Anger is one of the first negative emotions that a kid experiences, according to Dr. Raymond DiGiuseppe of the Anger Research Project. At first, it’s harmless or even adorable. There’s something funny and sweet about an angry baby. That changes and so does the threshold of acceptance for rage-induced behaviors. There’s a reason for this: Humans understand implicitly that kids experience anger differently than adults. But few understand the specific mechanisms and motivations at play.
“Anger is involved in a high physiological arousal in response to a threat to one’s resources or a violation of social norms,” explains DiGuiseppe. That physiological reactions includes a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and crucial bodily systems getting prepared to act and strike out. “It’s usually associated with external blame,” he adds. “You anger when you feel you’re stronger and more resourceful than the person who’s frustrating you.”
That suggests the first difference between the way children and adults experience anger. Angry children are ridiculous. They are rarely stronger or more resourceful than those they might blame and–more to the point–they’re unlikely to be able to pinpoint the source of their rage anyhow. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t feel it or react when a perceived norm is violated. For instance, a toddler that has only know mom stays with me will experience the shattering of that norm when she leaves them for date night. A kid who is told they can’t have juice has their resources threatened. What ensues, however extreme, is both predictable and, in a sense benign. After all, most young children don’t know what they’re raging against.
“They’re not going to be aware of the thoughts that come with anger,” notes DiGuiseppe. “They may be aware of the unfairness of the issue they’re angry about, but they’re less able to put it into language.”
This inability to name the emotion or the reason for it can lead to some unfortunate interactions with adults. Because when adults become angry, they also often become righteous and vindictive. It’s easy, then, for an adult to misunderstand the threat posed by a child’s anger in those terms. But it’s highly unlikely that a child is feeling those emotions associated with anger, particularly prior to pre-school. And if the child were feeling those emotions, it’s unlikely they would be able to take action against their own impulses because they lack metacognition, the ability to think about thinking. Parents who intervene when children get angry aren’t just reinforcing good behavior, they’re stepping in on behalf of undeveloped brain function.
The good news about childhood anger, developmentally speaking, is that children also haven’t developed what’s called “executive functions”. These are the parts of the brain that provide for self regulation through planning, remembering, focusing, and time management. In other words, angry children can’t really seek revenge–at least not in a way that’s likely to get results.
“Anger differs from other emotions in that it activates behavior,” say DiGuiseppe. “If you have immature executive function skills you’re going to be more impulsive and act on your anger, much more than older people.”
All that said, a neurotypical kid is often building what’s called “theory of mind.” This is the ability to understand that other people have thoughts that are distinct, different and often divergent from your own. It’s an important way a kid can learn to dampen their anger.
“Kids who don’t have theory of mind are not going to be able to take another person’s perspective,” explains DiGuiseppe. “They’re going to lack empathy. So the earlier you teach that the better off you are.”
All of these factors are crucial to the way a kid experiences anger differently than an adult. But these differences have nothing to do with the intensity of the emotion. Physiologically, there’s no evidence to suggest that a kid will feel anger any more strongly than an adult. That may be surprising considering how extreme kid anger can look. However, what adults are seeing is not an emotion bigger than the one they themselves feel, but an emotion that is largely out of control. Maybe it’s not so adorable after all.