How to Discipline an Angry Child

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
April 10, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Whenever Sandra got mad or frustrated when she was growing up, her parents would just tell her to stop being angry or discipline her by spanking her. 

Now, as a parent herself, her son’s anger is really triggering, especially since they added a new baby to the family. 

She doesn’t want to spank her son, but she doesn’t know how to stop his angry outbursts. So, she decides to use timeouts to teach her son a lesson. But her son’s anger and outbursts don’t seem to let up.

Many parents have a hard time knowing how to discipline their angry child besides using punishments, yelling or threats because more effective tools were never used on them as kids, and no one has taught them otherwise as adults.

The way parents respond to a child’s anger can be a patterned response going from one generation to the next. It can be tricky to break free from these patterns, but the good news is it is possible! You don’t have to choose between effective discipline and loving discipline – you can have both. And you can break cycles of punishment and give your child the support you wish you had.

This article will help caregivers understand why children get angry and offer practical ways to discipline and support kids with angry and explosive behaviours. 

What Causes Anger in Children

Anger is a human emotion. Anger is not a behaviour. 

Angry behaviours are the actions a child takes when they feel angry, such as yelling, hitting, kicking or throwing toys. 

Here’s the thing about anger and angry behaviours: they are always trying to help a child meet a need. When an angry child “acts out,” they’re expressing a need, whether it’s the need for attention, connection, rest or relief from pain.

Here are several common needs to consider when your child is expressing anger or engaging in angry behaviours: 

1. The need for connection and closeness

Physical or emotional separation from a primary caregiver is stressful and often triggers emotional outbursts and angry behaviours. These outbursts can be a child’s only way of bringing you closer to them. When a child erupts with anger, it can help to get curious about the amount of separation your child is facing and the amount of connection and closeness they receive from you. 

2. The need for sleep and rest

Overtired children are prone to crankiness and meltdowns. In addition, children who don’t have adequate opportunities to rest often struggle to cope with their emotions as well. Rest is a period of time when your child can pause from expectations and demands – they can just be. When they don’t have time to “just be,” it can lower their frustration tolerance. 

3. The need for stability

Children thrive when they know what to predict. Major life changes like moving homes, switching schools or family conflict can impact a child’s sense of stability, which often causes changes in their moods and behaviours. When a child is “acting out,” it can help to wonder if there is enough stability in their life. 

4. The need for more or less sensory input

A child’s developing nervous system makes them sensitive, and overstimulating environments can overwhelm them and lead to angry outbursts. An angry outburst can be a child’s way of saying: “This is too much for my brain to handle!” or, “I feel overstimulated, and I don’t know how to get the break I need.”

5. The need to feel safe or soothed when afraid

Children with angry outbursts or explosive behaviours could be feeling fearful, anxious or insecure. For example, when a child has an angry outburst at bedtime, it can be a sign that they’re afraid of being alone or afraid of the dark. 

Understanding where a child’s anger comes from is the first step in being able to address it effectively through nurturing parenting.

Related Post: How to Stop Your Child From Hitting: A Sensory Approach

Use our 30+ page printable to help your child with their anger!

Child Sleeping

Why Punishments Don’t Work

Punishments like yelling, time-outs, spankings or threats aren’t the most effective ways to support an angry child because these approaches don’t address the root of the problem. 

For example, Sandra’s 4-year-old son Tyler is repeatedly sent to a timeout for screaming at the dinner table. His parents punish his angry behaviour, thinking he’ll sit in his room and think about what he did, learn a lesson and change his behaviour. 

What his parents think and see:

  • Tyler no longer screams at the table when he returns from a time-out, so he must have learned his lesson.

What’s actually happening: 

  • Since the new baby arrived, his world feels chaotic and out of control. 
  • Tyler is overstimulated at dinner time but doesn’t have the words to communicate this. 
  • Tyler can predict that his parents will send him to his room if he starts to scream.
  • A timeout means quiet time in his room, which meets his need for a sensory break. 

Here’s the problem: 

  • Tyler’s brain isn’t developed enough to connect his behaviour and “the lesson” his parents wanted him to learn in a time-out.
  • Being sent to his room wasn’t teaching Tyler the skills he needed to communicate the need for a break or stability. 
  • Sitting alone in his room wasn’t teaching him how to regulate his emotions (he needs to learn this skill and/or co-regulate with a calm adult).
  • Tyler is being separated from his caregivers when he’s distressed, which can exacerbate feelings of anger and angry behaviours because separation is alarming for kids. 
  • Tyler is internalizing the message that his anger is too much for his parents; being angry isn’t okay, and angry behaviours will inevitably lead to separation. 

