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Anger as a Sign of Learning Difficulties

If your child is over the age of 7 and still prone to outbursts, meltdowns, and escalating rages, it may be due to an underlying learning problem.
Learning How to Manage Anger

Anger is an entirely normal human emotion for people of all ages to experience.

The difference between more mature individuals and young children is that young children are still learning to effectively regulate and manage their feelings. As younger children are more focused on their personal needs and less aware of their social role, they express their anger through tantrums and outbursts.

As children grow up, with guidance from their parents on how to manage their feelings, social cues from positive and negative reactions of their friends, and from observing others, they come to understand the social requirements that come with living amongst others. These include sharing, taking turns, and accepting the word “no”.

With the additional motivation to balance their personal wants with that of others so as to maintain harmonious social relations and regular play partners, tantrums slowly subside.

Non-Verbal Always Wins

It is important to note that most of our communication is non-verbal, especially when it involves dealing with intense emotions. Parents need to model how to express anger in appropriate ways as their children watch them closely for such cues. Behavior must be consistent with verbal messaging to be effective.

If parents verbally advocate the need to respond in a calm manner, while regularly have explosive outbursts of anger, their displays of anger are going to resonate more strongly with their children, as non-verbal communication always wins. In addition, losing our temper takes away the opportunity to demonstrate to our children how anger can appropriately dealt with, when we are feeling overwhelmed.

Signs of an Underlying Issue

However even with proper modelling and guidance, there are exceptions. Some children have persistent difficulty in managing their anger and do not appear to gain emotional maturity. This could signal that the child may have other underlying issues. The child would benefit from help with developing a level of emotional literacy that would allow them to work effectively with others, which is an important skill throughout life.  Here is how to recognise the difference:

Typical expressions of anger:
  • Emotional intelligence begins to emerge between the ages of 2 and 6 years old
  • Children can begin to identify feelings, and understand cause and effect
  • Their expression of anger becomes more sophisticated and nuanced alongside speech and language development
  • While they test limits and boundaries, they can make the decision to accept reasoning, or make a counter-proposal without being fixated on just one scenario (e.g. insisting to sleep in their parents bed and no amount of reasoning can defuse the scenario)
  • Children respond to authority figures when they intervene
  • Tantrums and outbursts subside over time, typically by age 7
Strategies:
  • Stay calm and use strategies such as holding and containing
  • Talk through meltdowns, and try to understand what made the child angry
  • Help children identify their own anger, naming their emotions
  • Help children identify the cause of their anger
  • Offer support calmly, but do not try to suppress or explain away their feelings
  • Provide a safe and comfortable environment for the child to express their anger
Possible signs of an underlying problem:
  • Not showing signs of emotional maturity, especially after the age of 7
  • Has frequent emotional outbursts, anger and meltdowns
  • Does not seem able to control their emotions
  • Anger or tantrums escalate, and last more than 30 minutes
  • Shows anger when they can not communicate with parent or teacher who does not understand them (after speech and language development is underway)
  • Anger-related issues interferes with friendships and other relationships at home and at school
  • Focusing on a cycle of taking revenge against those who have wronged them
  • Difficulty in understanding why others may also feel angry despite being guided through a discussion 
Strategies:
  • Stay calm, and use the strategies for “typical” expressions of anger
  • Examine what may have caused the meltdown, including light, sound, texture, and communication
  • Offer choices whenever possible for the most comfortable outcome
  • Consider the possibility anger issues may be caused by an underlying issue (e.g. emotional, social, relational) or psychological difficulties (eg. depression, anxiety, specific learning difficulty, ADHD, ASD, dyslexia)
  • Seek professional help through therapy or consider a psycho-educational assessment to check for the presence of any psychological/educational difficulties

Research has demonstrated that children with learning difficulties experience emotional distress, including anger and frustration, which are related to their difficulties. These include feeling failure when facing lessons that they know they will be unable to understand or complete, feeling defeated that they have difficulty understanding or remembering the content despite their best efforts to stay focused, or feeling incompetent when comparing themselves with their peers.

A child’s learning disability may missed if parents and teachers are focused on behavioural or emotional issues, when these in fact are symptoms of an underlying problem.

If your child has frequent angry outbursts that they can not seem to control, contact the BFDC. We can help.