Mastering Anger and Aggression - The Brazelton Way


By T. Berry Brazelton

By Joshua D. Sparrow

Formats and Prices




$25.99 CAD



  1. Trade Paperback $19.99 $25.99 CAD
  2. ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 13, 2005. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

How to react when your toddler bites his playmate or your kindergartner confronts a bully? Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow bring their much-admired insight and support to this crucial, and ever more timely, childrearing challenge. From an early age, babies and toddlers need to assert themselves in a daunting world, yet eventually learn to do this without hurting others. After showing how aggression emerges at each age, Brazelton and Sparrow offer practical, wise advice on anger, fights, self-defense, the fears and nightmares that arise when children become aware of their own and others — aggression, the effects of TV and video games, and of experiencing real life violence. They offer specific, effective ways to help children understand their own aggressive feelings and channel them into healthy self-assertion in schoolwork, games, and sports.


Also in the series
Discipline 0-7382-0783-7
Calming Your Fussy Baby 0-7382-0781-0
Understanding Sibling Rivalry 0-7382-1005-6
Feeding Your Child 0-7382-0919-8
Toilet Training 0-7382-0920-1
Sleep 0-7382-0782-9

Also in the series
Discipline 0-7382-0783-7
Calming Your Fussy Baby 0-7382-0781-0
Understanding Sibling Rivalry 0-7382-1005-6
Feeding Your Child 0-7382-0919-8
Toilet Training 0-7382-0920-1
Sleep 0-7382-0782-9

also by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
On Becoming a Family
The Growth of Attachment Before and After Birth
Infants and Mothers
Differences in Development
Toddlers and Parents
Declaration of Independence
Doctor and Child
To Listen to a Child
Understanding the Normal Problems of Growing Up
Working and Caring
What Every Baby Knows
Families, Crisis, and Caring
Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development
Going to the Doctor
with Bertrand G. Cramer, M.D.
The Earliest Relationship
Parents, Infants, and the Drama of Early Attachment
with Stanley I. Greenspan
The Irreducible Needs of Children
also by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D.
Touchpoints Three to Six
Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development
Calming Your Fussy Baby: The Brazelton Way
Sleep: The Brazelton Way
Discipline: The Brazelton Way
Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way
Feeding Your Child: The Brazelton Way
Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way

This book is meant to complement, not substitute for, the advice given by your child's pediatrician. It should not be used as an alternative to appropriate medical care. The authors have exerted every effort to ensure that the information presented is accurate up to the time of publication. However, in light of ongoing research and the constant flow of information, it is possible that new findings may invalidate some of the data presented here. Before starting any treatment or new program, you should consult your pediatrician about your own child's health, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

To the children and parents
who have taught us so much through the years

Ever since I wrote the first Touchpoints book, published in 1992, I have been asked by parents and professionals all over the country to write some short, practical books on the common challenges that parents face as they raise their children. Among the most common are crying, discipline, sleep, toilet training, feeding, sibling rivalry, and aggression.
In my years of pediatric practice, families have taught me that problems in these areas often arise predictably as a child develops. In these short books I have tried to address the problems that parents are bound to encounter as their children regress just before they make their next developmental leap. Each book describes these "touchpoints"—of crying, discipline, sleep, toilet training, feeding, sibling rivalry, and aggression—so that parents can better understand their child's behavior. Each also offers specific suggestions on how parents can help their child master the challenges they face in these areas so that they can get back on track.
In general these books focus on the challenges of the first six years of life, though occasionally older children's issues are referred to. In the final section, special problems are discussed, though these short books are not intended to cover these topics exhaustively. Instead, we hope that these books will serve as easy-to-use guides for parents to turn to as they face their child's growing pains, or "touchpoints" that signal exciting leaps of development.
As with Touchpoints Three to Six, I have invited Joshua Sparrow, MD, to co-author these books with me, to add his perspective as a child psychiatrist. Though difficulties such as temper tantrums, fighting, and biting, for example, are both common and predictable, they make great demands on parents. These kinds of problems are for the most part temporary and not serious, yet without support and understanding, they can overwhelm a family, and send a child's development seriously off course. It is our hope that the straightforward information provided in these books will help prevent those unnecessary derailments, and provide reassurance for parents in times of uncertainty, so that the excitement and joy of helping a young child grow can be rekindled.

Helping Young Children Understand and Master Their Angry Feelings
In this book we will attempt to map out the times when anger and aggressive feelings surge to the top for children. Most adults think of anger as an ugly emotion, one to keep under cover. Parents are likely to be horrified at their children's displays of hostility and loss of control. Yet anger is not only unavoidable, but necessary. There are many triggers for a child's predictable outbursts, and these become less upsetting when parents can anticipate them and understand how they can help their child learn to get them under control.
Anger not only alerts a child to danger and provides the necessary energy to respond to it, but it is a clear form of expression of himself as a person. Anger, at certain times in his development, becomes a child's way of establishing his independence. Parents will need to understand this purpose and work with it while providing firm limits, so their child can grow up feeling strong and independent, but safe in his outbursts. This book will lead parents through the "touchpoints" of anger—when they surface, and what we need to do about them. At the point where we can't tolerate a child's aggression, our own anger can prompt us to say, "Now it's time for discipline, to make your anger safe." As they help their child understand and master his emotions, parents will use their own as their guide, and as a model for the child.
Learning to handle angry feelings, to channel aggressive urges into constructive action is a lifelong challenge. Parents may be surprised by how early their baby communicates his feelings, how early he senses and responds to theirs. Their job will be to welcome and accept a wide range of feelings, to help the child express them effectively, and to learn that he can handle them safely—on his own.1

