Helping an Angry Child

Several emotions come over us following a traumatic experience, such as the death of a family member. We each find coping mechanisms to deal with these experiences – some healthy, some not. Working with parents and teens, one of the most frequent negative physical response to grief I have heard is the violent expression of anger.

Before diving into this topic, the one point I want to make clear is that if child is regularly expressing his or her emotions in physically or verbally violent ways, as a parent/guardian, you need to find support for him or her. In the form of a therapist (the right therapist, with whom the child can relate), or support group, or camp. Each child is different, but the end need is a support system to help your child get to the root of his or her anger and begin to address it, instead of letting it take over. With that in mind, I’d like to talk more about anger and aggression in grieving children and teens.

The reason I can connect with the issue, is I was once an aggressive teen.

There were years that I would terrorize the household, while behaving perfectly well in school setting. Generally, home is a safe environment. No matter what we do at home, no matter how far we push our boundaries, no matter how bad we treat the people around us, home will always be there. You can’t be expelled, like at school. You won’t be arrested, like in the real world. Family won’t stop talking to you, like friends can. Surrounded by this sense of safety, children and teens may demonstrate a more heightened sense of anger, frustration, and fear than they will outside the family environment.

While verbal or physical violent behavior is never acceptable, home is where children can be vulnerable and vent. As a parent, if you can understand that the behavior you see at the home is not necessarily because of negative feelings your child has toward you and the family, the better prepared you will be to work with, and understand your child.

Also know that while your child may seem to take the worst of his or her anger out on you, he or she most likely does not hate you. Most teens feel guilty and/or ashamed of their behaviors after an emotional outburst, but they do not yet have the coping skills to come back and apologize. As a parent, you won’t always get the apology you deserve. Your child does not know how to clean up the mess they’ve created. Rest assured these negative behaviors are likely stemming from something else. Unfortunately, the true cause can be under several layers of things… but there is a core to the anger. And your child can learn to cope with these feelings in more healthy ways.

All people, including grieving children and teens, are allowed to be sad, and even allowed to be angry. But no one is allowed to act out in violent or damaging ways. As a parent, you are allow to set those boundaries. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Every emotion is acceptable in grief. It’s the ways in which we express those emotions that are healthy or unhealthy.

Most teenagers do not like to consider themselves as needing “help.” They don’t want to be “rescued.” They don’t want to be different, and they don’t want to be told what to do. But, as the parent, it is your right, and your duty to say – this behavior is not acceptable, and because of this behavior, we are doing _____. The blank being counseling, support groups, therapy, whatever help your child and family may need.

As your child’s parent, you know him or her best. Take a moment to look at who your child was before and after the loss. Has his or her behavior changed, or are they acting out similarly, but in bigger ways? Are these all new behaviors, or are they heightened behaviors? What was the environment previously? How does that play into his or her reactions now? When is your child the happiest; when is your child most upset? What causes your child to lose his or her temper? Is it happening everywhere? Does it happen right when he or she comes home, or when you ask him or her to do things, or when siblings are around, etc? Explore these questions not for the purpose of avoiding the situation, and walking on eggshells around your child, but rather to become aware of the triggers so that you are not as caught off guard when an outburst happens.

While often difficult in a time of chaos, seek to recognize positive behaviors from your child. It is easier to catch someone doing something bad, and let the good pass by unnoticed. Pay more attention to the good things. Recognize those, but not in a patronizing manner. Don’t spend too much time on it that it seems fake. Instead, give a quick “thank you,” for helping around the house, or going out of his or her way to help you or a sibling. Be specific in your positive feedback.

By no means is it easy parenting a child who is coping by violent outbursts. Nor is parenting such a child cookie-cutter. These times are difficult, and trying. You and your child need an unbiased, trusted source, removed from each other, that you can each vent to. Explore what resources are near you. Seek out programs that engage your child’s natural form of communication (peer support, art, talking, writing, physical activity, etc).

