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What to do about an angry 9-year-old — Good Parenting

Angry girlDear Dr. Debbie,

My 9-year-old daughter, the oldest of my three children, is often angry. What can I do about her behavior? She frequently explodes at me or her siblings, seemingly without provocation. I’m not sure if there is something new going on at school, or if this has anything to do with her father — who has been out of the picture for several years. Nothing has changed in her life that I’m aware of.

The Volcano’s Mom

Don’t miss last week’s column The benefits of a baby-sitting co-op — Good Parenting

Dear Mom,

There can be a variety of single causes or a combination of causes for unprovoked anger. Usually anger is the result of interrelated issues. An example is “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” A cranky child grumbles about the shoe she can’t find to a family member who then responds with irritation because, obviously, the shoes should be together. A string of escalating cranky interactions quickly “make” the one with the missing shoe fly into a rage accusing one and all of deliberately hiding it. This, of course, is a preposterous charge which just adds to the hurt feelings all around.

Three principal causes of irritable behavior are fatigue from insufficient sleep, low blood sugar from inadequate nutrition and muscle tension from lack of exercise. These are easy problems to cure. A tangle of bad tempered interactions that erode family relationships, however, is harder to unravel. Underlying or contributing issues within the family, at school, or in her own body or mind may be the problem.

Sufficient Sleep

The National Sleep Foundation recommends nine to 11 hours of sleep for your daughter’s age. You can tell if she is not getting enough sleep if she tends to sleep in on a non-school day. To ensure she gets adequate sleep, set an appropriate bedtime and leave time for organizing for the next day, a warm bath and some light reading. If she’s getting the recommended amount of sleep, then anxiety, allergies or tummy trouble could be interfering with the quality of sleep.


Food plays a role in behavior and can have more effect on some individuals than others, particularly growing children. Low blood sugar can occur shortly after overloading on sugar (or white flour which quickly turns to sugar through digestion). The pancreas then spits out a large quantity of insulin to quickly lower the amount of sugar in the blood. Likewise, skipping a meal or not eating enough leaves the brain without the nutrients it needs to behave civilly. A nutritionist can help your daughter improve her food choices and eating habits.

Physical Activity

The psychological benefits of exercise are well known. Movement requires the heart to pump blood to muscles as well as to the brain. This helps the brain to work better for solving problems including relationship conflicts and finding one’s shoe. Regular exercise increases a child’s confidence so she may be less likely to pick on someone else. Exercise elevates a negative mood to a more pleasant mood thus preventing an escalation of angry words and actions. Exercise also brings on more restful sleep promoting a better mood to begin the next day.

Large motor activity is as easy to accomplish as a walk around the block or pushing the furniture aside for some spirited dancing. Many families take advantage of scheduled activities, such as swim classes or basketball leagues, to assure that everyone has adequate exercise in their week.


There has been a recent trend for puberty to start about a year ahead of the last generation. Early puberty (termed precocious puberty) can begin as early as age 7 in a girl. Unprovoked anger is unfortunately a common symptom of spurts of hormones coursing through one’s body, often erratically and unpredictably. Your daughter’s physician can help you determine if this is what’s happening and how to help your daughter cope with the changes that are part of this normal, albeit sometimes miserable, process.

Legitimate Anger

Let’s assume none of the above are completely responsible for your daughter’s anger. Something or someone is getting her goat. Explore counseling options through your daughter’s school, your religious center, the family’s medical care providers or mental health resources in your community. There may be an adult family member or family friend who has a good rapport with your daughter who could serve as her confidante and ally. Counseling is an excellent way to help an angry child express her frustrations and disappointments so she doesn’t blow up at her family members.

A professional counselor can help your daughter, and you, develop constructive routines to follow when she is feeling angry. These could include writing down her thoughts, taking a brisk walk, going to a quiet corner for a cleansing breath or kneading some dough.

Addressing Issues

An effective counselor will help your daughter to identify the specific cause or causes of her anger and help her strategize to fix problems that are fixable. Depending on what her issues are, counseling might be for your daughter alone, you and her together or her siblings as well. It may be appropriate to connect with her teacher if the problem stems from school, such as a learning difficulty or trouble with a classmate.

If her anger stems from her father’s absence, you will need to think about the best way to address this, maybe after a few counseling sessions on your own. Some schools and religious organizations offer Rainbows for All Children, a support group for children experiencing the loss of a parent through death, divorce or extended absence. At a Rainbows meeting, a trained facilitator uses activities and discussions to help children understand that anger is part of the grief process.

Whatever the causes, your daughter will be relieved to find that, with support, her anger can be successfully managed.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]

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