Childhood Studies Child and Adolescent Anger
Ginger A. Moore, Kelsey M. Quigley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0251


Although expressions of anger are frequent and normal in childhood, the prevailing attitude is that anger is destructive and must be controlled or eliminated to avoid negative consequences and outcomes. However, anger is a universal human experience and plays an important role in helping individuals and groups to reach goals, address injustices, and approach difficult and onerous tasks. Particularly in childhood, anger is often confused with aggression and this conflation has contributed to the belief that anger is always destructive and should be discouraged. In fact, aggression is only one of several possible outcomes of feeling angry and can also be elicited by many emotions other than anger, including fear, sadness, shame, and jealousy. Although managing children’s anger is one of the most salient parenting challenges—it has inspired thousands of books for parents and children of all ages providing advice and help for dealing with children’s anger—no textbooks, anthologies, journals, or reference works are currently dedicated to the topic of children and anger. Thus, this article aims to provide an overview of the development of anger, with an emphasis given to the distinction between typical and atypical anger and on the functional role of anger during childhood and adolescence.

General Overviews

Existing texts and anthologies about anger, such as Potegal, et al. 2010, focus on adults, but they may include chapters on anger development. Child anger is conceptualized within broader theories of emotions, most of which can be classified into either universalist or constructivist conceptualizations. One influential universalist theory, basic emotions theory, first articulated in Ekman and Friesen 1971 and updated in Ekman 1992, proposes that there are six emotions that people in all cultures express and recognize: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Ekman and Cordaro 2011 elaborates on this original conceptualization to describe emotions as innate, discrete types that involve distinct and coherent systems of behavior, physiology, and subjective and motivational states. Ekman’s theory drew directly from the evolutionary models in Darwin 1872, proposing that anger’s facial expression, neurobiology, and motivational tendency had evolutionary counterparts in narrowing of the brows and tightening of facial muscles, resulting in focused attention, communication of threat, and preparedness for fight. These processes mobilize the organism to approach obstacles and to defend oneself and others, which Averill 2011 highlights as playing a prominent role in social justice. In contrast to universalist theories, constructed emotions theory in Feldman Barrett 2017 proposes that emotions vary considerably between and even within individuals, in terms of subjective feelings, behavior, and neurobiology. In other words, what is called anger is really many different “angers,” different states constructed in the moment as complex response systems of elements coming together in unique ways for different people and for the same person at different times. Regardless of their differences, universalist and constructivist emotion theories agree that emotions serve important functions, in particular, to regulate social relationships. From this, the functionalist view of emotions emerged, led most especially by the author of Campos, et al. 1994. However, while universalist theories argue that the function of anger is similar for all individuals, constructivists argue that there is an infinite number of functions depending on context and characteristics of individuals at the times responses are elicited. A rapprochement of universalist and constructivist theories could emerge through recognition that emotion development represents a process of increasing differentiation and complexity, from basic to constructed emotions in an ongoing developmental process, as our motivations, health, needs, and desires change, and as we gain or lose the ability to regulate emotions, behavior, and attention. Anger may be the best emotion to illustrate this process, precisely because of the extensive interest in managing and reducing its occurrence.

  • Averill, James R. “Ten Questions about Anger That You May Never Have Thought to Ask.” In Multiple Facets of Anger: Getting Mad or Restoring Justice? Edited by Farzaneh Pahlavan, 1–25. New York: Nova Science, 2011.

    Averill’s chapter in this edited text argues that anger plays unique, constructive, and necessary roles in resolving social wrongs and restoring justice. Averill’s emphasis on social justice and righteous anger questions typical beliefs about anger, including the relation of anger to aggression, social norms and rules about anger, and the universality of anger across cultures.

  • Campos, Joseph J., Donna L. Mumme, Rosanne Kermoian, and Rosemary G. Campos. “A Functionalist Perspective on the Nature of Emotion.” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 59.2–3 (1994): 284–303.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5834.1994.tb01289.x

    In this monograph, the authors fully articulate their functionalist theory of emotions, which proposes that emotions aid individuals in achieving their goals; thus, emotions play important functions, especially in regulating our social lives. Functionalism has important implications for conceptualizing anger in children as they develop and their social spheres widen from the family to peers and other adults.

  • Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray, 1872.

    This book was the third in Darwin’s writings that put forth his theory of evolution. This extension of Darwin’s theory emphasizes the innate and biological foundations of emotions, proposing that emotions emerged in direct relation to the functional aspects of bodily movements associated with motivational states. Darwin’s work on how emotions evolved is at the core of universalist theories of emotion.

  • Ekman, Paul. “An Argument for Basic Emotions.” Cognition and Emotion 6.3–4 (1992): 169–200.

    DOI: 10.1080/02699939208411068

    This paper reinforces many core elements of basic emotions theory and extends Ekman’s earlier work on expressions of emotion to conceptualize each basic emotion as a coherent system. These coherent systems include antecedent events that elicit the emotions, expressive signals, associated subjective experiences, physiological responses, and motivational action tendencies. This revision addresses some of the earlier criticisms of basic emotions theory.

  • Ekman, Paul, and Daniel Cordaro. “What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic.” Emotion Review 3.4 (2011): 364–370.

    DOI: 10.1177/1754073911410740

    The authors clarified basic emotions theory in key areas. They described variations of the basic emotions that cluster in families, accommodating evidence for large individual differences in how basic emotions are experienced and expressed. They emphasize the impact that culture and life experiences may have on shaping these individual differences. Core elements of basic emotions theory are maintained, in particular, the tenet that emotions are “preprogrammed” and “involuntary.”

  • Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen. “Constants across Cultures in the Face and Emotion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17.2 (1971): 124–129.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0030377

    Ekman and Friesen sought evidence for universal facial expressions of emotion. They studied literate industrialized Western and Eastern cultures and an isolated preliterate culture, the Fore of Papua New Guinea. They found that Fore individuals associated the same emotion concepts with specific facial expressions as did individuals in literate Western and Eastern cultures, providing support for the theory of universal basic emotions.

  • Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

    This book provides the most detailed and comprehensive presentation of constructed emotions theory to date. In it, Barrett challenges classical basic emotions theory and presents evidence for a distinctly different view of emotions as dynamically constructed in the moment to fit the unique circumstances. Feldman Barret applies constructed emotions theory to several contexts, including child-rearing, health and illness, and the law.

  • Potegal, Michael, Gerhard Stemmler, and Charles D. Spielberger, eds. International Handbook of Anger: Constituent and Concomitant Biological, Psychological, and Social Processes. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 2010.

    This relatively recent edited text focuses on anger in adulthood but includes some sections on the development of anger. The text emphasizes biological aspects of anger in addition to cognitive, cross-cultural, and developmental aspects.

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