My Son's Tantrums Leave Me Exhausted!

Filed under: Opinions, Expert Advice: Big Kids

Dear AdviceMama,

I have a 9-year-old son, and three and 2-year-old daughters. My son has had a temper since he was a baby. I thought his tantrums would end by 4 years, but they are getting worse. He throws tantrums for everything: He screams, stomps, cries and yells. We've tried time outs, taking things away, reward systems. They don't work. We have now resorted to yelling at him when he gets out of control. I'm beside myself because I feel I have failed him and I don't know what to do. I never envisioned having to deal with this kind of situation. What can we do?

At Wit's End

Dear Wit's End,

I feel for you. Looking after three young children is tough already, but having one who frequently has tantrums will wear down even the saintliest parent. Here's my advice:

  • Pay attention to when your son has tantrums, and what triggers them. It may sound inconvenient, but I would urge you to get a notebook and start writing down the time of day and circumstances that set off your son's upsets. If you do this for a week or so, you're likely to find a pattern. Are his meltdowns typically in the late afternoon, after he's been at school or in a stimulating environment? Do they happen when you've been spending time with his sisters? Are they before a meal? Just before bed? By taking notes about his tantrums, you'll be better able to prevent them.
  • Once you've discovered at least some of the triggers for your son, take steps to address them. If you notice that he falls apart right before dinner, give him a protein snack half an hour earlier. If he starts to ramp up right after a birthday party, try cutting down on the sweets, or fortify him with healthy food. If you see him melting down every time you give special attention to his sister, give him what I call a Sunday Afternoon Act I, where you take him aside -- one on one -- at a relaxed time, and invite him to offload any pent up frustrations he has about his siblings.
  • Yelling at a child who's having a meltdown is understandable; your son's demands and unreasonable behavior is likely to trigger your own frustration. I'm sure you try not to shout, but in the heat of the moment, it's difficult to manage your reactions, especially when you're probably already feeling like you're spread so thin with everyone's demands. But in my counseling work, I've had great success with having parents identify the thought that triggers their anger, and looking at how its opposite might be as true -- or even truer. If you find yourself getting angry because you're thinking, "My son shouldn't demand a new toy just because his sister was given one for her birthday," try looking at how the opposite of that upsetting thought might be true: "My son should demand a new toy when his sister is given one."

Surely you can come up with reasons -- from a child's point of view -- that your son might feel slighted if he sees his sister getting a new toy, even if he rationally understands that on his birthday, his sisters don't get new things. Taking a look at what triggers your son -- from his vantage point -- will help you manage your upset, and shift to a quieter, more calming way of handling him. Here are a few turnarounds:

1. He's a normal, egocentric 6-year-old who likes new toys and doesn't care if it's not his birthday! Nothing unusual about that. He has a short fuse, and an immaturity about him that makes it difficult to express his frustration with words.
2. In the past, when he has had a tantrum about getting a new toy, he's finally been given one to quiet him down. In other words, perhaps he has learned that having meltdowns produces the results he wants.
3. He's tired, hungry or over-stimulated.
4. He needs opportunities to be gently shown how to identify and name his upsetting feelings, and guidance in expressing himself more appropriately. Simply telling an angry child to "use your words" will do nothing but fan the flames of his aggression.

If you try these ideas, you should see some improvement. Do stay tuned as I offer more advice about tantrums in future columns. It's a hot topic for parents, and one that I look forward to addressing further.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.