Anger, Irritability, and Aggressive Behavior in Children

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From tiny outbursts to outright tantrums and everything in between, children have a unique way of expressing themselves. While it’s very typical for young children to experience a range of colourful emotions, there comes a time where parents wonder whether this type of behaviour is normal or not.

When it comes to dealing with disruptive behaviour patterns, there may be a spectrum of reasons why your child is expressing anger, irritability, and even aggression.  With the latest research in the area of childhood behavioural patterns, we have explored some of the common causes and factors that influence these emotions.

Follow along as we uncover their purpose, some common signs and symptoms, and different treatment options to help manage and resolve these types of behaviours that challenge parents and guardians.

Anger, Irritability, and Aggression in Children

Clinically speaking, anger, irritability, and aggression are all categorized as childhood disruptive behaviours. To better understand the causes behind each emotion, let’s take a closer look at their meaning, factors that influence this type of behaviour, and some key underlying causes.

What Does It Mean?

Anger is a negative emotional state that may include increased physiological arousal and/or thoughts of blame and is likely triggered by immense frustration. When your child is unable to control or manage their anger, it can transform into a physical behaviour, aggression.

On the other hand, irritability is the increased tendency to become angry (also known as “proneness to anger”). Irritability is a common diagnostic criterion for testing children for anxiety, depression, and oppositional defiant disorder — more on this in a moment.

Factors that Affect this Behaviour

Although various factors affect anger, irritability, and aggression in children, the majority of cases involve a combination of nature and nurture. In other words, nature refers to the pre-wiring of our brains which is heavily influenced by genetic inheritance while nurture refers to the influence of external factors in our upbringing (i.e. exposure, experience, learning, etc.)

In terms of genetics, there is evidence to confirm a pattern of behaviour across different generations. As described in this 2005 study on behavioural genetics and child temperament, there is a noticeable connection between both the child and biological parents’ behaviour patterns. This was found in an identical twin study, although one twin was separated from their parents and had a completely different upbringing, they still displayed the same characteristic behaviour as their sibling.

Although anger can run in the family genes, the expression of certain temperaments can also be learned through their environment. Some of these “nurture factors” include learned experiences throughout a child’s upbringing such as family dysfunction, trauma, and inconsistent or harsh parental punishments. Considering the complexity of anger, check out this visual representation in the ‘Anger Iceberg Model’. In this model, you’ll notice that there are two distinct layers to anger: one that’s represented by the “above the surface” emotions and the other represented by the “below the surface” emotions. The anger model helps to illustrate how certain emotions expressed outwardly are oftentimes misleading or misdirected while most of our true anger emotions are hidden deep inside of us.

Anger Irritability and Aggressive Behaviour in Children - Anger Iceberg for On Your Mind Counselling

Underlying Causes of Anger, Irritability, and Aggressive Behaviour

When children display routine emotional outbursts as a symptom of distress, there may be an assortment of possible underlying causes. 

  1. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): Children who experience symptoms of impulsivity and hyperactivity tend to also have trouble controlling their behaviour.
  2. Anxiety: Research has shown that 14% to 62% of children who express disruptive behaviour disorders have been diagnosed with anxiety as well. When an anxious child is put under pressure, the “fight-or-flight” response may cause them to throw a tantrum as a result.
  3. Trauma or neglect: Children who act out either at home or in other social settings may do so as a result of trauma, chaos, or neglect at home.

Signs That Your Child Needs Help

It’s important to note that the occasional temper tantrum or meltdown when feeling frustrated or defiant is very normal in most children. However, one of the most critical signs that your child may need help with managing this behaviour is when it becomes more frequent and/or inconsolable.

Here are a few fundamental signs that your child may need help controlling their emotional outbursts:

  • If their tantrums or outbursts are occurring past the age that they’re developmentally expected (up to 7-8 years of age)
  • If their behaviour is dangerous to themselves or others
  • If their behaviour is causing serious and consistent trouble at school
  • If their behaviour is interfering with their ability to socialize with friends or family members
  • If their outbursts are causing considerable conflict at home and disrupting day-to-day family life

Diagnosis of Anger, Irritability, and Aggression

As more research is surfacing about the underlying causes of these behavioural patterns, psychiatrists and other mental healthcare practitioners can make a more targeted diagnosis. When assessing the severity of a child’s anger, irritability, and aggression, a healthcare provider will review the behaviour in the context of the child’s life (i.e. gaining information from parents, teachers, academic and medical records, and 1-on-1 interviews with the child and parent).

Following a thorough assessment, the information collected is used to determine whether the child meets the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for a behavioural disorder. With this, a potential diagnosis for a child with anger, irritability and aggression could include:

  1. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): a pattern of angry, irritable, and aggressive behaviour lasting up to 6 months.
  2. Conduct disorder (CD): a persistent pattern of behaviour that infringes on the rights of others (i.e bullying, stealing, running away from home, etc.) 
  3. Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD): frequent outbursts and irritable or depressed mood patterns

Taking into consideration both the severity and frequency of these outbursts, it may be time to consider treatment options for your child.

Treatment Options to Help Manage This Behaviour

There are two effective evidence-based therapies known as behavioural interventions that help treat symptoms of anger, irritability, and aggression in your child. They are called Parent Management Training and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Parent Management Training

Parent Management Training (PMT) is used to teach skills to the parent to help develop positive interactions with the child and promote more productive, acceptable behaviour patterns. Throughout PMT, parents will learn positive reinforcement methods to help minimize aggressive and antisocial behaviour.

The techniques used in this type of therapy parallel those in operant conditioning. In other words, the likelihood of a behaviour to recur is either increased (when it’s good) or decreased (when it’s bad) depending on the events that follow (through reinforcement).

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a well-known intervention that aims to improve mental health. CBT focuses on challenging and changing unwanted behaviour patterns, increasing emotional regulation, and developing coping skills for future problem-solving. For children, this approach includes:

  1. Emotional regulation to help the child identify negative triggers and prevent future outbursts
  2. Learning different ways to express frustration
  3. Developing new communication strategies via interactive role-play practices

The Bottom Line

Taking into consideration the overall number of children who are referred to a mental health therapist, anger, irritability, and aggression are among the most common reasons. As parents, it’s helpful to educate yourselves on the underlying causes and symptoms of these behavioural patterns to better recognize them in your own home.

Given your circumstances and the frequency of these disruptive behaviours, it may be time to consider some treatment options. At On Your Mind Counselling, our team of professional therapists have the knowledge and experience to help you and your child gain more stability, harmony, and normalcy in your day-to-day life. Book with us today and receive a free 30-minute consultation.

Written by Cida Horst BSW, MSW, RSW

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