Rather than resorting to punishment, parents need strategies to get at the root of their child’s anger and promote skills that will help their child cope with their emotions and navigate their problems more effectively in the future. 

How to Discipline an Angry Child

Instead of yelling, spanking or using timeouts when your child acts out in anger, try more effective discipline strategies that address the root causes behind the behaviour.

1. Connect, Set Boundaries and Redirect

When your child is having an angry outburst, stay calm and use a gentle but firm voice to connect with their feelings first. This might sound like:

  • “I see you’re really upset right now.”
  • “It looks like this game is really frustrating for you.”

After you’ve connected with your child’s feelings, it’s important to set a boundary around the behaviour. 

  • “I get that you’re frustrated, but I can’t let you hit your sister. Hitting hurts.”
  • “It feels really tricky when the tower falls over. It’s okay to be upset, but I can’t let you scream.”

Then, if needed, redirect your child to help them release their anger or shift their environment to regulate their emotions. 

  • “If you can’t use your hands gently, I’m going to have to hold them until you can to keep everyone’s bodies safe.”
  • “Let’s go to your quiet corner and take a break. When your body is calm, you can come back, and we can continue building the tower.”

2. Teach a Skill

When your child is calm, teach your child the skills and tools they need to regulate their emotions, communicate their needs, and understand cause and effect.

Coping and Emotional Regulation

In the moment, simply maintaining eye contact, using a soft tone of voice and being attentive to your child is an effective way to teach them how to regulate their emotions. In these moments, imagine you’re “lending your calm” to your child – this is called co-regulation. 

When they’re calm, you can teach them a new skill to use the next time they’re feeling angry, such as: 

  • Deep breathing: “Next time you feel the urge to scream, imagine blowing out candles on a birthday cake! Take a deep breath in, and blow out!”
  • Set up a calm corner: “I put soft pillows, cozy blankets and some squishy toys inside the closet upstairs. This is a place you can go to when you feel angry or upset and need some quiet time.”

Communication and Problem Solving

  • Narrate/name their feelings: “You were angry when I said it was time to put your toys away. You didn’t want to clean up, so you threw your toys to let me know how mad you were. Next time, instead of throwing your toys, you can say: ‘Mommy, I’m mad! I feel like throwing my toys.’”
  • Create a secret signal: “I know dinner time can be really noisy and chaotic. Let’s create a secret signal so you can let me know it’s too much, and then I’ll know to take you to some quiet place.”

Teach Cause and Effect

Implementing consequences can be an important way of teaching angry kids how the world works and promoting more effective behaviour. 

  • Natural Consequences: If you throw your toys, and they break, you can’t play with them anymore. 
  • Logical Consequences: “If you dump out all of the buckets of toys when you’re upset, you will have to clean it up.”

Related Post: 3 Parenting Tools Every Parent Should Use: Discipline, Consequences, and Boundaries

Conclusion: Nurture the Relationship

Relationships are everything. When children feel seen, heard, understood and valued, it has the power to diffuse anger and promote more positive behaviour because the need for connection with you is the driving force behind many (if not most) of their emotions and behaviours. 

This can look like setting aside consistent one-on-one times throughout the day to connect with your child, whether that is asking them about their favourite show or simply giving them a wink. It can also be as simple as validating their feelings when they’re upset to let them know that you get it. 

Angry kids need to know that their behaviour isn’t going to change the relationship. To communicate this, it can help to reinforce unconditional love by saying something like, “There is nothing you can do that will take away my love for you!”

Offer your angry child empathy, understanding and a nurturing relationship. 

If you have a child who struggles with anger, outbursts, or yelling at you, our Anger Toolkit is the perfect solution to help you and your child! 

The Anger Toolkit printable includes:

  • Engaging activities to help you and your child understand their anger, such as the fillable “It’s Okay to Get Mad” storybook.
  • Fun worksheets, games, and colouring pages to teach your child how to cope with and express their anger.
  • Posters full of soothing mantras and calming tools to hang as reminders around your home or classroom.
  • Plus, so much more!

Explore The Anger Toolkit here!

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.