The First Angry Feelings

A baby's first angry outburst can come as shock to new parents. This is bound to happen before he's even 4 months old! Remember the first time your baby cried out angrily when you took too long to fetch his bottle? You were taken aback by his sharp new cries and down-turned mouth. In the first months, parents watch for their baby's needy cries—of hunger, pain, boredom, and fatigue—and are ready to respond. But seeing their baby get mad can be a shock. No longer so cute, nor so sweet and innocent, an angry baby is signaling a new way in which he is becoming a person.
The emergence of angry feelings and the aggressive behavior that they sometimes lead to is hardly as eagerly awaited as a baby's first word, or first step. But like those two critically important events, angry feelings and figuring out what to do about them are important ways for him to assert himself and make a place for himself in his world. His parents will have to make room for this new part of his personality. If they can face these feelings, they can also help their baby learn to face them.

Where Do Angry Feelings Come From?

Anger most often arises when our survival or well being appears to be threatened. We seem to have been designed to react this way so that we will recognize our predicament and do something about it. In fact, anger can set off physical responses—flushing, sweating, pounding heart, breathing hard and fast—that push us toward aggressive action.
Sometimes, though, anger leads to action too quickly, without time to think. Aggression can then cause harm that might have been avoided, and may even fail to provide the self-protection that had been its goal. Often we misunderstand and overreact. Or, when feeling entitled, we become irate about something we'd do better to accept. One 4-year-old, disappointed that his birthday party was winding down, stomped into the living room as the last guest left, and to his parents' amazement, mightily toppled over two heavy armchairs. He couldn't accept that his special day wouldn't last forever.
We can all remember such feelings. But limits can help young children learn when they've pushed too far: Discipline becomes the second most important gift parents can give a child. Love comes first, but learning how to rein in strong feelings like anger and disappointment and to live within limits comes next. Birthday presents pale in comparison.
Angry feelings are an internal signal that warns of a threat, real or imagined, from without or within. (The 4-year-old was threatened not only by the end of his party, but also by the overload of excitement within him.) However, when these feelings linger, outlasting their purpose, there is a cost: Later on, a child may become cross, transferring his initial feelings to an unrelated situation, or he may turn inward, and become depressed. Neither of these reactions is readily understood by the child or his parents.


Though "aggression" often refers to fighting or other hurtful physical acts, it can also mean simply asserting one's self. It is possible to protect one's self, get what one needs, and realize one's potential, all without hurting anyone. We value a child who is passionate about life and about others, a child who explores, tries out his impulses, and follows his dreams. But as he learns to assert himself in these ways, he needs his parents (or caregivers) nearby to set safe limits on this exploration. He will need to test them. A parent's limits reassure him that he will not be allowed to go too far. Discipline will show him that he will still be cared for in spite of his attempts to separate and become his own person. The tantrums of the second and third years are part of this passionate approach to life. Parents who remember this can see these years as the "terrific twos" instead of the "terrible twos."

Identifying and Naming Angry Feelings

Children experience irritation, annoyance, frustration, and anger, along with the physical sensations that may go with them, before they have words for such feelings. Even when they do, young children are for the most part too caught up in their busy activity of the moment to be monitoring their own feelings. As a result, they more often seem to be taken by surprise by them, and may need our help to stop, gather themselves, and figure out what the feeling is, where it came from, and what to do about it. Some children seem to do this on their own. Most need a parent's help to find words and use them. We often use terms like "boiling over" or "hotheaded" or "overheated" to convey what it feels like when anger is about to spill into action. Though this may seem abstract, four- and five-year-olds readily understand these images of angry feelings heating up inside. The longer anger lingers without being addressed, the more likely it is to boil over. That's one reason why learning to identify and name feelings early in life are critical skills.

Handling Angry Feelings

When a child knows that he is feeling angry, he has the chance to let others know. But if these feelings overwhelm him, he'll lose control. Then his wailing and flailing will be his way of telling the world how he feels. With his cries, even a newborn can let his parents know when something is wrong, and that they must do something about it. As distressing as this can be for parents, there can also be a sense of relief in knowing that their baby can already alert them to his needs. Some babies can do so more clearly than others. Older children, too, differ in their capacity to register protest in clear, understandable ways that parents will want to respond to.
As they grow older, most children will learn to control themselves long enough to find words to communicate their angry feelings clearly. Sometimes, simply being understood seems to be enough to settle those feelings. At other times, though, the cause of the child's anger needs to be dealt with. "She bit me" or "He took my toy" or "They won't let me play with them" are familiar cries for adult help. Now you can step in and help him learn to handle his anger and resolve the conflict that set it off.
Parents feel the weight of their responsibility to help their child find constructive ways to handle anger. But later he will need to feel confident that he can control his anger on his own. So from the first, think of this as your child's job, though he will need your help. First, he'll need to learn to calm the intensity and physical distress that go with angry feelings, so that he'll be ready for the next tasks: understanding the source of the angry feelings, and figuring out what, if anything, can be done to address the cause.