If your child does not want to go, remember that you are the parent, and you make the rules. Initially, your child may be even more mad at you. But as the parent, you need to stay focused on your long-term goals. Learning to positively cope with emotion is the key to long-term peace for your child and your family. It may not be easy at first. But, you cannot continue to function in a home with violent outbursts. It’s not good for you, your child, or anyone else in the home.

Find the right counselor. Find the right format. Stay patient, and remember that behind the mask of anger, your teen is a vulnerable child in need of parental guidance and support. Even if he or she fights it in the beginning.

25 Comments:

  1. sarah byers said on August 11, 2010 at 6:09 pm ... #

    My 2 year old is having violant outbursts. There hasn’t been a death in the family. So I’m wondering if it could be something else. Its been really rough for us the past few months. How old can a child be to see a therapist?

  2. admin said on August 13, 2010 at 9:37 am ... #

    There are several factors that might be causing the angry outbursts. Without specifics or knowing the family history it might be in the best interest of the child for you to discuss with his/her pediatrician. The pediatrician can make recommendations on next steps –Pete

  3. Katherine Coronel said on August 18, 2010 at 10:36 pm ... #

    My oldest does not have an anger issue, but it has been brought to my attention from her school psychologist that she has developed a sense of unhealthy control. She needs to be in complete control of her surroundings and situations at school. How can I help her? I don’t see it at home, but it may be because I am her mother. She suffers from PTSD as a direct result of the car accident that took her fathers life.

  4. Matt Mahan said on August 22, 2010 at 8:10 pm ... #

    Pete, I really enjoyed being in your red healing cirlce this week in the august camp. This is Matt and I really enjoy this website and reading all these amazing stories! I was cruising through this website and found your name and looked at the articles. I hope to see you/ be in your healing circle again next year

    -Matt

  5. pete said on August 25, 2010 at 12:57 pm ... #

    Katherine,

    If you click on the CZC button on the bottom of this page you can get my contact info. Please feel free to email me. I do have some suggestions that might assist you and your daughter.

    i look forward to hearing from you.

  6. pete said on August 25, 2010 at 12:59 pm ... #

    Matt,

    It was a pleasure having you in group and seeing what an amazing job you did. I look forward to many more camps.

    who’s house…. RED’s house!!!

  7. Joslyn said on September 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm ... #

    My husband and I were raising 2 of my 7 grandchildren until he passed on February 6, 2010. At the time, neither child was home when it happened. He fell in th snow on the side of our home. At first the children didn’t and would not talk about him. In time they began to open up but the oldest has become very angry. My husband has been in her life since she was born. She attends a children’s grief support group. My question: does she need more support or will time be enough to heal her pain.

  8. Diane Moran said on October 6, 2010 at 10:07 pm ... #

    I would like to respond to Joslyn: Take your granddaughter to a grief counselor – someone who specializes in loss, particularly sudden, traumatic loss. It is so important to note that time does nothing for the deep wounds emanating from a loss. If you had a deep cut, you would think I was crazy if I told you to just leave it alone and let time take care of it. Groups for kids can be so helpful, but you also need to be careful that the traumatic grief responses are addressed, which are very different from normal grief responses. And since you are raising your grandchildren, can I assume these kids have experienced other losses. I must close by saying how fortunate they are to have a Nana who is caring for them after a loss that you are grieving as well. I wish you peace.

  9. Linda said on April 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm ... #

    I have a neighbor who’s wife passed very unexpectedly. She just fell dead at work. She was young and had two young children ages 8 and 10. The children never really have let go and cried. They don’t talk about their mom. We are there sitters before and after school while dad works and does his extra outdoor activities. We have noticed that the children when they are at home with their dad, are really taking a lot of anger out on him. They yell at him, tell him that he hates them, and sometime give small threats. The father doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with them. I think they really need some help grieving the death of their mother. Should we say something to the father? He is a really close friend, hes like family? Can anyone give any guidance?

