Anger in Children; Nature vs Nurture?

This article seeks to discuss the role of inherited and acquired traits (from life experience) in reinforcing anger with a focus on children.



Anger is an intense emotion for the expression of displeasure. The manifestations of anger range from mild irritability to intense rage or fury.  For children, temper tantrums occur early in life and are considered to be part of the developmental changes you might see in your child. Temper tantrums appear to be responses of 2-3-year-olds to frustration or displeasure. The frequency of these tantrums is expected to reduce as the child grows older. A 7-year-old who is having frequent tantrums needs to be assessed by a mental health professional to determine the causes and the best approach to stopping it. When a child’s anger is beginning to interfere with the ability to attain optimal psychological development and functioning, while also limiting the capacity to learn and play at home or in school, there is a need to seek an expert’s opinion.

The feeling of anger appears to be an instinctive emotional state in response to frustrations, anxiety, pain and other grievous impulses. However, the manifestations of anger are basically acquired via learning. Learning is simply described as the change in behavior that results from experience. Like almost all human characteristics, the likelihood of a child repeating a behavior depends on the consequences or the outcomes of the behavior. Allowing your child to have his/her way by throwing tantrums will make such a behavior to persist. So the first point I will be making is that, “although it is natural (in some situations) for children to see tantrums as a way of communicating displeasure, anxiety and other unpleasant emotions, the persistence of these untoward responses are highly dependent on the quality of the nurturing that the child receives from significant others (parents, siblings, teachers, peers etc)”.

Temperaments in children and personality in adults are heritable. This suggests that children who grow up with foster parents could still possess traits that are similar to that of their biological parents. For instance, a man who is considered to be gentle could have children who have similar traits. However, the environment and life events could provide the trigger for changes in traits of individuals. Beyond the issue of natural traits, when children watch their parents express anger in violent ways or disruptive ways, they can gradually learn such behaviors and consider the same as a norm. Another critical example from the environment is “The Television”! When children are allowed to view violence on TV indiscriminately, they tend to learn violent ways of expressing anger from there. We need to make a conscious effort to control what our children are exposed to. If we allow them to watch wrestling and all sorts of fighting on TV, we shouldn’t be surprised to see them trying it at home or elsewhere.

Lastly, some children who have a developmental disorder or a learning disability could exhibit anger as a feature of their condition in the context of a challenging behavior. They manifest such behavior as a means of communicating their feelings or expectations. It is believed that anger or temper tantrums in them could basically be a wrong approach to the right need. This necessitates the need for a detailed analysis of their behavior to be able to interpret such behavior within the context of antecedents and consequences, which lays the foundation for approaches towards modifying the behavior.

In conclusion, though children at a particular level of development tend to express anger in seemingly disruptive ways, they will outgrow it due to the fact that this could be a developmental stage. Also, controlling anger and other emotions in children could be a means of determining the level of development. The environment and the experiences our children have can also shape their responses when they are angry. Our role as parents, teachers, and guardians is to ensure that children are provided the right environment and role models who will help in positively influencing their behavior toward appropriate and mutually acceptable alternatives. If you need to better understand your child’s anger issues, there is no harm or shame in getting an assessment done!!

Stay safe and sane; help others do the same by sharing this!

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Ola Ibigbami


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