How to Deal with an Angry Child

Q. What is an appropriate response to a child who hits you or pushes you out of anger and he is 11?  When the anger escalates, and you tell him it’s not ok and he still does it? It’s a slippery slope. This same child has also been extremely violent to his brother and knocked his head against the wall. He’s improved a lot over the years, but sometimes this violent behavior still rears its head, and I don’t know what to do except to scream stop. What is an appropriate response?

A. If you are telling your son that his anger and hitting is not ok and he keeps it up, it means he needs you to address something that he has no idea how to articulate. This is what makes parenting the hardest job on the planet. At this point you are reacting to his behavior alone, the tip of the iceberg, what you see on the surface. But the emotional state that is provoking that anger is what needs addressing, and that can be a long gradual process depending on how long this has been going on and how deep his pain.

Violence to his brother usually signals deep resentment toward him, which you can address once you can acknowledge it and name it for him. Perhaps he sees how much easier his brother has it, how many more friends he has, how much more loving his relationship with you looks from his point of view. In his mind he might think you love his brother more and wish he were like his brother. When children don’t feel accepted for who they are, they either implode or explode.

His violence could also signal something going on with the other parent, a teacher, friend, or peer, the pain of which he is taking out on his more vulnerable brother—and you. We blame someone else when it feels good to do so because of feeling so bad inside. Do scream Stop when you see violence toward his brother. But no more words than that. Then you must go back over the situation when you and he are calm and can think reasonably. Acknowledge the anger you saw and how that got the better of him. You know he knows the behavior was not okay. Without questions, let him know you understand the impulsiveness that that kind of anger can create. Then ask him what he could do next time a situation like that occurs. No blame, no judgment.

The appropriate response when he attacks you is to say as neutrally as possible, “I don’t want to be spoken to like that/treated like that. I’ll be in the kitchen when you are ready to talk to me.” Do not attempt to teach him not to do what he just did. He knows that. Reacting with, You can’t do that… is ridiculous. Of course he can. He just did. Don’t focus on what he can or can’t do. Focus on what you do or do not want. When you stay with, I want/don’t want or I feel…, you are owning your feelings and desires. That models taking responsibility for yourself and sets much clearer boundaries.

If he doesn’t take a few minutes to calm down and then come to you, or if he follows you and continues screaming at you, it means he is so triggered that he can’t calm down and needs your help. He is having a problem he does not know how to handle. He is feeling such rage that he can’t turn it around. If you yell at him or threaten him, you only compound his problem.

Do your best to keep him from hurting you but allow him to get his anger up and out. Keep telling yourself this is about his pain. It’s not about you. Perhaps you have just told him to get off the computer or to do something he doesn’t want to do. You may be the catalyst that triggers him, but his anger is coming from a much deeper place. It will take some caring communication later on when the situation is over and neither of you are emotionally flooded and can think and be reasonable. But he must trust that you care and want to help him.

For him to trust you, you need to be in a mindset in which you are not taking his behavior personally. Keep reminding yourself, this is about him, not you. His behavior is showing you that he is in pain. When you take it personally and react to a defiant, violent kid who you have to change and who is pointing out what a terrible job you have done so far, you are lost in anger, hopelessness, and fear. When you can see that this is about his pain, then you can disengage and feel compassion, and only then can you respond appropriately. When you get to compassion, you will know what to do.