  10. pete said on April 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm ... #

    Linda, i do think that your relationship with the children and father allow you to have a voice. I would recommend starting a conversation about the children’s grief needs. The children are dealing with a lot of change and need somewhere to vent that frustration / fear. I also feel that anytime a child makes a “threat” there should be discussion about the threat. The father might appreciate your concern, support, and / or advice. Please know that the father is grieving too and may feel completely overwhelmed by the death of his wife and the fact that he is now the “only” care taker.

    When / if you talk to the father. Make sure that you totally listen to what he says. He is grieving and will likely model the behavior that the kids will adopt. Meaning, if the father is not talking the kids are probably not talking either. Give the father the chance to share all his emotions… be ready for a flood gate to open or for awkward silence. Both are appropriate… death is not easy to discuss.

    I commend you for being fiercely devoted to the father and children. How lucky they are to have you! Your family has already offered a tremendous support.

  11. helen said on September 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm ... #

    I am so worried about my children. My husband passed away 7 years ago when our children were aged 3years (son) and 3months old (daughter), 2 years ago myself and my children moved into a new home with a new man I had developed a strong friendship with (hoping I guess that it would grow into love and we would be happy as a ‘family’ unit together) now 7 (going on 8) and 11 years old they are coping with the recent news that this new man in their life is no longer living with us as we have decided to separate. Though deep down I know this is the right decision for us, I am really struggling with managing all our our emotions on a daily basis. My son, who seemed to be at conflict the most with his substitute dad/friend, is missing him terribly, I have not stopped contact for my sons sake, though it is all a little strange and awkward given that they really didn’t seem to enjoy spending time together when he lived with us. My daughter is blocking this all out completely, changes the subject at any mention of it all, as she has always done if the subject of her dad or her dad’s death was raised. My son seems to have transferred his grief for his dad onto this other man, though different, still a loss to him, and basically we are all incredibly angry…at each other, at oursleves, at life. My son went to bed crying this evening (as he does most nights at the moment) asking me ‘what are we going to do mum?’ when I asked what he meant by that he said ‘…to be happy, how are we going to be happy?’ any advice appreciated, I am feeling so helpless.
    thanks, Helen

  12. Jo said on October 27, 2011 at 5:30 pm ... #

    My children lost thee father coming up to 5 years ago to a horrific accident of which they where the back seat passengers. There father died on top of them..They were both lucky to be alive hitting a brick wall at 69mph. Its been hard. It happened at xmas. My sons were4 & 5 at the time, and are now 9&10. Except every xmas they hurt as you would expect and you think i would have the answers.. But my son is so angry this year, hitting his other brother..other children..loosing his temper. He has always found it hard to talk about his dad. When it happened he wouldnt speak for 4 days, he was silent. I later found out his girlfriend had thrown pl;ates and all sorts at him before he left on the journey to bring me my children home. At the inquest we found he had taken drugs. Unforgivable!!! Why did she let him out the door!!!!! I hate her! The man my ex hit .. his arm was way in the back of the car with my son. Im struggling with this.. how on earth is my son coping. We have been to therapy for a few years now. Therapy has finished. Im thinking we need to go back.. Life is such a struggle, but we need to keep going. What am i going to do with this little fella that i love more than anything in the whole wide world.. my other son is struggling too. I need to get them thru this.. Any advice .. I loe them i hug themn.. buti cant bring back there daddy.. if i could id kick his ass x

  13. Michelle said on April 16, 2012 at 4:52 am ... #

    After the death of my mother my 10 year old has become very angry iv been to the doctor but they never helped I was wondering if there is any thing that I could do to try and help her as it’s effecting my other children .

