What causes children to be angry, and how can parents address this issue?
We can best understand anger in children by understanding the source of our own anger. Children get angry for the same reasons adults do. The little ones do appear to have more of a problem with anger than do adults, but only because the young ones have not yet developed the self-serving art of covering their feelings and appearing proper to others. Most of us have too much pride to display our anger publicly, so we express anger through punishing silences or quiet, biting words. Innuendos designed to marginalize others are the polished art of anger. We try to castigate while maintaining the appearance of emotional aloofness, the object being to provoke the detested party to react in self-incriminating ways, openly confirming our assessment of their faults.
Anger has several roots, which we will discuss in the future online, but the tap-root of all anger is frustration at failing to manage our environment for our own pleasure. I have seen no less than a thousand men express anger at inanimate objects and curse things that do not have ears because they were frustrated in their efforts to accomplish something with a “stubborn” tool.
How many times have we observed toddlers cry out in anger at their failure to manipulate an object to their satisfaction? A ten-year-old slams a ball glove on the ground after failing to catch the ball. Or he yells in anger, “That stupid old bicycle won’t work right.”
And there is the anger directed at others when a child fails to manage others to his own pleasure. A child explodes, “But you promised you would take me to the ball game today.” A ten-year-old girl angrily cries, “Somebody has been in my room and touched my stuff.” A fifteen-year-old girl whines in anger, “Why can’t I have a cell phone; all my friends do!” And ultimately, the words we never want to hear, “I just hate you; why did I have to have parents like you?” What is wrong with her parents? They have frustrated her efforts to “express herself,” to experience life as she thinks best.
Anger is the bulldozer of the frustrated soul. If an angry man were honest, you would hear him say, “Get out of my way; you are preventing me from realizing immediate gratification.” Angry drivers are a prime example of the fruit of frustration.
Anger runs even deeper. It becomes an IED—improvised explosive device. “You have hurt me; I will hurt you back in the only way that is available to me.” “I will shout at you as my enemy, and you will see the murder in my heart and be afraid. You will back down and give me my way, for ‘I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul.’” Be it a skinhead in prison or the two-year-old son of a stable family, anger emanates from the human race like odor from a skunk.
When you see anger in your children, you are seeing the theology of depravity up close in all of its pervading ugliness. But children do not inherit Adam’s anger. There is no need, for they are quite capable of inventing it in a vacuum.
Some are more angry than others. Children range from very angry to hardly angry at all. Some children spend their early years in calm congeniality, and then all of a sudden turn angry. Others express lots of anger in their early years from birth to three or four years old, and then calm down and become peaceful and passive. What is going on that creates these variables? Can we as parents control the process, thwart the growth of anger, and instill a godly self-control and forgiveness in our children? The answer is a resounding “Yes.”
As a parent you must anticipate the needs of your children and be proactive in equipping them to face life’s challenges with the kind of character it takes to endure with grace the potential frustrations of everyday life. How? First, by example. If you bypass this one, nothing else will work. If you have occasional angry outbursts, your children will catch it like the flu. It does no good to say you are sorry, other than they may learn to apologize after each of their own outbursts. You have not dealt with the anger; you have just made the point that it needs to be followed with an apology. More is caught than taught.
Assuming you are setting a proper example, the next step is to not leave your child in a social vacuum where she must face her frustrations unguided. For example, I saw a small child cry out in anger because she couldn’t put her coat on properly. She was frustrated. If you simply spank her for her anger or rebuke her, you will only increase the frustration and it will soon develop into a habit of angry impatience. You can prevent this inclination by patiently training her in the art of putting on a coat. When you see the anger, slow down in your hurry to get out the door and show her that you are going to patiently be there while she finds the other sleeve. If she is capable of this contortionist’s feat but overly anxious and impatient with herself, show her step by step how it is to be done, and smile all the while. You are teaching her that the things that frustrate us can be conquered with patience and persistence. In the child’s mind, this translates into a principle that will apply in the face of any frustration.
If a ten-year-old is angry at his bicycle because it won’t work right, take time to show him how to make it work properly. Get out the tools and make adjustments, or teach him how to adjust his riding technique, as the need may be.
Some anger is justified, but it is a slippery slope. I recently observed one of my grandkids sitting in front of an easel, studiously painting a picture. At three years old she is very serious about her artwork and quite patient with the process. But she burst out in anger when a visiting kid deliberately and physically halted her painting. I could see that she just wanted to be left alone so she could paint. Her anger was understandable but unacceptable. Now her mother could have rebuked her for being angry, but that would have introduced another element that would have broadened her anger to include her mother and the cruel, insensitive world in general. The budding artist was not trying to enforce her will upon others or manipulate others to her pleasure. She had created an environment that she wanted to maintain, and others had trespassed. What she needed was what we all need when someone comes onto our property and abuses our possessions—the law, an enforcer. A society becomes angry, giving way to revolution when the law no longer protects it and it feels there is no other recourse to achieve justice. It is driven mad with the frustration of injustice.
So, seeing the event unfold, I said to my busy daughter who didn’t see what took place, “They are disturbing her painting; they should play someplace else and leave her alone.” The three-year-old had already returned to her canvas and was deep in concentration, working tediously.
