Anger is a normal and healthy reaction when things don’t go the way we expected, life feels unfair or people upset or hurt us. It can be a helpful thing - letting us know that something is wrong or not okay with us.
It’s normal for children and young people to find it difficult to manage their angry feelings sometimes, and it’s helpful to remember that the part of our brain that helps us do this doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our mid-20s.
Anger can become a problem for your child if it feels overwhelming or unmanageable, makes them unhappy, affects their relationships or is expressed through unhelpful or destructive behaviours – towards either themselves or other people.
Angry feelings and aggressive behaviour can be really hard to deal with as a parent, and can have a huge effect on family life. If you’re going through this, remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are things you can do to make the situation better, and places where you can find support if you need to. Here, we’ve got strategies you can use to help you respond and advice on when to seek further help and where to get it.
What is anger like for young people?
If your child can't tell you in words, they will often use their behaviour to let you know how they’re feeling. A young person who is feeling angry may:
- be outwardly aggressive – acting aggressively towards other people, including shouting, hitting or breaking things
- be inwardly aggressive – hurting themselves, for example by self-harming, or being very self-critical
- be passively aggressive – withdrawing, ignoring people, being sarcastic or sulking
- feel things in their body like a racing heart, feeling hot or tensing their muscles – for example clenching their fists
- seem tense, unable to relax or easily irritated
- find it difficult to concentrate.
Underneath these behaviours, a young person who seems very angry may also be feeling things like fear, stress, sadness, hurt or worry – or might be struggling to cope with a difficult experience at school, at home or in another part of their life that they feel unable to talk about.
It can be helpful to remember that a person who’s feeling angry a lot of the time probably isn’t feeling very happy – and while it might not be obvious, what they often need is support. Supporting children and young people to put their feelings into words can help them to feel less overwhelming, making it less likely that they will need to act out.
For some young people, feeling more irritable or angrier than usual can be a sign that they are struggling with low mood, depression or anxiety – especially if it goes on for a long period of time without changing.
How can I help my child?
In a calm moment, try to explore what’s making them angry, focusing on letting them talk and listening to what it’s like for them. Trust your instincts about picking the right moment, and remember that you know your child better than most people.
You can find more tips on guide to starting a conversation with your child here
It might help to text, write a letter, go for a walk together or do an activity while you’re talking to help them relax. You could also try spending five or ten minutes checking in with them each evening to encourage them to open up.
Recognising the triggers and patterns that alert them to the fact that they’re getting angry can help them to take action before it becomes overwhelming. Keeping a diary or journal may make it easier for both of you to think this through – and apps such as ThinkNinja (for 10-18-year-olds) and HeadSpace can help them to track their feelings. This video by Braive might also help you to understand how stress and overwhelming feelings can build up in a person's life.
Some young people will find relaxing techniques useful. This could be things like:
- listening to music
- colouring or drawing
- taking deep breaths or doing a breathing technique
Teenagers might like to do this using a mindfulness or meditation app such as Headspace or Calm. Often, people who are feeling angry breathe in more than they breathe out – so a good trick is to focus on breathing out for a few counts longer than they breath in, which can help their body to relax.
Some young people will find active techniques useful. This could be things like:
- punching a pillow
- throwing a ball
- ripping or screwing up newspaper
- playing sport
- running or going for a walk
When things are calm, think together about what happens when they’re angry, how they’d like you to respond, how they might be able to express their anger and what the consequences will be for any behaviour that crosses a boundary. Your child may have ideas of their own, and the more involved they are in discussing this, the more likely they are to engage later on.
While boundaries do need to adapt as your child gets older, it’s still important to keep a stable foundation in place, particularly if things are feeling unsettled. Hold appropriate boundaries and be consistent with consequences – remembering that when young people are angry they can also feel frightened about how out of control things seem. While they might not like it, they do need stability and consistency from you, and consequences will help them to understand what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
Your child learns more from you than you may realise. None of us are perfect and that’s okay, but if you lose your temper you can show your child how to respond afterwards. For example, when you’re feeling calmer, apologise, explain what was going on and then let it go. You might say, "I’m sorry I got angry earlier, I was getting upset about the situation. I want to be able to help. Is there anything I can do to make things better for you?"
If they’re struggling, there are places where they can find help and support – and you can find out more about this below.
Young people tell us it helps to:
- think of the bigger picture: will this bother me in a year?
- try and say why you're angry, and remember that time alone to calm yourself down is okay.
- take some time to think about how your actions are affecting others, and try to remember people are usually trying to help you.
- apologise if you have harmed someone – and if you have hurt yourself, apologise to yourself.
- figure out why you reacted like that so you can recognise it next time before it's too late.
- tell someone if they’ve made you angry, or talk to someone else about it.
- remind yourself that the emotion is valid.