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Something as simple as a bowl of blueberries can set nine-year-old Maya* off. “She’ll say her siblings got more, even if the bowls are perfectly equal,” says her mom, Tessa Crenshaw*. Other times, Kaiya will rage because the shirt she wanted isn’t in her drawer or she’s been asked to turn off a show or she believes her sisters got more cuddles at bedtime. “She’ll get really mad and stomp away or go to her room,” says Crenshaw. “It’s the tween version of a temper tantrum.”
It’s not uncommon for kids to let anger get the better of them in their preteen years, says Jennifer Kolari, a family therapist in Toronto. This even applies to kids who have never had issues with managing emotions before. “You’ll see anger, pushback and an increase in anxiety at this age. They are leaving that magical little world of being little kids, where adults know everything and it’s safe,” she explains. Anxiety and anger, Kolari points out, are two sides of the same coin. “Fear either goes outward into anger or inward into anxiety. We think of anxiety as kids hanging behind their mom, but an anxious child can also look angry and bossy and reactive.” Puberty is looming at this age, which can cause worry for some kids. Hormones also begin flooding the body, affecting mood and sleep. School and activities can add pressure, and these days, kids are spending way more time on screens than they should be. “Screens, particularly video games, and the constant dopamine kids are getting from them, are making them more irritable as well,” says Kolari.
So, as a parent, do you just grin and bear the explosive bursts of anger? Definitely not, says Julie Romanowski, a parenting expert in Vancouver. But your efforts should be in prevention. Start by covering the basics: Make sure your kid is getting enough sleep, and eating healthy meals and snacks on a regular basis. Set clear expectations around screen time, bedtime, homework and chores, and stick to them.
That doesn’t mean they won’t disagree with your rules and test the boundaries, or get angry about blueberries, or feel the whole world is against them. And that’s OK. “Anger is a normal emotion. It’s how we handle our behaviour that matters,” says Leena Augimeri, director of the SNAP program at the Child Development Institute in Toronto, which teaches children with disruptive behaviour how to stop and think before they act.
In the moment, when your kid is raging, it’s important to keep your own behaviour in check. “Some parents laugh, and others get angry. Neither of those is right,” says Romanowski. Instead, stay neutral and validate how your child is feeling. You could say something like, “Seems like you’re angry because you feel your sisters got more blueberries than you.” Romanowski likes to tell kids they have a few choices when they are mad: For example, they can ask for help, or they can go to their room to calm down or come up with a solution that works for all parties. It’s also important to be clear about what they are not allowed to do when angry, like scream, swear, hit, slam doors or trash their room.
If the aggressive and disruptive behaviour continues, Kolari believes it’s appropriate to impose reasonable consequences, like reduced screen time or having a reset in their room. Consequences should be small, consistent and enforceable. Screaming, “Fine, then you’re not playing video games for a month!” in the middle of a fight will backfire if it’s too severe a consequence and you’re likely to give in after a few days anyway.
If your kid is rude or disrespectful to you, Kolari says it’s important to address it, either in the moment or later. Try saying, “I get that you’re angry and I would like to talk to you about this, but we can’t talk when you’re calling me ‘stupid.’”
If you find your child is regularly angry and this anger is affecting relationships at home or with peers, it might be time to seek some outside help. In the SNAP program, for example, kids are taught how to recognize triggers (things that make them feel upset) and body cues (what happens in their bodies when they get angry), and then how to calm those physical and emotional feelings (with deep breaths or counting to 10 and disrupting or replacing bad thoughts) and figure out a plan that’s going to make the situation better. Such repetitive behaviours help the child create healthy thinking patterns and assists in “rewiring” the brain in a healthier way.
Crenshaw is trying to avoid Maya’s triggers, carefully counting out blueberries and spending equal time with her kids. “I do my best to avoid what’s going to make her mad,” she says. She’s also quick to validate Maya’s feelings—something she admits she didn’t do at first. “When this started, it was like, ‘whoa dude, relax.’ But these things are a big deal to her. So I’ve done my best to stay calm. If she needs a time out, she can spend quiet time in her room. Then we have a conversation about it after.
*Names have been changed