Temperament and Individual Differences

Each child will have his own unique threshold for reacting to threats of danger, frustration, or humiliation. One child may barely notice a threat, but another may respond by flying into action. A quiet child's response might be to shut down, or to run for cover; an active child might start waving his fists in the air. One child may seem untouched by one slight after another, only to explode later at a far more trivial one, while another may react every time. The speed and intensity of a child's reaction is unique to him, a feature of his temperament. So is the way he settles down and responds to his parents' efforts to calm him.
A child's individual temperament can be understood and taken into account as parents consider how they will help him learn to calm himself, to identify, name, and express his feelings, and to think through a solution to the problem that has set them off. Parents of quiet, accepting children may wish for a more aggressive child, just as parents of an easily inflamed child may wish for a less impulsive one. But for the child, having a parent who accepts and understands his temperament is essential if he is to accept himself.

Ghosts from the Nursery

To help a child recognize his feelings and learn to handle them, parents will need to be open to all of his feelings, and to face their own self-control. For a child's feelings and behavior will, of course, set off our own. We are bound to react, and at times to model less self-control than we would like. This may just be because the child has shocked or offended us. The hurt may run deeper, though, when a child's feelings, or the way he acts on them, call up the "ghosts" from our own pasts.
For example, parents who were bullied as children may sometimes find themselves responding as if they were reliving a childhood memory and being bullied all over again by their small child. Or, a mother of a boy who has been violently mistreated by his father may find that she sees the father's anger in the child. She may feel too frightened to help the boy learn to master his aggressive feelings, or even to believe that this is possible. Parents may also worry that a child's aggression is a sign that he'll follow in the footsteps of a violent adult relative. This, of course, can lead parents to overreact, frightening the child, and making him feel more hopeless about getting his anger under control.

From Culture to Culture: Expressing Angry Feelings

Expectations for handling emotions such as anger vary from one family to another, from one culture to another. These differences are adapted to the conditions a community faces, and will shape a child's emotional responses. Some cultures, for example, have had to live with constant threats, and as a result their members may always be on guard, or prone to strong reactions. In some cultures, emotions may be expressed intensely, and in rapid succession; in others, they may be held back, or revealed only with great restraint.
Children learn most from the behavior of the adults they admire. Next, they learn from trial and error. Children in most cultures are given chances to make mistakes and to learn from them. Their ability to handle strong feelings will depend, in part, upon whether their families believe they can do so.

Touchpoints of Learning to Handle Angry Feelings

"Touchpoints" are the predictable stages in a child's development in which rapid spurts of learning occur. Just before each spurt in learning the child is likely to regress to earlier behavior—as the "cost" for the new step he is about take. He and his parents will feel desperate, and they may even fall apart. He's bound to feel undone by this backwards slide, a temporary loss of a previous accomplishment. But these regressions, or "touchpoints," are important opportunities for learning.
A child's ability to control himself is often thrown off track by his efforts to master a new step in another area of development. When a child's angry feelings lead to a temper tantrum or an assault on someone he loves, he frightens himself, and feels ashamed. How terrifying to be at the mercy of such strong feelings, and how embarrassing to be made powerless by them!
His parents will be at a loss to explain why things that had been going so well now seem to be going so wrong. "Will he ever get himself under control?" parents of a young child are bound to wonder. Beneath this question are lurking fears that the inevitable outbursts of these early years will snowball into more dangerous out-of-control behavior in adolescence and adulthood.
The development of self-control over anger and aggressive feelings is not a simple learning process. In Chapter 2, we will trace this process from birth through the years of early childhood. The steps a child takes toward mastering his feelings will be a source of pride, critical to his self-esteem and his sense of independence. Though the process of learning self-control is long and arduous, these early steps are building blocks for the lifelong challenge of handling aggressive feelings. At each step, parents may feel torn between letting the child find his own way and rushing to the rescue. Understanding the child's strengths and vulnerabilities at these moments will help parents make their decisions.

Challenges to Self-Control


  • Nashville City Paper, “Ask Amy” syndicated advice column, 4/4/10
    “…one of my favorite baby and child experts”

On Sale
Apr 13, 2005
Page Count
192 pages

T. Berry Brazelton

About the Author

T. Berry Brazelton, MD was professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and adjunct professor of psychiatry, human behavior, and pediatrics at Brown University.

Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., child psychiatrist and supervisor of inpatient psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston, is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Associate Director of Training at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. He is co-author with Dr. Brazelton of Touchpoints Three to Six and several titles in the Brazelton Way series.

Learn more about this author