SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)

Why Are Kids So Angry?

arms crossed

Greg Scheidemann

We've seen the worst of this rage in news headlines, from school shootings in Littleton, CO, and Red Lake, MN, to more recent examples: a 7-year-old boy in Tampa, FL, who allegedly beat his 7-month-old half sister to death, and a 9-year-old Brooklyn, NY, girl, who allegedly stabbed and killed an 11-year-old friend over a ball. But for every sensational story of youthful rage gone amok, there are thousands of quieter tales of parental helplessness in the face of kids who fly off the handle.

Clearly, acts of aggression are no longer confined to the privacy of people's homes. They're being played out in public places -- at increasingly young ages. A recent study by the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, found that preschoolers are being expelled at more than three times the rate of K-12 students. Another recent survey of childcare providers, elementary school counselors, and pediatricians in Tarrant County, TX, found that more than 85% of the counselors who responded said kindergartners today have more emotional and/or behavioral problems than five years ago; 67% of childcare providers reported a similar trend with the young children in their care. "This is happening in schools all across the country," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, CA. "We're hearing about first-graders and kindergartners who are cursing and punching teachers and hitting classmates."

Studies indicate that it's critical to intervene early -- before lifelong patterns of extreme, explosive behavior take root. "If a child is still very aggressive by age 8, he is at risk for being violent in adolescence and adulthood," says James Garbarino, Ph.D., professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and author of Parents Under Siege.

Before we can help kids get a grip on their anger, we need to understand why so many are blowing their tops in the first place. One piece of the puzzle is that kids today are immersed in a media culture that tolerates escalating levels of aggression. "When we were young, we watched our share of violence on TV and in the movies, but it was mostly between groups and from a distance," says Dr. Christophersen. "Today, kids are exposed to a lot more personal violence. Now you see close-ups of one person hitting or shooting his victim repeatedly." To make matters worse, more of these aggressors are cast as heroes. "One study showed that 40% of media violence is perpetrated by 'good guys,'" says Dr. Garbarino. "Kids are learning that good people are violent."

We may want to shrug off such over-the-top antics as harmless fantasy, but a new study examining media's impact on preschoolers suggests a more disquieting reality. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that for every hour of TV 4-year-olds watched daily, their risk of becoming bullies at ages 6 to 11 increased by 6% to 9%. In another study, from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, girls ages 6 to 10 who often watched shows with aggressive protagonists were found to be more likely to develop into angry adults than girls who watched none or few of these programs. When we add slice-'em-and-dice-'em video games (which research has linked to more hostile behavior in young kids), it becomes difficult to dismiss Dr. Christophersen's assessment that "our media have become a training program for aggression."

While TV, movies, video games, and music are powerful influences, they're hardly an unstoppable force. If adults modeled healthy ways of handling anger, they'd give kids positive messages that counteract pop-culture toxins. But here's the rub: "Many adults are bolstering harmful media models," says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, CT. "People tend to be more stressed out and have shorter fuses than in the past, triggering public displays of aggressiveness." Kids are witnessing road rage and watching on TV as sports fans attack players and vice versa.

The scenario -- adults erupting in rage over minor differences -- also takes place on children's playing fields. It's no longer a shock to hear about a father in Texas shooting a high school coach after his son was kicked off the team or a parent in Massachusetts banned from local youth-hockey games for grabbing and yelling at an 8-year-old player.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that our kids' most influential role models for handling anger are the grown-ups they're with day in and day out -- usually their moms and dads. But the kind of patient, caring adult guidance that helps kids learn to manage their anger requires a healthy investment of time -- an increasingly scarce resource in today's warp-speed society. "We want to think that quality time is enough, but all the research shows that quantity time with Mom and Dad is more crucial in promoting children's emotional growth," says Dr. Kazdin. With parents juggling job and home tasks, teachers and neighbors equally rushed, and extended family members more likely to live across the country than down the block, children are increasingly left on their own.

Of course, parenting styles count too. Studies show that harsh parents are more apt to raise explosive kids, while warm, authoritative fathers and mothers are more likely to bring up well-behaved, emotionally intelligent children. But what these findings don't reveal is that some kids have inherently challenging temperaments. "A lot of aggressive children start out with difficult temperaments -- a high activity level, intense emotional responses, and trouble with changes in routines," says Elizabeth MacKenzie, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Seattle. Such kids require consistent limit-setting. If parents don't adopt a calm-but-firm mode from the get-go, the child may quickly become hard to handle. "It's easy to respond with anger and coercive parenting approaches because you don't know what else to do," says Dr. MacKenzie. But this is a recipe for mayhem, she notes, because harsh, punitive responses, such as frequent and severe spankings, tend to ratchet up the child's aggressiveness.

Some parents manage to keep their own anger in check but find it difficult to carry out the nonstop boundary-setting. The problem with this survival strategy, however, is that it gives explosive children the wrong message. "They end up learning that defiance and aggression are allowed, and their behavior just gets worse," says Dr. Garbarino.

