Article

Ages & Stages: Understanding Children's Anger

Recognizing and working with young children's anger and frustration

By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., and Ellen Booth Church
  • Grades: PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0-2

  • Babies become frustrated when left for too long in their crib with no stimulation.
  • After six months of age, babies may try to feed themselves and become frustrated when an adult intervenes.
  • Babies between the age 12 and 18 months usually begin to walk and can become frustrated if an adult hovers over them or tries to slow them down.

Stage by Stage 3-4

  • Personal space is very important to preschoolers who are often frustrated when having to share their space.
  • Many threes are not yet able to explain the reasons for their anger or frustration.
  • Interrupting play to move on to another activity or duty can frustrate threes and fours who "aren't finished yet."

Stage by Stage 5-6

  • Five- and 6-year-olds may be more able to help a friend calm down than to deal with their own anger and frustration.
  • Increased expectations for mastering kindergarten tasks can lead to frustration.
  • By mid-year, kindergarteners learn the basics of group cooperation, lessening the frustrations that come with working together.

0 to 2 "ME MAD!" by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.

To help keep Toni, a particularly curious baby, safe, her teacher had placed her in an infant seat to keep her from crawling toward the older toddlers, who were romping and chasing one another. As she wriggled about, Toni spied a red rubber ball on the floor. She wanted the enticing object, but could not reach it. She began whining and banging at the chair. It felt so frustrating to be confined and unable to get what she wanted.

All humans feel angry occasionally. Babies sometimes differ from toddlers and preschoolers in what makes them feel frustrated or angry. This can be confusing to adults, who may mistake a baby's anguish-like what results from a tiny tummy feeling empty-for feelings of anger.

It's important to remember that a baby has only one means of letting you know that she is distressed: crying. A painful gas bubble or the need to be snuggled into a nap can bring on tears. Rather than an expression of anger, this is a way to communicate frustration and neediness.

Understanding Anger

What are the situations in which infants and toddlers feel frustrated and angry? Restricting movement is one. When a baby wants to move freely and cannot, it may result in desperate cries. For example, swaddling is a wonderful way of calming babies during their earliest months so that they can get comfortable for napping peacefully. But swaddling a 7-month-old who is trying mightily to lift her body in preparation for crawling can frustrate her and may well result in an angry wail.

After six months of age, babies often try with great efforts to feed themselves. They grab a spoon or wave and bang and swipe at their oatmeal with a separate spoon that the patient teacher has provided as she tries to feed them. If the adult grasps a baby's wrists to keep her from using her fingers, or to remove a spoon while she is attempting to feed herself, she may protest angrily by struggling to free her hands and loudly protesting.

In other cases, some babies have heightened sensory sensitivities that can lead to angry responses. They may be frustrated, for example, by sounds that are too loud or harsh. Still others may become irritable if light is too bright or there is too much crowding and commotion in a room.

Learning to Share

Between 12 and 18 months, a baby can raise herself up and hold onto the edge of chairs or tables. After a while, she launches into the giddy exhilaration of toddling on her own. Notice how often a newly toddling baby tumbles and then picks herself up bravely to try and try again. This is a good time to watch the toddler while allowing her to explore her new independence. She will only express anger when an overly protective or anxious adult tries to prevent these brave new steps out into the world.

Toddlers are learning, slowly, about sharing. They may feel quite angry if you make them share a special toy or a favorite food with a peer. Yet, with gentle appreciation for tiny steps in learning to share, toddlers can act in a caring way. They just need to get there at their own pace.

What You Can Do

Respond promptly to discomforts. This will decrease frustration and increase the baby's sense of being cared for in harmony with her needs.

Remove frustrating restraints from a baby's body. Clothe her in comfortable soft cotton if possible.

Provide safe ways for a baby to keep trying to "do it herself," such as eating or crawling.

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3 to 4 "HE TOOK MY SPOT!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Molly, one of the 3-year-olds in Ms. Benson's class, always asks to sit right next to her teacher when she colors with her crayons at the art table. Molly wants Ms. Benson's exclusive attention during this project. Lately, however, a new student, Janelle, has required Ms. Benson's attention in the art area. Upset because the teacher doesn't look at her drawings, Molly pouts jealously when she does not get the personal recognition she desires. She then pinches Janelle's leg.

At 3, Molly is still egocentric enough that she considers Ms. Benson to be her teacher alone. She is not adept yet at explaining verbally how frustrated and annoyed she feels when Ms. Benson can't be right by her side. As a result, she lashes out physically.

Although anger may not be an emotion you enjoy seeing in preschoolers, it's very natural. Anger is provoked by frustration, and occurs when a child's needs aren't met, he can't do something, or does not receive the attention he desires. A preschooler's frustration level frequently boils over when another child takes or destroys a perceived prized possession. It's not uncommon for a stressed out 4-year-old to use her increased vocabulary to call her adversary names to try to get her possessions back. However, as she works through her frustration and anger, the older 4-year-old might try to use her verbal skills to negotiate a way to work together, share materials, or get things back.

Provide Personal Space

Personal and physical space is very important to preschoolers and any violation can result in frustration and anger. For instance, 4-year-olds, who are very active physical learners, need lots of space to work in and feel frustrated if they are restricted by boundaries they feel are inappropriate. By contrast, 3-year-olds will sometimes begin to cry from frustration if their space is "too big" and they feel lost in a crowd. Space that is too small, such as a crowded group-time area, can cause threes and fours alike to shove, kick, and wiggle as way to resolve their feelings of frustration at being touched, jostled, or boxed in.

