I have been a fan of the anger iceberg diagram for many years.
I often use an anger iceberg worksheet in my therapy sessions with children and teens at Everlief Child Psychology.
Most powerfully, the anger iceberg worksheet is a useful tool to help us parents understand that anger is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are complex emotions underneath the surface of the water that we need to understand.
Anger Iceberg: Understanding Your Child’s Anger
It may feel like your child has an anger problem or just cannot control their emotions right now.
But angry actions are usually triggered by secondary emotions such as shame, anxiety, sadness or vulnerable feelings.
Sometimes there is complex mix of underlying emotions which rise to the surface as anger.
The Anger Iceberg For Kids: Why Do We Need to Understand the Root Cause of Our Children’s Anger?
Simply put, the only way to effectively resolve anger is to understand what’s causing it.
If we know that something is contributing to anger, we can adapt that thing, take it away, or develop some kind of action plan.
We need to understand what’s going on underneath the anger iceberg.
For example, let’s look at an 8 year old child who is becoming frustrated and bored because they have undiagnosed learning difficulties, meaning they cannot learn effectively in the classroom.
The learning difficulties may not have been spotted, but their frustration and anger outbursts when they get from school are clear.
If we just “manage” the anger – using consequences and rewards for example, the underlying issue will not go away.
Even if the anger subsides, the child will not reach their learning potential and may begin to believe they can’t succeed academically. This will contribute to low self-esteem.
So, we need to understand exactly what is going on for each child who is expressing high levels of anger or frustration.
Anger Iceberg Worksheet: Developing Our Understanding and Insight Into Children’s Anger
We can only develop healthy ways of coping with emotions if we can identify them in the first place. The ability to identify emotions is crucial to emotional intelligence and so it should be taught from an early age.
Poor mental health can result from an inability to identify emotions.
We can get stuck in patterns of anger and reactivity, for example, without any insight into what is causing it or how to get out of the cycle.
This makes us feel out of control. It can make us feel bad about ourselves.
Anger Iceberg Activity: Identifying Hidden Emotions Under the Surface
The emotions centre of our brains (the limbic system) is quite primitive. It priorities survival.
When something happens which makes us feel vulnerable or unsafe – even if our lives are not actually threatened – the fight or flight response is often triggered.
The central nervous system prepares the body to fight the danger or run away from it. In the case of anger, the fight response has been triggered. In other words, your child feels threatened or unsafe in some way.
But the primitive brain cannot tell the difference between life-threatening danger or something much ore minor.
It sets off the alarm in both cases.
Chemicals released into the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol, create a burst of aggression.
Multiple physical responses happen within milliseconds. Fists clench, heart rate increases, breathing becomes more shallow… all of these responses are automatic.
In essence, multiple underlying emotions or situations can contribute to an outward expression of anger.
It’s unhelpful to consider the anger on its own without identifying the causes.
The anger iceberg activity will help you look beyond the surface anger to the more complex emotions underneath. You will be able to help your child understand themselves better and you can then make an action plan together.
Anger Iceberg PDF
Download your free anger iceberg PDF here:
Anger Iceberg Free Printable: Instructions
If you have a younger child aged 10 or under, you will probably need to complete the anger iceberg worksheet with them.
- Write down what shows on the surface.
- Do they call it anger, or something else, like frustration?
- Next, talk through the questions together, and discuss some examples of times when they were angry.
- Help them name some of the more complex emotions that may have contributed.
- Write down the situation (s) and emotions under the surface of the anger iceberg.
- Reflect on what you and your child have written under the surface of the anger iceberg.
- What should happen next?
- What actions could they take to help reduce their anger?
- Does your child need help from you or another adult?
- If so, what might this look like?
- You may not be able to resolve the anger or make things better straight away. It’s important to remember that you have made a great start by trying to understand what is going on beneath the surface of the iceberg.
- This in itself may prevent future anger outbursts by deepening your child’s awareness.
- You should return to the discussion regularly and continue to follow an action plan where possible.
- What has changed?
- What could you do next to make things better?
If your child is older (11+) they may wish to complete the anger iceberg worksheet by themselves. This is okay.
Anger Iceberg Extra Tips
Although the best way to deal with anger is to understand and prevent it, there are also some “in the moment” strategies which your child can use when they feel angry.
Anger management strategies must be practised regularly when your child is calm.
For example, one great way to recover from anger more quickly is to take several slow, deep breaths. Your child should breathe all the way into their belly, and release the air very slowly (through nose or mouth).
This type of breathing triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In short, the PNS helps the body recover once a danger has passed. It says “you are safe now, you can calm down, everything is okay”.
For more strategies see my article called Anger Management Techniques for Teenagers: A Parent Guide.
Anger Iceberg: Case Study (Angel)
Twelve year-old Angel has struggled with friendships and academic work since starting secondary school.
She is scared every day when she goes to school. She doesn’t know who to hang out with it break times so she hides in the toilets most of the time.
Angel is dyslexic and isn’t getting any extra support at her new school.
She feels out of her depth in class, apart from in art and drama. She copes by staying quiet and trying to copy others.
At home, Angel’s primary emotion is anger.
She can’t bear for her family to know she hasn’t made friendships and is struggling in class.
She resents her parents because she feels they wouldn’t understand. They know she has become withdrawn but they feel their own anger and frustration that she won’t talk to them about her underlying feelings.
They try to stay positive with her and praise her as much as they can. However, Angel’s difficult feelings remain unexpressed and she feels more and more out of control.
Angel’s parents finally made a breakthrough using the anger iceberg worksheet.
Angel found it easier to write down her raw feelings rather than talk about them directly.
Finding a way to understand the underlying issues was a great relief to Angel’s parents.
It was also a huge weight off Angel’s shoulders. She realised that her parents could help her get more support at school.
Angel’s angry outbursts reduced straight away in both intensity and frequency.
Angel’s parents arranged a meeting with the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator and together they drew up a support plan to help her within the classroom, including increased adult support. She was also invited to a lunch time board games club twice a week where she made two new friends.
Anger Iceberg: Case Study 2 (Jake)
Fourteen year-old Jake is being bullied at school by a group of older kids.
He feels ashamed and angry that this is happening.
Jake escapes into the fantasy world of gaming. He plays FIFA and Apex Legends obsessively. He avoids thinking about school life and gets very angry if his parents remind him about school work.
Jake plays video games late into the night because he doesn’t want to be alone with his thoughts at night.
He has started to get angry in class, because he is so behind in his school work and feels sick of teachers criticizing him.
Jake completed the anger iceberg worksheet for himself and didn’t share it with his parents, but it helped him understand that he wanted things to change.
He decided to tell his parents and head of year about the bullying.
Despite a lot of unexpressed emotions remaining between Jake and his family, Jake’s parents understood that his anger was caused by a complex combination of emotions. They showed more patience towards him, and helped him improve his self-care including sleep.
Jake’s head of year took swift action with the bullies.
The bullying stopped immediately and he was also offered individual sessions with the school counselor to support his mental health.
Addressing our children’s anger isn’t always straightforward, but tools like the anger iceberg worksheet can make a huge difference.
By digging deeper, we can spot the real feelings behind children’s anger. It’s not just about managing the anger, but understanding its root.
The anger iceberg activity is a brilliant visual and concrete way of helping us and our children to become more aware of complex emotions and figure out steps to make things better.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.