My three year old boy (the middle of three boys; older brother is 9, younger brother is almost 2) is smoldering with anger pretty often. He flies off the handle at little things. I've dealt with a good share of tantruming with my oldest, who had a speech delay and sensory issues, but this is something else. At the least, he's nasty - he glowers, talks through his teeth, and says very rude things. At his worst, he goes into fits of rage: eyes wide, red face, sweat, teeth and fists clenched, screaming, kicking, biting (if you come near), throwing things, knocking over furniture, breaking toys, shredding books... I have tried letting him "work it out", but after 45 min of this my other children are terrified, and, my tantruming child's asthma starts to rear its ugly head and he starts to gasp for air.

I have tried attempting to teach him "healthy" outlets for his anger - such as bouncing on an exercise ball (which worked for my oldest), counting, deep breathing, and using his wonderful vocabulary to just tell me he's mad. So far, nothing has worked.

Usually, as is typical for this age, this starts because he is being unreasonable (I want to be naked at school!), or misbehaving (stealing chocolates from mommy's special candy dish).

I firmly believe he is transforming shame, disappointment and sadness into anger. I bought a book that illustrates feelings (designed for pre-schoolers) and he furiously, adamantly, skips the two pages that talk about "sad" and "embarrassed." That's when the "mad face" shows up... how can I teach him to feel sad, shame, etc., in a healthy way?

I am hoping someone can offer some advice on how to help me help him calm down before he even gets to that point. He needs help that I am apparently not capable of. I know he is in hell when he feels that mad, and I am prepared to accept I am doing something wrong so I can fix this.

He never hurts himself on purpose (thankfully). But I am concerned he will accidentally. And, now that he shares a room with his baby brother, I am concerned for him and his belongings.

My last resort method is to put him in the shower - fully clothed - to snap him out of his rage. He often forgets what he was initially mad about and so is suddenly mad about the wet clothes, which I immediately help him with, and then he begins to calm. It takes several minutes for his breathing to return to normal, and then, he sleeps.

Does he need professional help perhaps? Nothing traumatic had happened... he's just got a really short fuse. It all boils down to this: it is probably an aspect of his personality (being quick tempered) and we want to channel it now before it has a devastating effect on his life. We all know how repressed anger can destroy someone and how equally destructive it is if allowed to be expressed freely as well (it's difficult to have friends, relationships, jobs, if one is flying off the handle frequently).

My husband and I have looked at our own behavior and are doing our best to always stay calm, and to acknowledge and talk about the times when we aren't (we're only two humans working full time and trying to raise three boys after all!). No matter how calm and even we are though, his temper is as strong as ever.

We discipline using the three warning system and time outs. The time outs are less and less effective because they turn into tantrums. We started using more positive reinforcement for good behavior (less emphasis on bad behavior) and this has only given him the idea now that he is invincible and can torture his brothers and get away with it.

We are totally stressed out by him, and feel really sad that our happy go lucky baby has gotten such a mean streak.

  • We are in exactly the same situation and have tried most of what you've written except taking him to a professional Jul 8, 2014 at 6:49
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    Professional help??? The parents need that, not the kid. The kid is doing nothing wrong, just taking advantage of the pushovers around him. Good business sense. Y'all need to hit your kids, damn. Don't you realize that forgetting we're animals and trying to shun away reality is the reason why society is so screwed up today?
    – MickLH
    Mar 15, 2017 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


This is a really tough one as it seems you have tried many of the standard methods to help a child work through his tougher emotions already. On first glance at the title, I actually thought, "how do we not already have some answers addressing this question?" but on reading further, I see your unique challenge.

First and foremost I would like to offer the idea of getting professional help. You ask if you should, and my answer is an emphatic yes. Specifically, find a specialist in children and child-hood emotional/social pathologies. Such a person will be much better equipped to help you because they can meet with your son, observe him (as well as you and he together) and get a much better idea about what might possibly be behind your son's strong emotions. What you are describing here is beyond what I would consider normative behavior based on the many experiences I've had with tons of children and reminds me more of some of the kid's I worked with social/emotional challenges.

There can be many causes behind challenging behavior including traumatic incidents, but sometimes challenging behavior arises for other reasons too. According to studies by Shonkoff and Phillips in 2000, "the question of nature vs. nurture is obsolete" as both are tied up in the resulting adult through the numerous factors that play into that adult's "raising" and biology. What this means is that there are "risk factors" that come together to result in children that exhibit challenging behaviors (whether toward themselves or others) and that usually, more than one of these factors must come together to result in a violent adult, or at least abnormally aggressive. Your job then, is to tease out as many of the risk factors impacting your son as you can and eliminate those that can be eliminated while moderating or diminishing those that can be moderated and developing coping mechanisms in yourself and your son for those factors that are out of your control.

Some of the other kinds of things (other than a traumatic incident) that can play a role are: certain complications during pregnancy and birth, parenting style, being in an impoverished situation, a depressed mother during pregnancy or just after birth, exposure to certain substances during pregnancy as well as after birth, as well as the possible existence of a plethora of verbal and non-verbal social - emotional disorders (such as sensory integration disorders) which it sounds like he may have an increased risk for since we know his older brother has had sensory integration difficulties.

Additionally, there are genes associated with more aggressive tendencies in some people - it is possible there is a genetic component to your son's anger (Holden, 1996, Reiss and Roth 1993 and Frick 1991). If you can figure out what is behind his anger it will be easier to nurture him effectively - a professional is the best person to enlist in that endeavor.

The second thing I'd recommend is making sure you and your other family members are also getting breaks and assistance. If your son is as angry as you describe', and often, it is stressing everyone out and all of you will need coping skills as well as help with dealing with the emotional fall-out of whatever challenge it is your son is facing.

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    thank you for your input. I have been thinking I need to call in a professional. I think you're onto something with the "aggressive tendencies" occurring due to genetics: I'm married to the grown up (but better behaved) version of my son.
    – Jax
    Feb 10, 2014 at 0:17
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    @Jax I agree about the possible genetic component. This kind of temper can signal a genetic sensitivity to adrenaline or testosterone, and it can be successfully controlled with cognitive-behavioral techniques once your child is old enough to be aware of what's going on. (It's similar to how anxiety disorders can sometimes be treated.)
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Feb 10, 2014 at 17:48
  • @KitFox can you point me in the direction of some literature/information on the sensitivities that you mentioned as it relates to children? I keep finding stuff about how organs are affected, but not kids.
    – Jax
    Feb 12, 2014 at 5:16
  • @Jax I don't know how experienced you are with scientific articles. You might start here. Here is another one that is more accessible to the laity. Searching for "genetic sensitivity aggression" will give you some good hits. You might also add "children" on the end. I have one more link, too long for this comment, so...
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Feb 12, 2014 at 14:14
  • @Jax I'll put it here. This one is a scholarly review article about differences that children exhibit in response to abuse. (I'm not suggesting there is any abuse in your household, but exploring the interaction between genetics and behavior is probably relevant to you.) If you can't access the article, you can search for the title and find the complete pdf.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Feb 12, 2014 at 14:19

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