  14. Jenny said on April 27, 2012 at 7:20 am ... #

    My father recently passed on christmas day and it was a sudden shock to us all. He died infront of his children, in-laws and grandchildren. I am quite worried about my 21 year old daughter who saw her grandfather pass. She was always with him since she was born, and grew an un-breakable bond with her grandparents. I have noticed ever since that day, she hasn’t been herself, she gets angry and frustrated everytime he is mentioned, and will get upset often. She pulls herself away from everyone, and won’t talk about her feelings to anyone. I am worried and don’t know what to do. My daughter and I had a close bond, as well as herself and grandmother but since that day, it hasn’t been the same. Could you please advise me, I am feel helpless. Thanks

  15. Pete said on April 30, 2012 at 8:47 am ... #

    Jenny,

    Anger, frustration, and fear can be very natural emotions and responses to grief or death. It is difficult to say for sure where the anger is coming from, since I don’t personally know your daughter or family. That being said, anger could be a product of guilt. It is possible she feels guilt because she was present. Being present at the time of death is a traumatic event and can complicate grief even further. I suggest private (one to one) sessions with a clinician who fits your daughter’s personality. The trick will be convincing your 21 year old daughter, who is an adult, to go to counseling. It might be worth listening to why she doesn’t want to talk about her grandfather. Even in the midst of an angry outburst, we are communicating. Try not responding to the symptom, which is anger, and attempt instead to extract what she is really trying to communicate. Also, approach her about her feelings about loss when her grandfather isn’t the topic of discussion, such as time in the car or in the form of a short letter if she isn’t responsive to verbal communication.

    I applaud your desire to understand what how and why your daughter is exhibiting anger. Know that anger is not necessarily an unhealthy emotion as long as she is not harming herself or anyone else. Check out an organization called AMF (www.studentsofamf.org ). AMF is for college age individuals who have had a death.

    Grief is like a fingerprint. It is unique to every person. I would imagine your daughter feels that her relationship with her grandfather was one of a kind too. My suggestion to you is to hold your “truth” to make way for her “truth”. Listen to everything she says and validate by using healthy body language and supportive tone. Your daughter might be looking for unconditional support not necessarily someone to “fix” the situation.

    Please let me know if anything is unclear or if you need any additional support/advice.

    Pete

  16. Erin said on September 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm ... #

    Hi Pete,

    Loved your anger article. My kids and I have just moved back to my hometown(Richmond west end) after losing their father to cancer over one year ago. I would like to conncet my son with a strong male therapist and am finding that to be very challenging. My son is not having issues at school but definitely vomits his anger out at home. He keeps peers at a distance which concerns me. Do you do 1:1 counseling with 12 yr olds? If not who do you recommend? He is very bright with strong verbal abilities! Also, I have tried multiple times to get my kids into a comfort zone camp, how many times of registration typically is it before you get in? Thank you for your assistance!

    E-

  17. erma said on November 27, 2012 at 9:01 am ... #

    My husband passed away Nov. 30, 2011 after fighting cancer for 11 months. Our kids were 4 & 6 during the “watching” phase. My now 7year old didn’t say a lot during those 11 months – kept to himself and watched. 7 months after his dad’s passing, changed. He’s yelling, hitting, defiant. I had him in counseling the 1st 7 months & it didn’t seem to help. We stopped counseling because he hated to go & he promised that if he would talk to me. I don’t know what to do. Should I get him in hospice “grief” counseling? Find another therapist? When he’s good, he’s good. You mentioned tha that you were only angry at home. Thats how he is. Only at home but anger toward his younger sister & everyone else. He’s gotten a lot better since school started back. Easier. But he still has issues. Any advice?

  18. Jennifer said on January 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm ... #

    Well back in oct of 2010 my boys loss there dad. We were coming home from alil fishing trip when his dad saw a lady on the side of the road. We stopped…well long story short we(my oldest ,and me) saw his dad get hit by a car tryn to help someone. And pass an hr later. (my son and his dad were very close!!) He hasnt really cried nor has he talked or wanted to talk bout it to anybody!! he was goin to counseling but didnt get nowhere!! This past year his grades been dropping, his attitude is super ugly, hes always trying to pick fights with his little couisions and brother, beats the dogs always talks back! getting written up in school getting sent to iss,doesnt want to help around the house. I have started dating and at 1st he was very mean to my new boyfriend so my bf tried to give him his space but even him to now says hes getting unruly and is being very disrespctful at time! They get along very well now but of course theres the ups and downs!! iv tried sports which he did like and im gonna try em again but as for the rest i STILL DONT KNOW HOW TO HELP HIM IF HE WONT TALK TO ANYBODY BOUT HOW HE FEELS!!!!!!!!!! I NEED ANY ADVICE!!!!! ima put him back in counseling but somewhere different and back in sports!! Any advice would help thanks!!!

