Show Notes: Angry Kids – Emotional or attention seeking?

Do you have angry kids at times? Does your child throw tantrums? Lash out? Is it attention seeking? Or emotional? Should we ignore the behaviour? Is empathising reinforcing the bad behaviour? I was wondering too, so I asked an expert: Dr Katherine Hurrell. Listen to her very insightful and evidence-based responses.

Sorry about my audio quality, I have identified the problem and it will be fixed next episode.

Angry Kids Image


How is anger expressed?

  • Tantrums
  • Lashing out
  • Sulk
  • Cry
  • Whine
  • Storm off
  • Older children might use words to express anger including “I don’t like that” or “go away”
  • Silent tantrums
  • Self-harm

What can we do with angry kids?

  • Teaching Kids how to deal with these emotions is very important.
  • Be present. Usually ignoring isn’t helpful.
  • Don’t try to reason when they’re intensely angry.
  • When anger transitions to sadness then you can comfort and talk it through.
  • John Gottman is an expert in this field.
  • “Emotion coaching parents” have children with better social and emotional adjustment:
    • Respond in a supportive and warm manner to emotions.
    • Tune in to what their child is trying to express.
    • Listen with empathy.
    • Validate what their child is feeling.
    • Connect with their child to help resolve the distressing feeling.
  • Ignoring is often unhelpful, it leaves the child with emotions they don’t understand and don’t know how to cope with.
  • Ignoring can also increase risk of parental frustration and anger. This can result in a hostile reaction that escalates the anger.
  • Safety first, talk later if necessary. Communicate that anger is a natural emotion but violent reactions are not acceptable.
  • Label the emotion. e.g. “You are feeling very angry”.
  • Validate why your child is feeling anger. e.g. “Your sister keeps knocking over the tower you are trying to build. That must be so frustrating.”
  • Provide alternative responses. “I know you feel angry, but it is never OK to hit. Let’s practice the Daniel Tiger Song.” (I use this song all the time for my own emotional grounding. It is good modelling for the kids too).
  • Retain your boundaries. If the tantrum is about no icecream, don’t give sweets.
  • Discuss emotions with your kids during and afterwards. Read stories. Model coping strategies.
  • Tantrum action plan:
    • 1. Be present. Validate the emotion. Connect. (Even if the source of emotion seems tiny).
    • 2. Once anger has subsided into sadness, problem solve:
      • Problem focused reactions – help to figure out ways to address the problem.
      • Emotion focused reactions – let them communicate their feelings, try to make them feel better.

What makes anger different?

  • Anger seems to be particularly difficult to emotion coach.
  • Parents tend to get angry.
  • It is seen as inappropriate or naughty behaviour.
  • Anger escalates.
  • Triggers fight or flight response.

How attitudes affect emotion coaching.

  • Parents who view emotions as OK, valid, and acceptable are more likely to emotion coach.
  • Parents who view emotions as harmful, toxic, and manipulative try to distract from emotions.
  • There are gender differences in what emotions and behaviours are socially acceptable.

By empathising are we also reinforcing the tantrum behaviour?

  • Possibly but…
  • It is generally unhelpful to assume that children are just attention seeking.
  • Often this behaviour is a consequence of children feeling overwhelmed and attempting to communicate that.
  • Look at the purpose of the behaviour.

Can tantrums be due to attention seeking?

  • Yes. If you think this might be the case:
    • Have regular quality time-in. If tantrums are attention seeking, this should prevent them.
    • Positively reinforce good behaviour with attention too.

How does this relate to anxiety?

  • Anxious children have more difficulty identifying negative emotions and knowing how to cope with them.
  • Parents of anxious children tend to struggle with emotions to some extent too and are less likely to be emotion coaching.
  • Anxious children can get overwhelmed by emotions, not just the situation.
  • Factors about the situation may be triggering these emotions, so it is helpful to discuss these factors in advance.

About Dr Katherine Hurrell


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What have you tried when your kids have been angry? What has helped? What hasn’t? Any tips on differentiating emotional and attention seeking tantrums? Please share in the comments below.