Experts agree that trying to help kids once they have become explosive is a lot tougher than preventing aggressive behavior in the first place. This observation, paired with concern over the potential danger of kids' anger, has given rise to hundreds of school-based violence-prevention initiatives. Increasingly, these programs reveal that teaching kids to play nice isn't enough. "It is absolutely critical to teach kids to empathize with others," says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "A child must be able to feel another child's pain in order to want to stop hitting when he's angry."

The key role of empathy is highlighted by a study from the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. When researchers followed 72 kids in the Washington, DC, area, they found that 4- to 5-year-olds who behaved belligerently felt about as much concern for others as their peers did. But by 6 and 7, kids who continued to lash out were less empathetic and more prone to ignore, avoid, or laugh at people in pain than those who had outgrown their aggression.

Peer support is also central. Kids in a first-grade program called the Good Behavior Game, which is used in 12 Baltimore public schools, are divided into teams within a classroom. When the students follow rules, their team receives rewards like extra recess time. "Instead of isolating a student who misbehaves, the game helps a teacher use the child's peers to reinforce positive behavior," says C. Hendricks Brown, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who is studying the program's effects.

Another program, PeaceBuilders, shares this focus on positive reinforcement. Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade learn five rules: praise people, avoid put-downs, seek wise people as advisers and friends, notice and correct hurts we cause, and right wrongs. Teachers give out "praise notes" complimenting kids for things they do right and send students to the principal's office in recognition of good deeds instead of just discipline problems. "The goal is to change the culture of the school by promoting kids' social skills and positive behavior," says Daniel Flannery, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence at Kent State University in Ohio.

A program that understands the link between caring and calm behavior is Second Step. This violence-prevention project, which won an "exemplary" rating from the U.S. Department of Education, weaves empathy-training, anger management, and problem-solving into its curriculum; it also provides education and support for parents. "Many kids don't even know they're angry until it's too late," says Claudia Glaze, director of client relations for the Seattle-based Committee for Children, the nonprofit group that created the program.

Another distinguishing feature of Second Step is its commitment to reaching children early, with a program for 4- and 5-year-olds. "We underestimate the ability of kids this age to understand and manage their emotions," says Donna Bryant, Ph.D., who heads up an evaluation of a Second Step-based program called the Preschool Behavior Project near Chapel Hill, NC. If you're wondering how preschoolers can possibly learn the finer points of tantrum prevention, clues can be found in a participating Head Start classroom in Roxboro, NC.

During a typical session, teacher Cheryl Long gathers her preschoolers in a circle and holds up a photo showing one child, Jeffrey, cutting in line in front of another child, Rick. "How do you think Rick feels?" Long asks her charges. One 4-year-old waves her hand. "Mad!" she says. "I get mad when somebody butts in front of me!" Long nods. "How can you tell he's mad?" she asks. "His face is scrunched up," another child pipes up. "Good answer," says Long. "How do you think Jeffrey might feel if Rick yelled at him?" A preschooler holds up her hand. "I think sad," she says shyly.

Now it's time for Long to introduce the session's key lesson: how to express emotions using "I" messages ("I feel angry when...") instead of resorting to fists or mean words. The kids practice this skill through role-playing.

Second Step's preschool program forms the foundation of its curricula for elementary and middle school kids. While preschoolers are taught to calm down with an external object, such as a stuffed animal, grade-schoolers graduate to strategies for soothing themselves with thoughts -- for example, of tranquil ocean waves or a hug from Mom. As these kids master more tools for handling their anger, they find it easier to make friends and do well in school, which, in turn, helps them become more self-confident and compassionate. "My hope," says Glaze, "is that they will, as adults, be able to use these skills to make the world a better place."

Anger is a normal, necessary emotion, but children need to learn how to control and channel their aggressive impulses in healthy ways. The old advice to vent anger by punching a pillow or pounding the floor with a foam bat has been shown to rev up hostility. The new thinking is to teach techniques that calm the body and mind.

Ages 3-5: When your child begins to feel angry, have her blow bubbles, advises psychologist Edward Christophersen, Ph.D. Bubble-blowing requires taking long, gentle breaths -- exactly the sort that helps soothe ruffled emotions. Practice with your child at least one minute a day for several weeks; then, when a tantrum looms, quietly hand her the bubble bottle. Also show her how to blow imaginary bubbles so she can use the technique anywhere, from sandbox to car seat.

Ages 6-8: Kids this age can begin to use "thought shifting" techniques to prevent an aggressive outburst, says Second Step's Claudia Glaze. First, help your child identify his anger triggers, such as when someone shoves him or calls him a mean name. Then coach him to defuse these triggers by taking deep breaths and using soothing "self-talk" (for example, "I can handle this" or "Take it easy"). Finally, role-play appropriate ways to respond ("That's my ball. Please give it back").

Ages 9-12: Help your child get into the habit of thinking before she acts on her anger, says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Thinking Parent, Thinking Child. You can do this with open-ended questions that encourage her to problem-solve. For example, the next time your child has words with a friend, wait until she calms down and then ask: "It's okay to feel angry, but what happened after you showed your anger? What can you do to solve this problem? What can you do if it happens again?'

Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Child magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.