There can be many reasons why children or teenagers can have problems with anger, aggression or violence.
Causes of anger, aggression and tantrums in young children
For young children, anger and aggression can be caused by difficulties at school, in their home life or with friends. Bullying, social pressures and difficulties in the home can all be incredibly stressful for children, causing them to ‘act out’ with explosions of anger.
Aggression can also be a sign of a condition such as ADHD, depression or anxiety or another complex emotional or mental health issue.
Younger children often don’t have the right words to explain their emotions. They may find it difficult talking about how they feel – the anger or aggression is a way of them communicating this.
Children have to learn how to self-regulate their emotions and calm down and this takes time. Anger and aggressive behaviour can, therefore, be a result of not being able to catch strong emotions before they bubble over.
Causes of anger, aggression and violence in teenagers
The teenage years are a time of huge changes to the brain – for instance, part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex - undergoes a significant amount of rewiring during adolescence. This part of the brain is responsible for decision-making, social behaviour and personality expression, amongst other things so growth here can lead to teenagers acting in unusual ways.
Rapid development and ‘rewiring’ in the pre-frontal cortex may lag behind the development of the “limbic system” – the part of the brain where chemicals responsible for alertness, pleasure and risk-taking. The result may be more impulsive behaviour, angry outbursts and a difficulty in empathising with others.
An important stage of teenage life is developing a sense of identity. One way of doing this is for teens to challenge and push the boundaries and rules they have worked to previously as children.
Difficulties at school, home or with friends can also lead to angry or aggressive behaviour – often children who are being bullied or feel stressed may lash out at those closest – often parents. Teens may not know how to communicate these feelings in a more measured approach.
ADHD, Autism and conditions such as depression or anxiety can also lead teenagers to have angry outbursts or be violent towards others.
1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health condition – but only 30% of these will get help at the right time.
We get asked this question by many parents – after all, we know that tantrums are normal in young children and that the stereotypical teenager is often ‘moody’. So, when does normal behaviour become a problem that needs professional help?
Just as there is no instruction manual to parenting, there is no definitive list of when you should seek help for your child’s behaviour – it really does depend on what is normal for your child and how severe their behaviours are.
An important consideration is whether or not the behaviour leads to a significant impact on the young person’s life, be it at home, at school, with friends or with after-school activities.
Studies have shown that children who display continued angry or aggressive behaviours may go on to have difficulties in adulthood. Childhood anger and aggression can also be a sign of another mental health condition, such as ADHD, depression or anxiety.
The following are some ‘red-flag’ warnings and if you perceive your child’s behaviour or aggression to be an issue, we would advise talking to a child behavioural specialist. If nothing else, they may put your mind at rest.
Behaviour red flags
Risky behaviours and activities that pose a danger to them or others
Violent behaviours such as fighting, carrying knives or planning attacks
Behaviours that are out of the norm or different for your child – this may include becoming socially withdrawn, teary, not enjoying activities they used to or not enjoying life
Getting involved in illegal activities such as stealing, alcohol or drug taking
Concerns raised by their school, for instance, fighting, not engaging in class, not doing homework or playing truant
Refusing to comply with reasonable requests or boundaries.
Dr Banerjea is 'one of a kind". He is remarkably empathetic, non-judgemental and has a unique ability to connect with adolescents. A truly professional, experienced clinician. It is a great shame that not all adolescents suffering from mental health issues are able to have access to a clinician like Dr Banerjea.
Treating anger, aggression and violence
Depending on your child’s circumstances, you may want to consider a Psychiatric assessment for your child. If your child is displaying signs of anxiety, depression, self-harm or ADHD, a full and comprehensive assessment with an expert in Child and Adolescent mental health will identify any issues present and determine the most effective treatment plan.
Psychological therapy can be hugely helpful for children (even young ones) and teenagers to manage their emotions more effectively. Just as adults go through stressful or difficult times, so do children and often having someone to talk to, who they feel safe with, can make a huge difference to how they behave.
It’s normal for parents to feel shame, embarrassment or even fear when seeking help for their children – many parents may feel they have somehow failed their child. It’s important to know that mental health problems are common in people of all ages; we know that they are caused by lots of factors, including biological, genetic and environmental. Research has also shown that the key factor in making a full recovery is to get help early.
Parenting support can also be incredibly useful for parents of children and teenagers who have behavioural problems. Not only does it allow parents to talk to a professional about their experiences, but parents will learn more effective ways of managing the difficult times and preventing crises from occurring.
Excessive anger is one of the most common reasons for mental health consultations, especially in boys. Excessive anger linked with functional impairment could have a huge impact on the young person’s life. It is paramount to understand the cause of the anger which will then determine the best treatment: typically, a combination of psychological, social and, sometimes pharmacological interventions.
Dr Ougrin is a psychiatrist with nearly 10 years of clinical and academic experience specialising in child and adolescent psychiatry. He also has undertaken much research in the area of self-harm and has developed an effective intervention for...
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