Tantrums after the toddler years are normal and happen because of emotional overload. Frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness, can lead to a child having a tantrum.Parents can help children manage anger, tantrums and intense emotions using positive parenting tools.
Has your four, five, six or even ten year old ever melted down into a pile of tears or flung into a fit of rage? Do you occasionally have to deal with anger, fits of screaming, kicking or door slamming?
Are Tantrums Past the Age of Three Normal?
Many parents worry about tantrums and big emotional outbursts past toddler-hood. You may have asked yourself if tantrums after the age of three are even normal. Or you may have felt at a lost as to how to help your child manage her anger and tears. Many parents have shared with me that they didn’t even expect tantrums to show up beyond age three.
As children grow, they can learn to understand and manage outbursts, tantrums and intense emotions. As parents, our help is very much needed in this process. I chatted with several parenting experts about tantrums past toddler-hood and here is what they had to say:
Understanding Emotional Overload
People expect tantrums to disappear after the toddler years, but that’s just not how it works. Have you ever seen an adult screaming about something meaningless?!?!? Big kid tantrum! Tantrums for older kids are often wrapped up in unspoken fear, frustration, sadness, or anxiety. – Katie Hurley, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist
Tantrums, from toddlers and beyond are simply the result of emotional overload. Frustration, anger, dissapointment, sadness, even joy can lead to a tantrum.
No Bad Kids
After the toddler years, we seem to be freigthened, surprised and annoyed when our “big” kid has a tantrum. How quickly does the mind jump to negative labels: difficult, dramatic, bratty. It’s easy to think a child may have “emotional problems” since they can’t keep it together when they discover a play date was cancelled or they lose at a game of connect four.
Andy Smithson, LCSW and Tru Parenting founder weighs in:
Parents are thrown off guard and a little bewildered at what to do with big kid tantrums partially because they are less common, but partially because it demands that they actually face the fact that control is a fallacy.
Bigger kids don’t have tantrums because they are bad! Often, bigger kids have tantrums because they don’t know what to do with their fear. The fear becomes anger and anger becomes hurting others, lashing out, isolating themselves or screaming. As parents, it can feel difficult to face all that, and know that we can’t really control it for our children. Instead, we need to help them learn to control it themselves.
The Good News
The very good news is that research supports taking a positive approach to guiding children during tantrums. Helping children achieve self-regulation skills and reduce tantrums doesn’t happen through isolation, shame and punishment. Children that feel a positive connection to their parents, that are given loving yet clear guidance are much less likely to melt into tantrums and anger fits.
Let’s stress the less likely here, because no matter how much you may listen and support your child to learn how to calm down, overwhelm can happen. A warm, supportive parenting style can help children have less inner turmoil and the tools to deal with overwhelm when it creeps up, but simply put, sometimes overwhelm wins!
Here are some Positive Ways for Supporting Your Child During a Tantrum and Other Strong Emotions
Change your Lens
As mentioned above, tantruming children are not bad, they are simply lacking the words or skills to express their rage and frustration. Change your lens from seeing “manipulation, coercion and brattiness” to seeing an unsolved problem and a request for guidance.
Respond Kindly (To boys and girls alike)
Unfortunately, research has shown that a double standard exists when it comes to the expression of anger. Adults (parents, teachers and caregivers) tend to respond more negatively to boys that cry and with warmth to girls that cry. Boys need compassion and loving, clear guidance just as much as girls.
When Psychotherapist and Parent Coach Dr. Jessica Michaelson‘s son has a tantrum she finds it helpful to say “Thanks for letting me know you need help.” Then, she stays near by to offer support. Trying to reason during a tantrum usually doesn’t work, but Dr. Michaelson adds that saying something kind like “I’m right here, I hear you.” can help. If you know your child doesn’t want you to say anything, that’s fine too. Just being willing to be available when the storm cools down counts too.
Positive Discipline Trainer Casey O’Roarty agrees with Dr. Michaelson and adds “When my boy was melting down big time I sat with him and tried to validate his emotions.” She added that using a validating, compassionate and present approach helped her stay calm too and not react badly. She said “I ended up letting him know that I loved him and that I would be available to talk when he was ready. He came to find me, and apologized for gettting so worked up!”
Stop behaviors not feelings
Psychologist Sara Dimerman suggests stepping in to stop negative behaviors. It’s important to “keep boundaries for acceptable behaviour in place.” At the same time, Katie Hurley says “children need help unpacking their feelings and verbalizing their thoughts.” It can feel like a tricky balancing act to stop behaviors but allow feelings. With my three children,we try to remember this principle by mad yes, mean no. So it’s alright to feel mad or anything really, but it’s not alright to hurt someone or destroy property.
Andy Smithson says “Big kid tantrums require parents to use their heads, be creative problem solvers and find ways to work with children instead of against them.” I agree. Sometimes children need help learning to express their anger and a reliable, personalized calm down plan. A glitter jar may work for one child, where the next may chuck that glitter jar on the wall. With that in mind, in my book 12 Alternatives to Time Out I have a whole chapter on how to help parents and children create their very own personalized calm down plan and routine.
When is too much anger or explosive behavior something to worry about?
Healthy children challenge parents, healthy children also have emotional overloads and frustrations. The key here is to make sure that your big kid’s tantrums are not interfering with every day life or becoming the center of your relationship. If you are making an effort to teach self-regulation skills, modeling how to stay calm, problem solving and allowing your child to fully feel frustrated but sense tantrums are getting worse or aggression is escalating, it may be helpful to talk to a parent coach, counselor or pediatrician.
Peace & Be Well,