Anger-Control for Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum

"I desperately need ideas on how to deal with an autistic child (high functioning) who is often agitated and angered. We rarely know what will trigger him, as it seems to vary widely from situation to situation - and from day to day."

All children experience anger. But, young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), in particular, have difficulty channeling their strong emotions into acceptable outlets.

Anger is a response to a real or perceived loss or stress. It results when an individual’s body, property, self-esteem, or values are threatened. Anger is often a reaction to feeling frustrated, hurt, misunderstood, or rejected. If your youngster does not learn how to release his or her anger appropriately, it can fester and explode in inappropriate ways, or be internalized and damage his or her sense of self-worth.

As a mother or father, dealing with an angry youngster is inevitable. Many of us have heard our own pre-parenting voice whisper to us, saying something like, “That will never be my child acting-out like that” (famous last words). Anger is learned, but so is composure!

As parents, we hope our kids learn to:
  • communicate angry feelings in a positive way
  • express anger nonviolently
  • learn how to avoid being a victim of someone else's angry actions
  • learn how to control angry impulses
  • learn how to problem solve
  • learn how to remove themselves from a violent or angry situation 
  • learn self-calming techniques
  • recognize angry feelings in themselves and others


Below are several crucial techniques to help teach your AS or HFA youngster calmer, more constructive ways to express anger:

1. Acknowledge strong emotions, helping your youngster control herself and save face (e.g., say, "It must be hard to get a low score after you tried so hard").

2. Be sure to VALUE what your youngster is experiencing. For example, if he is hurt and crying, never say, "Stop crying." Instead, validate your youngster's experience by saying something like, "I’m sure that hurts. That would make me cry too." This makes an ally out of you, rather than a target for free-floating anger. As an ally, your youngster learns to trust you, realizing you are there for him no matter what. If your youngster can trust you, he can learn to trust himself and the outer world.

3. Create a “ways to relax” poster. There are dozens of ways to help AS and HFA kids calm down when they first start to get bent out of shape. Unfortunately, most of these young people have never been given the opportunity to think of those other possibilities. Thus, they keep getting into trouble because the only behavior they know is inappropriate ways to express their frustration. So, talk with your youngster about more acceptable "replacement behaviors.” Make a big poster listing them (e.g., draw pictures, hit a pillow, listen to music, run a lap, shoot baskets, sing a song, talk to someone, think of a peaceful place, walk away, etc.). Once your youngster chooses her replacement behavior, encourage her to use the same strategy each time she starts to get upset.

4. Encourage your youngster to accept responsibility for his anger and to gain control by asking himself the following questions: Did I do or say anything to create the problem? If so, how can I make things better? How can I keep this issue from happening again?

5. Facilitate communication and problem solving with your AS or HFA youngster by asking questions (e.g., How can I help you? What can you do to help yourself? What do you need? Is your behavior helping you solve your problem?).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
6. Help your youngster to understand her own emotions by putting her feelings into words (e.g., say, "It looks like it made you angry when they called you names").

7. Help your youngster to understand that anger is a natural emotion that everyone has. Say something like, "It's normal to feel angry. Everyone feels angry from time to time, but it is not O.K. to hurt others."

8. Involve your youngster in making a small list of “house rules” (e.g., we work out differences peacefully, we use self-control, we listen to others, we are kind to each other, etc.). Write them down and post them on the refrigerator. Make the rules clear, and follow through with meaningful consequences that are appropriate for the age of your youngster when the rules are ignored.

9. Listen, reflect and validate (without judgment) the feelings your youngster expresses. After listening, help him identify the true feeling underlying the anger (e.g., hurt, frustration, sadness, disappointment, fear, etc.). Say something like, "That hurt when your friend was mean to you," or “It was scary to have those boys bully you.”

10. Many children on the autism spectrum act-out because they simply don’t know how to express their anger any other way. Kicking, screaming, swearing, hitting or throwing things may be the only way they know how to express their emotions. To help your youngster express her frustrations appropriately, create an “emotion words” poster together (e.g., "Let’s think of all the words we could use that tell others we’re really frustrated"). Then list her ideas (e.g., angry, mad, annoyed, furious, irritated, etc.). Write them on a chart, hang it up, and practice using them often. When your youngster is upset, use the words so she can apply them to real life (e.g., "Looks like you’re really frustrated. Want to talk about it?" …or "You seem really annoyed. Do you need to walk it off?"). Then keep adding new feeling words to the list whenever new ones come up in those "teachable moments" throughout the day.

