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My child has outbursts of anger and aggression. What do I do?

We express a range of emotions through behaviours, especially young children. Most children have occasional tantrums or meltdowns. This is often an attempt to communicate their needs and feelings when they can’t find the right words, as language is developing.

When children and youth are overwhelmed with feelings and situations, they may show this with anger and/or tears. Aggression is a behaviour that is often a cry out to feel heard and offload big feelings. Underneath this behaviour, a young person may be feeling other emotions like frustration, sadness, anger, worry, or struggling to cope with a difficult experience.

When this behaviour becomes frequent, seems to have become their usual way of reacting, or is threatening, it’s time to step in with guidance and help your child understand and cope with their feelings/emotions with healthy strategies.

How you respond to an outburst depends on its severity. As a child gets older, aggression also becomes more unsafe for you and the child.

Tips to prevent outbursts and manage big emotions

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  • Teach them skills to use. Talk about what they can do when their anger starts to brew, such as talking to a trusted friend or relative about why they're angry, breathing deeply when they sense an angry outburst coming on, practicing other relaxation exercises or mindfulness.
  • Learn what triggers them. Are outbursts happening in patterns or at common times - like around homework or bedtime? Do they happen at times of transition – like when it’s time to stop playing a game? Are they tired or hungry? If you can identify common situation(s), you can provide more support to prevent a problem. For example, giving more time warnings (“we’re leaving in 10 minutes”) before leaving the playground.
  • Offer choices and movement breaks. Avoid saying “no”, which often triggers more anger in children. Offer choices and redirect them to more appropriate activities, including going for a walk or playing a game.
  • Consider what drives the behaviour. By knowing why aggression occurs, you can target how to respond most effectively.
    • Escape. Do outbursts occur at a time when something is too hard, boring, or undesired? Break the task into small parts, and/or make the activity more fun and rewarding.
    • Attention. When your child acts out, do they get a big reaction from others? Catch your child being good by praising their positive behaviours ahead of time, instead of waiting to respond only when they misbehave.
    • Tangible. Does your child act out to get what they want? Hold firm boundaries. For example, if your child is having a meltdown at the grocery store because they want the chocolate bar after you’ve said no, do not agree to what they want in order to make it stop (if possible). This teaches them their meltdown worked, and they will be more likely to express this behaviour again. Set up an incentive on your own terms beforehand, which your child can earn through good behaviour.
    • Sensory. Sometimes children act out to receive sensory stimulation (such as headbanging “feels good”). Offer a safe alternatives that provide similar sensory input (for example, vibrating pillow, rocking chair, weighted blanket).
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Strategies to help in the moment 

  • Try and stay calm. If you are more settled, it can help your child settle too. Harsh or angry responses likely make things worse. By staying calm, you are also modeling (and teaching) your child the type of behaviour you want to see in them.

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  • Show your child that you are there for them in this difficult moment, and listen to what they have to say. Use emotion coaching, and you might say something like “I understand you feel upset because it’s hard/heavy/hurts” (tip: try to give 2 or 3 reasons why their feelings are valid). For younger children, physically coming down to the child’s level may help them feel comfortable. Learn about this Mirror and Match de-escalation technique.
  • Try to separate your child’s feelings from their behaviour, remembering that all feelings are okay, even though some behaviour is not. Make it clear that you are not dismissing their feelings. For example, you might say “it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to shout at me.” This kind of expression is direct and less threatening than words like “don’t you dare.”  
  • Wait and talk after the meltdown is over and you and your child are calm again. In the heat of the moment, this is not the time to reason with a child who is upset and not available to listen. Let them vent and acknowledge how they are feeling, but talk and ask questions later when things are calmer. This includes not responding to a child’s “backtalk” (such as “I hate you” or “I hate my life”), which are expressions of their anger provoking you to be angry too.
  • Offer some time and space to calm down. When emotions are high, give more personal space (at least 3 feet) and reduce stimulation in the room (dim the lights, turn off background noises, etc…). For younger children, this might be going for a “chill out” in a safe space. For older children and youth, you may need to remove yourself or others from the room they’re in. This ensures they are not getting attention and reinforcement from you, and keeps you safe.
  • Maintain safety. When a child reaches tantrum ‘level 100’ or a youth becomes violent and aggressive, your only goal in the moment is to maintain safety. This might mean removing their sibling from the room, or trying to go to a place of safety (another room, leave the house) while you decide what to do next. Protect your child from harm, including yourself and others in the immediate area.
  • If you feel that safety can't be maintained in this situation for you or your family, it is OK to call 911. This can feel very hard to do with your own child, but it is important that your child and family are safe. Emergency services are there to support you, and there is nothing wrong with reaching out for help and support.

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Problem solve and get support

  • Recharge afterwards. Once they have calmed down, your child is emotionally drained and will need time to recharge. Briefly acknowledge the difficult experience and invite them to talk with you about it at a later time. Do not have a long debriefing or teaching session immediately afterwards, as it may be triggering for you and your child.

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  • Be curious. You might never know what brought on the behaviour (very common). Find out what brought on the behaviour. When you and your child are well-rested and connecting more positively, try talking with your child about what happened. What made them mad? And then you can problem solve with them. Talk about what could be done differently next time. Explain that hitting, yelling, damaging things etc. is not ok.
  • Set appropriate consequences that you are able and willing to follow through with. This will help your child understand that their aggressive behaviour is unacceptable.  
  • Make a plan for next time. Especially for older children or youth, let them know ahead of time how you plan to respond if they are violent. For example, “Any time your behaviour is not safe, I will separate from you until you are calmed down. Our home needs to be a safe place for everyone. If it becomes dangerous, I will call for emergency help. I don’t want anyone in our family to be hurt.”
  • Seek professional support and advice. If you are worried your child or youth struggles with managing their feelings and behaviour, talk to a doctor or mental health professional. This could include Child and Youth Mental Health (CYMH) services. Your doctor can also refer you to the Confident Parents Thriving Kids coaching program. Behavioural challenges could be a sign of something else that needs attention, such as anxiety, learning differences, or behavioural disorders. Types of therapy and counselling, such as emotion-focused therapy, are also an option to help manage big feelings.

You can give us a call at the Kelty Centre to talk about your concerns. 

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Featured Resources 

FamilySpace - Coping with Meltdowns video and resources

Child Mind Institute - Guide to Managing Behaviour Problems

FamilySmart webinar - Beyond Behaviours: When Is It More? (ages 4-8)

FamilySmart webinar - Beyond Behaviours: When Is It More? (ages 9-12)

FamilySmart webinar - Beyond Behaviours: When Is It More? (ages 13+)

FamilySmart webinar - The Four Step C.A.R.E. Model of Conflict Management

FamilySmart webinar - The collision between anger and aggression in the world of anxiety

Live in the Balance - Collaborative Problem Solving website

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