you're feeling.” This will help you connect with your child instead of pushing them away or escalating the situation.
Step 2: Gradually make yourself smaller.
Once your child understands that you care and are serious about their situation, gradually make yourself smaller. Relax your body to see if your child’s mirror neurons mimic this behavior.
As you start to unwind, continue expressing validating statements or repeating what your child says. If your child's posture, tone, or attitude softens, keep relaxing. You may want to ask your child to sit down with you or go for a walk.
Step 3: Start a calm conversation.
When your child has calmed down a bit, try asking them yes or no questions about how they feel. As they continue to calm down, ask them open-ended questions. If your child begins answering your open-ended questions, they’re calming down, and they’re a step closer to solving the problem at hand.
Help your child use their senses to calm down
Encourage your child to use the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique to calm down when they feel angry or stressed. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Have your child sit quietly, take a deep breath, and look around the room.
Step 2: Ask your child to name five things they can see in the room, such as tables, other children, their hands, cubbies, and posters. Help them count the five items they see on their fingers.
Step 3: Ask your child to name four things they can feel in the room, such as their chair, their clothes, toys, and the floor. Help them count the four items on their fingers.
Step 4: Ask your child to name three things they can hear, such as their voice, teachers speaking, and birds outside. Help them count the three items on their fingers.
Step 5: Ask your child to name two things they can smell in the room, such as finger paint and their snack. Help them to count the two items on their fingers.
Step 6: Ask your child to name one thing they can taste, such as their lunch.
This technique uses the five senses to help your child feel present in the moment and focus on their surroundings instead of the cause of their anger.
Create a calm-down corner
A calm-down corner in your classroom provides children with tools to manage their anger. Stock an area in your classroom with art supplies, soft seating, stuffed animals, and a feelings chart that helps children identify their emotions.
When a child is angry, encourage the child to tear construction paper or colorful tissue paper into small pieces to release their anger. Then, have them glue the pieces of paper to a coloring sheet. This activity helps children redirect their anger to a calming, creative project.
How to teach children anger management skills
Teaching your children anger management skills will help them learn to regulate their emotions and express their anger safely and will teach them that their actions have consequences.
Teach how to redirect anger
It can be difficult for young children to separate their feelings from their behavior. For instance, a child may hit someone because they are angry and lack the skills and impulse control to manage their anger.
Help children to separate their feelings from their behavior by teaching them to redirect their anger by jumping up and down, ripping paper, or painting an angry picture to relieve their anger and aggression in a healthy way.
Set classroom rules
Establish classroom rules that outline the expectations for behavior in your classroom. Your guidelines should be simple, short, and clear so they are easy for your children to understand. Focus on the positive behavior you want such as “Use quiet voices inside” and “Treat others with kindness” rather than a list of what not to do.
You can encourage the positive behaviors that you would like your children to demonstrate by offering them positive consequences, such as adding stickers to a reward chart when they display positive behavior. Giving children positive consequences when they demonstrate these behaviors encourages them to repeat the behaviors in the future and reinforces that the behaviors are appropriate.
Model appropriate anger management skills
Children learn by watching and listening to how others act. One of the best ways to teach children anger management skills is to show them how you handle your own feelings of anger. For example, if children see you lose your temper, they’ll likely model the same behavior. However, if they see you react in a calm way with a soft voice, they will learn to behave in a similar way.
Anger management activities for children
Help your children improve their anger management skills with these activities.
This activity uses stuffed animals to teach children to breathe deeply to release their anger and calm down.
- Have your children lie down and put a teddy bear on their tummies.
- Ask them to inhale deeply as you count to three.
- Ask them to exhale slowly as you count to four.
- Have your children watch the teddy bear rise and fall as they breathe in and out, as if they are rocking the teddy bear to sleep.
- Repeat five to ten times.
Research shows that molding clay, such as playdough, has a neurological effect that helps to induce a meditative state and eliminate fighting impulses and anger. Have your children squeeze, stretch, roll, and smash balls of playdough to express their feelings of aggression and relieve their anger creatively.
Have children paint a picture of their anger:
- Ask children to imagine what their anger would look like if it were alive.
- Have your children paint their interpretations of their anger and name it.
- When your children have finished their paintings, ask them why they see their anger in that particular way. The answers can explain a lot about your children's inner feelings.
DIY stress ball
This activity uses a balloon, cornstarch, and water to create a stress ball. Activating and relaxing the muscles of the hand by squeezing a stress ball can help a child release tension in their muscles, which may help them relieve stress.
To make a stress ball, you'll need:
- A balloon
- A funnel
- A toothpick or small craft stick
How to make a stress ball:
- Stretch out a balloon and place the funnel's spout in the balloon’s opening.
- Add a tablespoon of water to the inside of the balloon.
- Add a tablespoon of cornstarch to the inside of the balloon. Use a toothpick or small craft stick to help tap the cornstarch into the funnel.
- Gently squeeze the balloon to help the cornstarch dissolve in the water.
- Continue to add water and cornstarch to the balloon until the stress ball has the firmness you want.
- Tie a knot in the opening of the balloon to seal it.
Explosive or aggressive childhood anger can disrupt your teaching and create a stressful environment for your children. However, you can help the children in your program learn to manage their anger by using anger management techniques, teaching the children anger management skills, and incorporating activities that help them express and manage their anger.