The Link Between Anger and Anxiety in Young Children - On Second Thought: from Iffy to Witty Thoughts
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The Link Between Anger and Anxiety in Young Children

The Link Between Anger and Anxiety in Young Children

Anger in young children may signify more than just a “tantrum” and could be a warning sign of a more pervasive emotional crisis.  Children lack the verbal skills to communicate the underlying causes of their emotional reactions and also do not possess the skill to be able to cope with these emotions in a healthy way.  There may be many reasons why a child responds with anger, much of the time these outbursts are a normal part of development.  But there is considerable research that suggests that persistent anger could be a warning sign of mood disorders in children.  Consequentially, understanding pediatric anger is essential in early identification of serious emotional disorders such as anxiety.

A pilot study published by Mireault and Jessica (2007) in Early Childhood Research and Practice found that there is evidence that angry outbursts in young children may be associated with anxiety, that at an early age children “externalize” as an anxiety response.  The implications of these findings prompt the need for parents and educators to be cognizant of the underlying causes of anger and enhance the means to intervene.  Although symptom expression through anger related to anxiety is well documented, there is limited empirical data about the comorbidity of the two in young children.  Dr. Tali Shenfield, the Clinical Director for Advanced Psychology Services warns that this can lead to a risk of misdiagnosis, with children who are angry being diagnosed with bipolar disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  What implications does this lead to for parents?

First, let’s define anger in the context of understanding human behavior.  Anger is a survival emotion related to the “flight, flight, or freeze” response to a threat.  Therefore, when a child responds with anger, there is a possibility they are feeling threatened in some manner.  In most cases, working to understand the concern and offering supportive guidance for the child is sufficient.  Research however, offers that the following warning signs related to tantrums requires more professional evaluation if a child experiences them, include:

  • Tantrums lasting more than 25 minutes
  • Self-injury during these outbursts of anger
  • Aggressiveness toward parents or caregivers or destructiveness towards objects such as toys in more than half of the tantrums
  • Having frequent tantrums (more than 10 at home or 5 at school) more than one time in a 30-day time period
  • Inability of the child to calm themselves

Other factors play a role in the frequency and intensity of anger in children.  Related to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Yale Medicine cites an increase in anger and difficulty transitioning for children.  Parents should note if the concern persists beyond a few days, the age of the child (older children should gain improved emotional control), and if the angry feelings do not dissipate after a short period of time and tend to ruin the day.

This offers parents and educators with fair guidance on how to spot a problem related to a child’s anger outside what is normal for that child’s developmental level and when to seek help.  There remains a need however, to better understand the correlation between anger and other childhood disorders, specifically anxiety.

One thing is clearly evident, no matter the root cause of the anger a child may be experiencing, offering skills to help them manage those emotions is key to long term emotional health throughout their life.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) helps to identify triggers and unhealthy, automatic thoughts that lead to feelings of anger; then helps to replace those with healthy thoughts and methods to cope.  Therefore, all children benefit from learning interventions to help them manage emotional threats, triggering thoughts and feelings, and how to respond to stress.