When Should I Worry? A Discussion About Anger

As the owner and clinical director of In Step, there are many nights I am in the practice seeing clients, observing groups, and/or providing supervision. On many of these nights, I head out into the waiting room to talk to parents while they wait for their children. Lately, the focus of our conversations mirror the ones I am having with my own friends and family. We are all talking about anger; anger that leads to so much suffering and loss. In these discussions, there is only so much reassurance I can provide without sounding trite. So I am going to enter the conversation with 25 years of experience working with children and families to offer some “what to look for” signs if you feel concerned that your child, teen or young adult likely needs professional aid developing more healthy coping strategies when they experience strong emotions.

Pre-School

Developmentally Appropriate: You would expect your pre-school/kindergartener to be egocentric and to have mood swings. Especially when they are tired or hungry, your child will have meltdowns and may lash out physically to self and others. At other times, your young child shows signs of empathy towards others and may even cry when others cry.

May Need Additional Help: If your child is melting down several times a day and is both intense and takes a long time to calm down then you may want to speak to a professional who can evaluate the behavior and help you help your child with their anger.

Elementary Age

Developmentally Appropriate: Your child is now able to express anger with less fanfare. They may become frustrated at school and with classmates, but they are typically now able to express their feelings in words. Tantrums and outbursts are a rare occurrence.

May Need Additional Help: If your child is continuing to have regular outbursts or is exhibiting behavior that is dangerous to themselves or to others, they may be communicating distress. If the manner in which your child expresses anger is causing trouble at school or is causing a lot of conflict at home, it may be time to seek professional help. A professional can help you figure out what may be triggering the anger and then can help you remediate where needed.

Middle School

Developmentally Appropriate: Middle schoolers are moody; one minute they are happy, and the next they are upset. The intersection of developing bodies and raging hormones, increased demands, and social challenges can make it difficult to recognize your own child sometimes. They can be argumentative and surly, easily annoyed, and emotionally reactive.

May Need Additional Help: If your middle schooler expresses anger with aggression, i.e. throwing things, hitting, pushing, punching walls, physically hurting pets or siblings, and/or verbal abuse then they and you need help. There are many underlying causes of aggressive behavior; your child may be depressed, anxious, have ADHD, using substances, or experiencing stress or trauma. In addition to a medical evaluation and treatment, individual, family, or group therapy approaches can help your child learn to manage anger more effectively.

High School

Developmentally Appropriate: As your teenager is dealing with increased challenges ahead, you may see periods of regression when they express anger less adaptively. It is not unusual for a teen to be intolerant of parental input, advice, or constructive criticism. Your teen is learning how to take responsibility for their own choices and life decisions, and they may communicate their struggle with growing up in ugly ways, such as snarkiness, overreacting to perceived slights, or a cranky attitude.

May Need Additional Help: But, if you notice your teen is getting angrier and angrier, is becoming increasingly rigid, defensive, isolated, and/or explosive, then this is a problem that needs addressing. Your teenager’s behavior indicates distress. When your child is in high school, you still have the authority to get the help that is needed. After they have left your home, you have a bit less leverage, but you can still suggest professional help in a supportive way. Try saying:

“You may be really happy when you are with your friends. As your (Dad/Mom), I get that. But, from my perspective, you seem really unhappy lately. I am all ears if you want to talk, but if you don’t want to talk to me, there are other people you can talk to. And I’ll be happy to help with the cost.”

The best piece of advice I can share in regards to the troubling behavior of adults, is to start helping them as children. None of the stories in the news are about shootings perpetrated by men and women who woke up one day without any control over their emotions. Most of the time it is a learned behavior. The good news is that we can begin teaching better coping skills from day one. These guidelines I am providing might be the start of your own family discussion. If you decide that you want to talk further about your concerns, please don’t hesitate to call us and we will do our best to help you take the next step.

Cathi