Anyone who's spent five minutes at a packed grocery store 30 minutes past dinner time can tell you kids have temper tantrums. But some children seem to go beyond the occasional, understandable meltdown. Is it possible babies are born to have a bad temper? Or is an overwhelming tendency towards fits and fury something parents unknowingly encourage, or at least don't correct?
The answer combines nature and nurture. According to Yale Medicine, environmental factors can contribute. "Trauma, family dysfunction and certain parenting styles (such as harsh and inconsistent punishment) make it more likely that a child will exhibit anger and/or aggression that interferes with his or her daily life."
But an extra-angry child may just have been born that way.
"There isn't always a clear environmental issue or mental health issue behind an angry child's behavior," explained licensed clinical social worker Amy Morin in Verywell Family. "Certain kids just have a lower tolerance for frustration than others. Some kids seem to be born with a short fuse. They're impatient, intolerant, and downright aggressive when they're not happy."
The relief that you haven't somehow "caused" this human meltdown machine doesn't make it much easier to deal with the child, though. It's helpful to recognize when a child's anger has gotten so far out of control that the whole family is affected and you must seek help.
To initiate the process, start with some answers from the experts:
Should babies get a pass?
Yes! You shouldn't worry too much if your baby seems angry.
"Even a newborn may cry out of rage if she wakes up hungry and isn't fed right away," according to BabyCenter. "Babies cry because they need to be fed, held, or changed, or because they're tired, sick, or in pain. And some babies just tend to react to the world more negatively and intensely. The result: a fussy, angry baby."
A "true temper tantrum" isn't really possible until a baby's 12 to 18 months old. "If your baby's fussy throughout the day but doesn't need to be fed or have her diaper changed, she may just need to let off steam," BabyCenter added. "Some babies cry to release tension or burn off excess energy – and some just need to cry themselves to sleep."
When should an angry baby get medical attention? Unless you suspect that her outburst is due to being in pain or sick, you don't need a doctor.
"If she appears healthy, is consoled fairly easily, and seems fine between her angry crying jags, then simply be mindful of how you respond to her outbursts. If your baby has a difficult temperament, it's especially important to remain calm or let someone else step in when you need a break. Babies can often tell when someone is getting tense or impatient and may react by amping up their crying."
What's a normal level of anger after age 1?
According to Yale Medicine Child Study Center clinical psychologist Denis Sukhodolsky, "it's not unusual for a child younger than 4 to have as many as nine tantrums per week, with episodes of crying, kicking, stomping, hitting and pushing that last five to 10 minutes."
If that's what you're coping with, carry on, and know that you can look forward to your kid outgrowing the tendency by the time kindergarten rolls around.
"For children whose tantrums continue as they get older and become something that is not developmentally appropriate, causing problems with peers, family or at school, professional help may be in order," Yale Medicine added.
ODD? What's that?
The lingo used for a diagnosis might include any of these terms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to Yale Medicine:
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior and/or spitefulness that lasts six months or more
- Conduct disorder (CD), a persistent pattern of behavior that violates the rights of others, such as bullying and stealing, and/or age appropriate norms, such as truancy from school or running away from home
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), characterized by frequent angry outbursts and irritable or depressed mood most of the time
Are there signs to watch for?
These are signs that you're raising an angry child, according to Morin, who is a psychotherapist and lecturer at Northeastern University:
Angry outbursts that mess up relationships: "Hitting a sibling or calling someone a name once in a while is normal in young children," Morin said. "However, if your child's angry outbursts prevent him from maintaining friendships or his attitude interferes with his ability to develop healthy relationships with family members, address the issue as soon as possible."
Family life is suffering: "You shouldn't have to walk around on eggshells in your own home," Morin added. "If your daily activities are disrupted because of your child's anger, it's not healthy for anyone in the family."
Aggression is your kid's go-to: "For kids with anger problems, lashing out often becomes a first line of defense."
The tantrums are escalating and your child's low tolerance for frustration is obvious: "As kids mature, they should develop an increased ability to tolerate frustrating activities," Morin noted. "If your 7-year-throws his building toys when his creations topple over, or your 9-year-old crumples up his papers every time he makes a mistake on his homework, he may need help building frustration tolerance."
Help is on the way
It may feel like you're overreaching to turn to a therapist for help when your child is all-the-time angry. But this is necessary, even critical, according to Morin. "Skipping outings or giving into your child to avoid a meltdown, are temporary solutions that will lead to more long-term problems," she said."Your child's hostility may grow worse."
And one child with an inborn anger tendency can make the whole family unhappy and resentful.
"If you're missing out on fun activities, or your one-on-one time with another child gets interrupted, your angry child's behavior is a problem that needs to be addressed," Morin added.
To get the help you need, begin by chatting with your child's pediatrician or health clinic, preferably with the child out of earshot. That gives the physician a chance to rule out potential medical issues and refer you to a mental health provider as needed.
Don't fear this process, though. You'll still have plenty of control over decisions affecting your child. The intervention usually involves "cognitive behavioral therapy," which helps the child develop better coping strategies.
According to Yale Medicine, these may include methods for identifying triggers, developing new communication strategies and learning more acceptable and gratifying ways to express frustration. CBT is aimed at the child, though you as a parent will be in charge of follow- through and support.
Most therapy for angry children will also include "parent management techniques" to help parents change the way they react to anger-induced misbehavior. One of the main benefits of the holistic therapy approach is that sometimes parents themselves are extra-susceptible to frustration, too. It's never too late to learn to new ways to cope with a bad temper, whatever the cause.
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