Anger is a natural human emotion and not necessarily evil in itself. The apostle Paul said, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). Justified anger should fade quickly with the removal of the provocation. Do not entertain the grievance overnight. If the anger lingers until nightfall it is no longer a natural reaction to injustice; it is simmering wrath.
Did you know that Jesus was angry? Read Mark 3:1–6. When Jesus was confronted with the blind man on the Sabbath, he saw the religious leaders watching him “whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him” Jesus “looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.” His frustration at their resistance and unbelief turned to an act of healing rather than aggressive words or actions. Anger is a motivator, but in the heart of a self-indulgent sinner it can lead to sinful pride and retaliation. When anger becomes a habit, taking on the characteristics of a temperament, it has become a black art of the Devil. That is what we want to prevent in our children.
The three-year-old’s anger at being thwarted in her private efforts to paint was natural, but if the injustice were allowed to continue her festering anger would become an ugly character trait. At this point a wise parent will step in and control the circumstances, as did my daughter. She told the five other children that they should play somewhere else and leave Laila to her painting. This three-year-old will appreciate living in a society controlled by the rule of law where individual rights are respected. Her spirit will be quieted by the justice that is enforced, and she will “not let the sun go down” on her wrath.
However, if Mother had left the children to themselves, anarchy would have ensued. Laila would have lost it and fought to gain control of her environment. If she prevailed, it would have confirmed to her the power of anger and aggression. If she had failed and the other children prevailed to stymie her art work, she would have grown even more angry and hostile, acting in retaliation, maybe even striking the other kids or screaming insults. All that is unholy would break loose, and Laila would have looked like the “bad girl” while the others just stood around innocently grinning, leaving Laila to be rebuked and spanked for her out-of-control anger. If this situation had been allowed to reach this point, there would have been no way to untangle the knots of anger that would have formed in her little soul. No amount of spanking would have rooted out her feelings of injustice. A parent cannot wait until a volcano blows the side of the mountain out and then try to put the lava back in the hole.
Just last week I attended my grandson Laife’s third birthday party. The house was full of cousins and friends. One of the games was pin the tail on the donkey, played while blindfolded of course. Laife was the first to give it a try. When he pulled the blindfold off and found that the tail was hanging in the air a long way from the donkey, he rushed over to correct his mistake. He is a perfectionist and likes everything in order. That tail hanging in the air was totally out of order. When he tried to re-pin it, we all laughed, and his mother placed it back where he had placed it while blindfolded. He said no and struggled to get hold of it so he could give the poor donkey his tail. When his mother laughingly resisted, trying to explain that there was a prize for the one who got closest, he just fell on the floor and wept his frustration and anger. His mother was wise and let him return the severed tail to the humiliated donkey. Most of the kids were older than he and understood the need to change the rules to accommodate his perspective.
To have resisted him here and spanked him for his crying would not have appeared just to his little mind and would have left him with budding seeds of distrust and anger. Spankings are reserved for rebellion and meanness. Spankings are for evil hearts and indifferent spirits, to get their attention and cause them to respect the lawgiver. A child should know he deserves a spanking before you give him one, otherwise it creates anger.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Colossians 3:21).
The time to inoculate your children against the human tendency to impatient anger is when they are six months old and four years old. Think about life as playing a team sport. If you throw someone into a basketball game who doesn’t know the rules and hand him the ball, telling him it is his, he be will shocked when someone runs up and takes it out of his hands. When he moves toward the goal, he will be shocked that the referee takes it away from him on a charge of “traveling.” When he tries to throw the ball through the basket, people jump up and grab it before it can go in. What a frustrating game! Get used to it. That’s life.
Here is the key, a principle you must understand and apply: Children need to be taught the rules and trained to navigate the court and disciplined in mind and body before they are exposed to the challenges of the game. Never allow your young children, even as young as six months, to become unconquerably frustrated with the ball and the court of life. If you instill competence and confidence in young children, they will accept the difficulties as an opportunity to show their mettle rather than as an obstacle to their success. When a child wants to please and impress others and is unable to perform properly, he will get angry. The anger may look like anger or it may look like self-loathing, but they are the same. Aggression against others is obvious anger. Aggression against self can be quiet and inward. You are the cure. Do not fail to train a child to do all that life requires so he feels good about himself and his abilities. Show approval of him as a person so that he doesn’t become anxious to perform at a level that will earn approval. Provide an example that communicates that it is all right to experience temporary setbacks, for they just make the victory sweeter.
Teach your children to be competent in many areas. This begins with manipulating blocks of wood, assembling things, stacking cardboard boxes and cutting doors and windows. It continues with teaching them to dress themselves, cook, clean the house, and eventually do outside chores, and it graduates into skills that most men do not possess, such as repairing automobiles, tuning pianos, programming computers, music, art, science, entrepreneurship, and the possibilities are endless. People who are succeeding don’t get angry. It is the hungry and hopeless peasants who stay angry and eventually revolt, assuaging their frustrations with a guillotine.
If you order your home in a way that clearly communicates to your children that there is justice and mercy in the world, that their rights and dignity are protected by the rule of law, you will eliminate the anger that springs from the frustration of societal injustice.
There are additional reasons for anger beyond frustration with one’s inability to control the environment and the actions of others. We will discuss them on our website and will email the remainder of the article to those of you who are signed up to receive our weekly email notifications. If you do not have access to a computer, go to your local library and you can print the rest of the article on anger.