When I found out I was having my first boy five years ago, I was elated and excited ... and then worried about anger. There had recently been yet another school shooting, followed by yet another rash of headlines about boys, guns and rage. I understand the roots of that kind of violence are deeply complex, and that in my own life I am surrounded by loving, empathetic men. But I was also a hormonal soon-to-be first-time mom (who, in hindsight, was probably grappling with a touch of perinatal anxiety). I worried that I would raise an angry young man.
I was not alone. Concerns about boys and anger abound, as comedian and writer Michael Ian Black captured in his viral 2018 New York Times opinion piece “The Boys Are Not All Right.” “The man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self has only two choices: withdrawal or rage,” he wrote. The story has more than 2,100 comments. Clearly it struck a chord.
Now that I know my boys and have spent years watching their beautiful, complex little personalities unfold, those fears I held during my pregnancy seem distant and reductive. Of course they do not inherently struggle with anger simply because they are boys. And yet they do lash out — sometimes in frustration, sometimes when I ask them to do something they don’t want to. What I want is to help them navigate that anger, so they can experience the feeling, but not be overwhelmed by it.
“Parents need to give their children the tools to understand their feelings, and it needs to be developed just like developing understanding of other complicated and abstract concepts,” said Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
So, first and foremost, it helps to understand the basics of what anger is: basically, a response to a perceived threat. The body releases adrenaline (the hormone that plays a key role in the fight-or-flight response) and the heart rate and blood pressure go up. It is absolutely fine — and sometimes really positive — to feel angry.
It’s when that anger is not managed in a healthy way that it can become problematic. So here are some tips for parents to keep in mind.
First, understand that there can be differences in how boys and girls experience and express anger
Obviously, there is so much nuance when it comes to individuals, emotions — and how they express those emotions. It is not fair, nor accurate, to say that all boys experience anger one way, while all girls experience it another. And research shows it is a myth that boys and men experience anger more than girls and women.
Yet experts say there can be big broad-strokes distinctions parents might want to at least have in mind as they help guide their children through all of this.
“Psychologists have a saying that boys externalize and girls internalize. This means that boys are more likely to take their anger and distress and direct it outward, where it can become verbal or physical aggression. On the other hand, girls are more likely to direct their anger and frustrations inward towards themselves, so it can become self-blame or even depression,” Meyers said. “Naturally, this is a simplification, but there are gender differences in the rates of these different disorders between girls and boys, as well as between women and men.”
Help your child learn how to label his feelings
“The first step to stress and anger management is to help your child identify what’s going on, and to empathize with it,” said Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, a social worker who runs a private counseling practice in St. Louis that focuses on anxiety counseling and anger management for children and teens. Young kids don’t always recognize what they’re experiencing. Heck, adults struggle to identify their root feelings a lot of the time. But if you don’t understand what the problem is — in this case, feelings of anger or frustration that might lead a child to act out — you can’t solve the problem. Labeling the feeling is so important.
In a younger kid, that might mean explicitly describing their emotions — like, “your body looks like it’s feeling frustrated,” Dunn offered by way of example, or “it seems like you are feeling angry, because I told you ‘no.’” Don’t worry about being presumptuous or getting it wrong. Your kid might turn around and tell you that they’re not actually feeling angry, they’re feeling XYZ thing — and that’s totally fine. You’ve prompted them to identify what is going on internally.
Older kids and teens probably won’t respond all that well to those kinds of prompts, but they might still need some help identifying their feelings in the moment. So for them, labeling might sound something more like, “If I were in this situation, I’d probably feel pretty mad. Walk me through what’s going on for you,” Dunn recommended.
“One sentence that I often use when working with boys is that ‘you can feel whatever you want to feel, but you can’t always do whatever you want to do.’”- Steven Meyers, psychologist
Although parents might react to a child’s anger or outburst by walking away (and strategic ignoring can certainly be one way to help diffuse tantrums), experts say there is a strong argument to be made for soothing children.
“Anger can overwhelm young children. They do not necessarily have the ability to calm themselves down so that they become more reasonable,” Meyers said. “There are many ways to soothe and comfort an angry young child, but it may require a shift in the parent’s mindset or focus in the moment.”
Be patient and calm. Make it clear that you’re not looking to just stifle or deny their anger in the moment — which is especially important with boys, who have historically been taught to bottle up their emotions. The goal is ultimately to help your kids get to a point where they’re able to self-soothe, perhaps by taking deep breaths, walking away or taking a few moments to themselves to calm down. By acting calm and soothing in the moment yourself, you’re modeling compassion for oneself and for others, which is a very good thing.
Don’t confuse being soothing with being permissive.
“Consequences are needed when anger spills over into aggression, especially as boys get older,” Meyers said. “One sentence that I often use when working with boys is that ‘you can feel whatever you want to feel, but you can’t always do whatever you want to do.’”
Consequences can take many different forms, depending on how old your child is, what the specific circumstances are, and what his personality responds to — and, of course, those things can change by the day. But things like brief time-outs or loss of privileges can be powerful tools in teaching boys that there is a difference between emotions and behaviors. Spend a bit of time thinking about the types of consequences you’re comfortable with, so that you’re not blurting out random threats after your child has expressed their anger in a way you’re not comfortable with. Certain strategies work better for some children than others, so you might need to recalibrate and try out a few things.
Remember, what you’re trying to teach is that it is absolutely OK to feel angry and to express that you are feeling angry. It is not OK to act out on that anger in an aggressive way.
If you’re worried about your child’s anger, ask for help
“Psychologists use the standards of frequency, duration, intensity, and age-appropriateness when they assess whether a behavior is a symptom of a disorder,” said Meyers, so those are criteria parents who are concerned about their son’s anger or aggression should pay attention to. There aren’t hard and fast rules about what’s typical and what’s not, but if your son seems to be struggling with anger on a daily basis, that might be a sign something more serious is going on, Meyers said.
Dunn said it’s also helpful to consider whether certain behaviors — like aggression — are happening across settings, such as if your child is having similar problems at home and at school. That kind of consistency signals that it is less about the particular situation in which they find themselves, and more about their general response to feelings of anger.
If you’re concerned, experts say talking to your child’s pediatrician is a good place to start, and checking in with his teachers can also be helpful. It might take some digging.
“Parents don’t always know what is going on underneath their sons’ anger. There might be stress, or anxiety, or depression,” Dunn said. “It’s important to find out what it might be.”