Skip to main content

Anger and Aggression

Anger and Aggression

Definitions of anger vary from theorist to theorist; it has been variously associated with physiological arousal, unpleasant feelings, appraisals of insult, desire for revenge, frustration, and aggressive behavior. Although anger has often been classified as a biologically grounded, universal emotion, it is clear that anger is interpreted, managed, and regulated differently in different social contexts. Cultures vary in their attitudes toward anger, norms regarding its expression, and beliefs about the extent and normalcy of anger in children, all of which contribute to child-rearing patterns and children's experiences. Teaching children to manage anger is one of the important tasks of child rearing and provides vital socialization into local norms.

Variations within and between Cultures

The degree to which anger is sanctioned differs considerably by culture. Some cultures strive to eliminate anger in children, whether by avoiding mention of the emotion or by extensive discussion of anger and its negative consequences. Jean Briggs's work among the Utku (an Inuit group) established that while expressions of anger in infants up to the age of two were tolerated, older children and adults were held to strict emotional standards that forbade explicit manifestations of anger. In general, parental treatment of children's anger ranges from providing angry children with loving attention to shaming them or imposing corporal punishment. Barbara Ward's account of temper tantrums in the children of Kau Sai, China, during the early 1950s indicates that adults simply ignored children's tantrums, leaving children to cry themselves out. Indeed, adults were so unconcerned about these fits of anger that they often instigated them by frustrating children. However, aggressive responses were feared and strictly controlled; children who fought each other were quickly restrained, and even verbal aggression was considered wrong. Some societies abhor physical violence but tolerate verbal expressions of anger. One anthropologist's account of a southern French village in the 1950s indicated a sophisticated pattern of verbal aggression in the village, with ritual insults and epithets, and a simultaneous absence of schoolyard fighting of the sort familiar in the United States. Cultures and historical periods differ, as well, in their acceptance of adult anger directed toward children. Child-rearing advice in Europe and America since the mid-eighteenth century has been fairly consistent in admonishing parents to avoid expressions of anger toward (or even around) their children, but Michelle Rosaldo's research among the Ifaluk tribe in the Philippines found it common for adults to express anger toward children.

However, even within culture, childhood anger norms also differ across social class and gender. Expressions of anger are often prohibited toward those of higher status, as they may constitute a challenge to the social hierarchy. One of the social nuances children must learn is that of deference, and who is considered an appropriate target for anger. This is particularly relevant for children from families explicitly marked as low status, such as those found in slave or caste societies, but it also applies to children from peasant or working-class backgrounds. Indeed, children must attend to status markers even within their own families; these include age differences among children and the status differences between children and adults. Although expressions of anger toward those of higher status may be limited, stereotypes of the working class (for example, in the United States) have often assumed that they are less in control of base emotions, including anger.

Gender and Anger

In patriarchal societies, where males are accorded higher status, girls are often more restricted in their expressions of anger than boys are. In many cases, the degree of appropriate anger is regarded not merely as a normative component of sex roles but also as a natural difference between males and females. In early modern Europe, for example, girls and women were taught that references to anger as a basis for making demands was simply inappropriate, although similar demands could be grounded in other emotions, such as jealousy. Anger, which was associated with responses of honor, was a male emotion. This differential carried over strongly to the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. U.S. standards of femininity argued that anger was unladylike, that a "real" woman would simply not experience the emotion. Since, in fact, girls and women often did feel angry, great effort was urged to keep the emotion in check, and angry feelings often provoked negative self-evaluation and concerns regarding femininity. Novels like LittleWomen detailed how hard girls worked to live up to these expectations, and American girls today still report more self-regulation of anger than do boys.

Ideologies regarding anger have changed over time in Western cultures. While girls were still expected to be free of anger, anger in boys and men (even among dominant males) began to be of greater concern in European society by the eighteenth century, as part of what Norbert Elias has called the civilizing process. In particular, as part of a growing idealization of a loving family, anger was increasingly viewed as inappropriate in the domestic sphere; anger seemed to violate the emotional ties that should positively unite family members. Prescriptive literature also began to warn against anger toward inferiors, such as servants. It is not clear how much this advice altered children's experiences of anger, but some effect seems likely. Growing concern about dueling by upper-class young males in the eighteenth century, which extended into debates throughout the nineteenth century, expressed new ambivalence about anger and aggression.

By the nineteenth century in the United States, a complex anger formula had evolved for middle-class boys. Boys should be taught to avoid anger in the home because it would contradict the loving relationships that should build family life, and anger toward superiors continued to be considered inappropriate. However, anger was an important part of masculinity, so it should not be completely eliminated in boys, but rather channeled to useful purposes. A boy without the capacity for anger might grow up to be a man without competitive fire or without the ability to fight injustice. Parents were urged to provide boys with experiences that would help them retain their anger but direct it constructively. The popularity of sports, including boxing lessons, for boys at the end of the nineteenth century was in part related to their role in maintaining but channeling anger. Many uplifting stories for boys involved the expression of righteous anger against bullies, often in defense of weaker children, including sisters. The standards for boys and men were highly complicated, in that boys were simultaneously warned against lack of anger and against angry outbursts.