Keep Preschoolers Engaged

Preschoolers still have fairly short attention spans and become frustrated very quickly if they are required to sit and wait And, when they are frustrated by boredom, their behavior often devolves. Four-year-olds Gracie and Angie loudly sing their own silly, annoying, version of the teacher's transition song: "Emily's poopy and we know it, dap your hands!" Also bored, and now angry because her feelings are hurt from the teasing, Emily strikes Gracie and Angie. Lots of poking and pushing ensues as the bored and frustrated girls' anger escalates.

Be Flexible

When preschoolers play, they are frequently asked by their teachers to comply with requests to do something they don't wish to do. This can lead to anger. A child who is sculpting with play dough, for example, finds it frustrating to have to suddenly stop when it's cleanup time. It is also frustrating for those preschoolers who are feeling more independent, and particularly for those 4-year-olds who feel more secure in their decision-making, to be told they cannot have more time to complete their activities. Consider that many threes and fours do not see things from others' points of view and may become defiant if told to "Clean up, now!"

It's also frustrating for preschoolers when others physically or verbally assault them. How quickly, or fiercely, a child responds depends on his temperament, age, social maturity level, cultural upbringing, and gender. If a child seems to be constantly frustrated or angry, however, it would be a good idea to keep a record of his outbursts, and talk with the parent.

What You Can Do

Give preschoolers advance warning so that they are not caught by surprise when it is time to change to a new activity. Then, allow time for closure. Try to find out the source of a preschooler's frustration instead of asking him about his angry reaction. You might try asking, "What did Tim do to make you angry?" Let him know that it's okay to have angry feelings as long as he doesn't hurt someone physically or verbally.

Help preschoolers learn to verbally express the actions that made them angry. You might try using puppets to demonstrate alternative ways of managing angry feelings, such as pounding balls of clay or running to let off steam.

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5 to 6 "DON'T BE MAD!" by Ellen Booth Church

It's getting towards the end of group time and John is looking around the room. Beth is twirling her hair, while Jesse is insisting on his turn. Frustration is building as the kindergartners tire of the demands of the literacy lesson. The teacher senses the tensions rising and quickly leads the class in a few verses of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" before excusing the refreshed children off to activity time.

Frustration is often the cause of anger in 5- and 6-year olds. Whether it's because they are not getting their own way, needing to wait, or not wanting to share, frustration can lead to angry acting out or sulking. These causes all have roots in learning how to be part of the kindergarten group. At the beginning of the year, the issues are strong. But by January, children are learning the basics of group awareness and cooperation. This doesn't mean that there won't be temper tantrums or outbursts if they want to be the "first" or "only," but by mid-year, children are more conscious of group issues and are willing to work on them collectively.

Rising Expectations

Not surprisingly, frustration issues start to change during this mid-year period. Now, the focus may shift from others to self, and kindergartners may be frustrated by their own inabilities. As the "academics" of kindergarten increase, their frustrations with learning how to draw, write, read, or count build as well. Five- and 6-year- olds may start setting high expectations for themselves and become frustrated when they do not meet them. As a result, it's important to know when to challenge children and when to back off and change the activity. Watch their attention span. If they start getting distracted during an activity, it probably means they are finished with it for now. Choose an appropriate and positive ending to the activity and move on to something else that is fun. A watchful teacher can prevent anger and frustration behaviors long before they even start.

Expressing Anger

Five-year-olds tend to express their feelings of anger and frustration physically first and verbally second. Though they are beginning to have the words for expressing their anger, they are still developing the self-control to remember to use them. At the same time, they are becoming very aware of right and wrong and socially acceptable behavior. They know they are not supposed to hit or throw things. And they're trying to self-regulate these behaviors in order to feel accepted by their teacher and peers.

Five-and-a-half- to 6-year-olds have stronger language skills and a broader vocabulary that allows them to express their frustration and anger. They are more able to say what is upsetting them with surprising accuracy. For example, they might tell you that a reprimand "hurt my feelings" or an oversight in your monitoring of turn taking "Isn't fair!"

Noticing Others' Feelings

At the same time that 5- and 6-year-olds are learning to express anger appropriately, they are also becoming more sensitive to feelings of anger and frustration among their friends. In fact, sometimes a child this age is better at noticing what upsets a friend than what he himself is upset about. He may even be able to help a friend calm down by sharing a toy or distracting him with another activity. However, when a kindergartner is about to have a "melt down," he still cannot calm himself. This is a normal and useful stage, because it is the process of helping others that will eventually inform children's ability to control their own behavior.

Developing Patience

In the early part of this developmental period, children tend to be impatient when trying new tasks such as complicated puzzles, manipulatives, and board games. They may pound a puzzle piece, trying to make it fit, or cheat at board games. As the year goes on, children begin to learn patience with themselves and others. They learn that they don't have to get it right the first, or every, time. They learn that they need to share materials, take turns, and wait and listen for others to finish. These social skills are essential for school success and for the rest of their lives. Whether it is the line at the grocery store or the monkey bars, life takes patience.

What You Can Do

Provide appropriate ways to express anger. A small play dough or clay table is a great place for a child to go and "pound out" her frustrations.

Model appropriate ways to express frustration. For example, if you are having trouble with putting something together, or, if you spill something, make light of it. Life is filled with frustrations and humor lightens the annoyance.

Anticipate difficulties. Notice when children are losing interest or tiring of an activity, and shift to something fun and more active.

  • Subjects:
    Aggression, Anger, Early Social Skills, Early Childhood Care and Education, Social and Emotional Development
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