How can children with High-Functioning Autism cope with anger and depression?

11. Resist taking your youngster’s angry outbursts personally. Always deal with him in a calm, objective way.

12. Sometimes a child’s anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in his life. Not all anger is misplaced. Occasionally it's a healthy, natural response to the difficulties that the AS or HFA child faces. There is a common belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to parents’ frustration to find out that this isn't always the case with their “special needs” child. The best attitude to bring to such a circumstance, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle the problem as painlessly as possible.

13. Stop any aggressive behaviors. Say something like, "I can't let you hurt each other," or "I can't let you hurt me." Then remove your youngster as gently as possible.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

14. Teach your AS or HFA youngster to take a time-out from the difficult situation and have some “alone-time” for a few minutes. During the time-out, your youngster can rethink the situation, calm down, and determine what to do next. The length of the time-out is determined by the intensity of the emotion. A youngster who is simply frustrated may just need to take a deep breath. The youngster who is infuriated probably needs to leave the room and settle down. After your youngster has calmed down, it’s time to decide on a more appropriate response to the situation. There are at least 3 positive choices: talk about it, get help, or slow down. Simplifying the choices makes the decision process easier. Even AS and HFA kids can learn to respond constructively to frustration when they know there are just a few choices.  These choices are skills to be learned. Take time to teach your youngster these skills, and practice them as responses to mad feelings.

15. Try a "time-in" rather than a "time-out." As the mother or father, you are your youngster's main guide in life. She relies on you to be there with her through her difficult emotional experiences, whatever that may be. Thus, no time-out and no isolation may be the best option on occasion. Instead, try a "time-in." Sit with your youngster and incorporate other methods mentioned in this article (e.g., work on breathing with her, ask her questions about her feelings, etc.). The important thing is to be fully present with your child to help her through her emotions. Remember, you are teaching her social skills to be in relationships with others, rather than acting out alone. When some boys and girls are isolated, they often ruminate and feel guilty for their behavior. This only serves to create low self-esteem, which often cycles back to creating behavioral problems.

16. Use feeling words to help your AS or HFA youngster understand the emotions of others (e.g., Robbie is sitting alone and looks very sad; he may be lonely," or "When Michael tripped, he looked embarrassed").

17. Use role-playing, puppets, or videos to teach social skills (e.g., how to treat each other, how to work out disagreements, etc.).

18. When your child becomes frustrated, use those incidents as "on-the-spot lessons" to help him learn to calm himself down (rather than always relying on you to calm him down). Let me rephrase this (because this is an important technique): Every time your child acts-out due to low-frustration tolerance, ALWAYS use that moment as a teaching moment. For example, explain to your youngster that we all have little signs that warn us when we’re getting frustrated. We should listen to these signs, because they can help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your youngster recognize what specific warning signs he may have that tells him he is starting to get angry (e.g., I talk louder, my cheeks get hot, I clench my fists, my heart starts pounding, my mouth gets dry, I breathe faster, etc.).

Once your youngster is aware of his unique warning signs, start pointing them out to him whenever he first starts to get upset (e.g., “It looks like you’re starting to get frustrated" …or "Your cheeks are getting red. Do you feel yourself starting to get upset?"). The more you help your AS or HFA child to recognize the signs when his anger is first triggered, the better he will be able to calm himself down. It’s also the time when anger-control techniques are most effective. Anger escalates very quickly, and waiting until your youngster is already in "melt-down" to try to get him back into control is usually too late.

19. Simple relaxation tools can help your child calm down. For example:
  • Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience from either your memory or your imagination.
  • Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase (“relax” or “take it easy”). Repeat it to yourself.
  • Breathe deeply from your diaphragm (breathing from your chest won't relax you, so picture your breath coming up from your belly).

20. Help your youngster understand that she can “choose” how to react when she feels angry. Teach her self-control and positive ways to cope with negative impulses. Here are some choices she can make:
  • Calm self by breathing deeply
  • Count slowly
  • Draw or play with clay
  • Exercise, walk or run
  • Find a quiet place or sit alone
  • Hug someone, a pet or a stuffed animal 
  • Look at books or read
  • Play music or sing
  • Problem solve
  • Rest or take a shower
  • Stop and think
  • Tell someone how you feel
  • Tense body and then relax 
  • Write about feelings

By following the techniques listed above, parents can help strengthen their relationship with their AS and HFA kids and give them the tools they need to cope effectively with frustration and anger.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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