Here’s the first thing you should know: Anger is a perfectly healthy and normal emotional response. And there are many reasons why your kid might experience it. “Anger is a superficial, or secondary emotion, meaning it is a response to another emotion being triggered first,” explains Dr. Cook. So, what kind of primary feelings might make a person see red? This varies depending on the situation and the individual’s temperament, but sadness, fear, frustration, shame and anxiety are common culprits. Unfortunately, these not-so pleasant primary emotions are a part of life, even more so for young kids who are constantly mastering new skills and being confronted with unknown situations. In other words, it’s entirely unsurprising that toddlers have a reputation for blowing a gasket on the regular.
“It’s a natural part of growing up and learning to regulate emotions,” explains Dr. Cook. In fact, a child younger than 4 may have as many as nine tantrums per week, with episodes of crying, kicking, stomping, hitting and pushing that last five to 10 minutes, says Denis Sukhodolsky, a clinical psychologist with Yale Medicine Child Study Center. So if your toddler is experiencing intense feelings of anger on the regular, you can chalk it up to normal growing pains. That said, just because the height of the temper tantrum phase is in the rearview, that doesn’t mean your kid has banished the angry feelings or mastered the coping skills needed to deal with them.
Kids express anger in a variety of different ways, but parents should pay special attention to any display of emotion where aggression is present, says Dr. Cook. This includes active physical or verbal aggression towards self (like calling themselves stupid, cutting or otherwise harming themselves) or others (hitting or hurting peers and family or name calling). It also can take the form of passive-aggression toward self (things like neglecting personal hygiene, refusing to eat or keep healthy sleep patterns) or others (like refusing to complete chores or schoolwork). No matter how your child’s unresolved anger manifests, the bottom line is that all these behaviors are a cry for help, explains Dr. Cook. Fortunately, there are a few strategies that you can enlist to help teach your kid healthy ways to respond to these big feelings. However, Dr. Cook reminds parents that if all else fails and the behaviors continue to intensify, there’s no shame in reaching out to a professional directly for more support.