The actual culture of nineteenth-century American boys seems to have embodied these directives, albeit in ways that were rougher than some parents would have recommended. Boys were expected to stand their ground in fights without becoming gratuitously angry. Boys who fled, rather than summoning up anger and courage, were derided by their peers. Between the 1840s and the 1880s in the United States, the word sissy (originally a British term meaning girl, or sister) evolved to cover boys who could not display appropriate anger and who cowered in fear. Sissy came to mean a boy who lacked the emotional apparatus that would prepare him for manhood, of which appropriately channeled anger was a central fixture.

Discouraging Anger

By the 1920s in the United States, multiple forces resulted in a challenge to the belief in the value of anger. Growing concern about juvenile delinquency contributed to an emerging belief that anger should be discouraged among boys, not merely channeled. Child-rearing experts in the 1930s were less convinced of the positive purposes of anger and began to use the term aggression instead. These shifts in anger norms coincided with broader changes in socialization and patterns of labor. As more and more men headed toward occupations in the service sector or in corporate management, the importance of smooth, anger-free professional relationships intensified. Channeled anger lost its function. Anger was now a bad, even dangerous, emotion, pure and simple. At the same time, the intense focus on anger-free femininity eased, creating a bit more leeway for expressions of moderate anger among girls.

As anger and aggressiveness emerged as dangerous elements, adults became increasingly concerned about children's exposure to aggressive or angry behavior in the media. The belief that comic books, radiomovies, and television might provide a stimulus to unhealthy emotions and antisocial behavior instigated recurrent efforts to censor children's media. The advent of aggressive lyrics in adolescent music, particularly by the 1990s, and the graphic violence of video and Internet games continued to raise questions about access to aggressive impulses. Children's ongoing fascination with this fare, however, elicited varied interpretations: did this indicate (or even cause) unhealthy aggressiveness, or could media representations provide safe outlets for anger and aggression? Other possible avenues for venting anger, such as punching bags, were suggested by some experts, but many others believed this would only exacerbate the child's anger. There was more widespread support for encouraging children to identify and talk out their anger so that it would not seem to generate any problematic results and at the same time would not fester.

Even amid the growing concern about children's anger, many of the earlier themes persisted to some degree. Fathers were more likely than mothers to worry about their sons being sissies if they lacked the capacity to stand up for themselves. Girls worried more about anger than boys did, on average, and were more likely to cry when placed in anger-generating situations. The term sissy went out of fashion, partly because it was no longer appropriate to encourage boys to be aggressive; but new words, like wimp, conveyed some of the same meaning.

As efforts to constrain anger increased, aggressive behavior became a central concern. Schoolyard fighting declined due to adult supervision and changes in boys' culture. By the 1990s in the United States, school violence declined statistically. But individual cases of horrific mass violence, abetted by the availability of lethal weapons, kept adult anxiety high. Early in the twenty-first century, a new concern about bullying reflected the substantial adult consensus that aggressiveness was now bad for children individually and collectively. Building on research pertaining to delinquency, authorities and experts debated the crucial causal factors in aggressive behavior and the possibility of identifying potentially violent adolescents. Childhood aggression increasingly fueled adult anxieties regarding the physical and psychological health of youth, both perpetrators and victims.

See also: Discipline; Emotional Life; Gendering; Guns.


Averill, James R. 1982. Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Briggs, Jean. 1970. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elias, Norbert. 1982. The Civilizing Process. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Pantheon.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1980. Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. 1993. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books.

Russell, J. A., and B. Fehr. 1994. "Fuzzy Concepts in a Fuzzy Hierarchy: Varieties of Anger." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67: 186-205.

Sabini, John, and Maury Silver. 1982. Moralities of Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solomon, Robert. 1984. "Getting Angry: The Jamesian Theory of Emotion in Anthropology." In Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion, ed. Robert A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stearns, Carol Z., and Peter N. Stearns. 1986. Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stearns, Peter N. 1994. American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: New York University Press.

Trumbach, Randolph. 1978. The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Academic Press.

Underwood, M. K., J. D. Coie, and C. R. Herbsman. 1992. "Display Rules for Anger and Aggression in School-Age Children." Child Development 63: 366-380.

Ward, Barbara E. 1970. "Temper Tantrums in Kau Sai: Some Speculations upon Their Effects." In Socialization: The Approach from Social Anthropology, ed. Philip Mayer. London: Tavistock.

Wylie, Laurence William. 1974. Village in the Vaucluse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Deborah C. Stearns

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Anger and Aggression." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . 22 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Anger and Aggression." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . (September 22, 2018).

"Anger and Aggression." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved September 22, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.