Anger: Helping Children Cope With This Complex Emotion
What is anger?
Anger is a fundamental emotion felt by all people. It is normal and often healthy. When it gets out of control, however, anger can become destructive. In children this can lead to difficulties with family, with peers, and with school performance. Similar to other emotions, anger is accompanied by physiological changes. For example, when you get angry both your heart rate and blood pressure may increase. Anger can be caused by both internal and external events. For example, a child could become angry because he feels that his grades in school are not good enough (internal) or a child could become angry because she was pushed by a sibling (external).
The natural way to express anger is to respond with aggression. It is the instinctive response to believed physical or verbal threats. Responding aggressively in every threatening situation, however, is not healthy or safe. Aggressive acts can lead to social problems, difficulties with family members, troubles with the law, and physical or emotional harm. Therefore, it is important that children, at an early age, are taught effective, healthy ways of controlling their anger.
What does anger look like at different ages?
In early childhood, children begin to master the ability to suppress physically aggressive impulses (pushing, hitting, pinching, biting, yelling) when they are angry. Preschool-aged children are learning to identify basic emotional states in themselves and others with the use of words. However, it is common to see young children resort to physically acting out behaviors (throwing toys, pushing or hitting a parent or peer) as they are still becoming accustomed to using words to express their feelings.
As children age, they develop more sophisticated language skills and begin to be able to take the perspective of others. They develop empathy and are better able to understand the effect their actions and words have on others. By the later elementary grades, children should be able to express angry feelings verbally as opposed to physically. However, children with language difficulties or difficulties controlling impulses frequently struggle with managing angry feelings and may resort to physically acting out, yelling, or refusing to obey school or household rules.
Teenagers have a whole new set of stressors and concerns that may trigger angry, frustrated feelings, including an increased need for independence and privacy, in addition to increased academic, social and work demands. Some teens express frustration and anger by refusing to verbalize feelings and thoughts while others act out physically by throwing objects or slamming doors. A handful of teens will have difficulty managing physically aggressive impulses and their acting out may escalate to the point of aggression towards others. Peer culture can also play a significant role in the acceptance of verbal or physical aggression as an appropriate response to angry feelings.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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