  19. Jennifer said on January 1, 2013 at 11:09 pm ... #

    oh and my son is only 10 now and in 5th grade he was about 7 when that happened

  20. alicia said on June 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm ... #

    recently my 4 year old little boy lost his papa that he was very close to and I’m about 8 1/2 months pregnant with my 2nd boy.since his papa’s passing he no longer wants to go to bed or listen he has anger spurts and then doesnt understand why we are upset when he throws one of these fits.He is usually a very happy child and very sweet but now he says he doesn’t like us ect but when we ask him to explain why he’s so upset he’ll say I don’t want to talk anymore and try to change subject what can i do to get my sweet baby back and help him through this hard time????

  21. cayla said on December 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm ... #

    Hi,I hav a 7 year daughter,she was 4 when he dad passed on,I’m currently studying as a 4th year nursing student,my child is staying with her father’s parents,I only c her 3 times per year,she started to show aggresive behaviour problems and trowing tantrums since 5 years of age,its getting worse now,but it only occur at home,she is an academic and sports achiever at school,but do fight at school,she never saw a therapist,I’m concern about her condition c that the grandparents haven’t done anything and I’m far away from home and only come on weekends 3 times a year

  22. August said on March 13, 2014 at 9:02 pm ... #

    My 15 year old son just lost his father. He was living with his father in another state along with his half brother and stepmother. I let him move there a year and half ago. Now that his father is gone has been taking his anger out on me and refuses to come home. I agreed to let him stay until the end of the school year but he is fighting me every step of the way and is refusing to come back ever. His stepmom is supporting his decision on this and is not supporting the fact that I am his mom and want him home. I am trying to be understanding and giving him time to grieve and say goodbye to his friends he has made there but its killing me that he won’t talk to me and doesn’t want to come home. We have always been close until now..any advise?

  23. Melissa said on May 3, 2014 at 12:54 am ... #

    To Alicia who commented on June 4th 2013. How is your son doing? How are you doing? We just lost my husband less then a month ago. My son is 4 and I’m 36 weeks pregnant with our second boy. My 4 year old is angry and won’t open up to me. Your story sounds like mine. Would love to hear how your year has been. Don’t know if you’ll ever read this though. Not sure how this commenting thing works anyway.

  24. Kerry said on June 10, 2014 at 6:44 pm ... #

    My sister inlaw died just over a year ago. She was 36 and died of cancer. Her name was Michele. her and my brother had two boys they were 8 and 11 at the time with their birthdays shortly after they never cried at the funeral and haven’t shown any emotions the oldest showed abit of anger after but it passed. Until now he is so angry for a 13 year old my brother said he told him he misses his mum and let him hug and kiss him for the first time before his mum died. We don’t know what to do! They should of seen someone straight away but they didn’t we have spoilt them tried to give them every thing which I now know is wrong he addicted to his xbox I think that’s his escape ge never want to do anything else! But his anger is scary of a13 yearold the younest also has anger. My brother has reasently met someone and I think this is adding or is the cause of it. It breaks my heart to see the children like this but who knows how they are feeling what they are thinking what they remember of their mum she died in pain it was awful beyond words what should we do about the children there not the type to really open up we tell them we love them and they can talk to us about anything but they don’t I just want them to be happy

  25. problem child said on July 2, 2014 at 4:25 am ... #

    My mom died in 96 I was 4 and my dad went to prison wen I was 6 lived with his brother and his wife beat my ass every day while she would love her 2 boys in front of me now that im older I have a really bad anger probably to the point were I get violent and I can5 even talk to my dad with out fighting what do I do I am in n3ed of help or tips

Leave a Comment

Your email is never shared.

By submitting a comment, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions.