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We have three boys aged 4, 8 and 10. The youngest & eldest seem to be fine and no issues, but the middle child is quite willful and having tantrums. Its like he never quite grew out of the terrible twos. Small things the other two have no issue with can upset him and set off a terrible tantrum. He seems to have trouble co-operating with others and getting into rows with other children and teachers.

How should we deal with tantrums at this age? How do we help him improve his "emotional regulation"?

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Have you taken him to a therapist? My 6 year old recently started to go see a therapist to determine where her "babyish" attitude is coming from and he seems to be giving me a lot of good advice. –  jlg Nov 12 '12 at 19:10
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4 Answers

Eight is way too old to regularly be throwing tantrums. The fact that it goes beyond his dealings with you, but at school, etc. is particularly concerning.

Is he very sensitive overall? Is he good at expressing his feelings rationally? If he is angry at someone, is he prone to going off on them or physically attacking them? If he's really happy, can he contain himself? All kids can benefit from learning to rationally thing and talk about their feelings, but especially very sensitive kids can. If it's a containment problem overall, double your effort in talking about feelings, talking about what you do with them, etc. A therapist might help no matter what.

Two directly-contrasting approaches jump out:

  • If he might be chafing some, considering thrusting more responsibility on him. A lot of people rise to the occasion when they are trusted. This is risky, because you need to give him real trust that he can really misuse if you go with it. It's the best path to take if you are seeing hints that he's chafing under the restrictiveness of life.

  • Explain to him that if he's going to act like a little kid, you'll have to treat him like one, and treat him more like his little brother than his big brother. (Be careful not to instill undue shame.) After some of this treatment, he might be begging you to show you he's a big boy and act like it. Otherwise, it might turn out he really needs this for a while and he can transition back as he grows up. This only works if he can help himself, and you need to be sure what he lacks is resolve.

Also, you don't mention if he has any outlets: scouts, martial arts, team sports, clubs, etc. Sometimes these teach focus and maturity in ways that family and school can't, and also motivate kids to have something to behave for.

Finally, and this is a mistake I've seen parents make: do what you can to avert meltdowns. Some parents, often for fairness's sake, won't give kids the extra help they need. That's foolish and doesn't help anyone. If you can see it coming and can stop it, you're helping him, his brothers, and yourself. You may by doing so teach him to recognize in advance when he's about to lose it and help him to remember what it feels like to de-escalate.

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Tantrums occur when a person can't reconcile their view of the world with reality. They can occur at any age. Before you can decide how to handle the behavior, it's important to know what causes it. Ideally they would be prevented by helping him adapt to the triggers. It may help to make a list of triggers and talk with him about them. Listen to what he has to say about the triggers, and see if he has any ideas about how to handle them. It is likely that he is very motivated to adapt too.

It is also very important to acknowledge that your child is upset. This does not condone the tantrums, but expressing your understanding of what's going on opens the door to communication. Let him know that you understand that he is terribly upset in a way that genuinely matches his level of intensity. Once he sees that you're invested in supporting him, help him understand whether the situation is something he has the power to do something about or not. If it is, outline for him what he needs to do to improve the situation. If it's not, help him get to an acceptable behavior.

Acceptable behaviors might be deep breathing, exercise, crying, or talking with someone he trusts who will listen to him. As far as emotional regulation, try to identify the things you do for emotional regulation. For example, things like going for walks, doing yoga or a martial art or meditating, or listening to music may be ways to help with emotional regulation. Teach him some of these techniques. It's difficult for children because they are not permitted many of the outlets that adults have, such as driving, swearing, substances, etc.

It's best to not compare him to his siblings if you can avoid it. It's particularly difficult for middle children to find their niche in the family. It will help him to develop a skill that he can excel at (sport, music, drawing, computer skills, or whatever he's interested in) so that he can develop a positive sense of self.

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You could try connecting with him. Often, parenting isn't about seeking obedience, it is about building connection. Children will follow leaders they trust and respect, and feel trusted and respected by. Just like the rest of us.

And, yes, you are right, not all children are the same. He is an individual with his own triggers, sensitivities, etc, as well as his own unique gifts, talents and strengths.

Again, like all of us, children are looking for belonging and significance. When he can't find it through socially constructive means, he'll "act out" in what looks like misbehavior. Help him find his sense of belonging and significance in your family and he won't be searching for it elsewhere (through tantrums as an 8 year old or gangs, drugs, sex etc as a teen).

To me, tantrums aren't about winning or losing, they are about a child meeting their needs in the best way they know how. Teach him something different, with the same care, attention and patience you taught him to read. When he throws a tantrum, you can respond with "You must be really upset/frustrated/angry/disappointed!" - acknowledge his feelings so that he feels felt (absolutely crucial) but also so that you build his emotional literacy! And then invite him to cool down. Create a space/routine for him to cool down at a time when you are both in a good mood. Ask him "When you are upset, what might help you cool down?" "Would music or art help you? Would laying in bed help you?" etc. It's not time out in the punitive sense, it's time-out in the constructive, productive life-skill sense. He comes out when he's ready and then you can have the conversation when everyone is feeling better.

There's also a lot of recent developments in brain science and child development that shows children learn self-regulation in the presence of others who are self-regulated. Mirror neurons in the brain allow a child/person to "mirror" the people around them. When you demonstrate self-regulatory behavior, he will learn it. In exactly the same way he learned to mimic your facial expressions as an infant. Thus, when you demonstrate things like "I am too frustrated to talk respectfully right now so I am going to go cool down" - he will learn it too and it will become part of his norm.

I suggest reading Positive Discipline for more resources on building a family that is mutually respectful, collaborative, inclusive, engaging, etc.

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Great answer! As always Christine. I would just add that at his age, giving him explicit instruction where you explain why tantrums aren't really all that productive and brainstorm more productive ways to communicate his frustration (after his cool-off time) is an essential element you only hint at here. –  balanced mama Nov 13 '12 at 19:30
    
I'd also say that along the way, Torben's advice of making sure the tantrum doesn't "work" is an important element too. Don't give in, bribe or cajole. –  balanced mama Nov 13 '12 at 21:09
    
@ Christine This question (parenting.stackexchange.com/q/6545/2876) seems related and could use some advice as well. Will you add a comment that outlines a little more about Positive Discipline? –  balanced mama Nov 13 '12 at 22:55
    
I will, but I can only handle so many of these questions. It is hard to capture all of the Positive Discipline steps in this forum, I only try to offer the basic philosophy so that parents can look for more if they so choose. The biggest piece is the cultural/paradigm shift that focuses on connecting with, and teaching, the child rather than punishing/bribing/etc –  Christine Gordon Nov 14 '12 at 0:20
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I would believe it! It is about planting seeds and being there when people are looking for it, not convincing them in the first place. That has to become my mantra! –  Christine Gordon Nov 14 '12 at 0:22
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I would start out by handling primary-schooler tantrums the same way as toddler tantrums -- basically, don't let his tantrums succeed.

  1. Immediate and natural consequence. Deny him whatever it was he threw the tantrum over, end your current activity, abort your planned activity, or whatever else is appropriate.
  2. Don't give in, ever. A tantrum never wins. He must learn this - the hard way if he insists.

Let this anti-tantrum treatment last for as long as you can maintain your own sanity - at least a few weeks. If that fails or you feel you have to "give up", seek help. jlg suggests a therapist and that is probably a good tip. If you don't want to dive fully into therapy, at least discuss with a therapist what your options are -- he may have more ideas.

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+1 for "don't let his tantrums succeed". The first time my daughter threw a tantrum, I just walked into another room. When she came there to continue it, I went to yet another room. The second time she threw a tantrum (screaming, pounding fists on the floor, etc.) I went and got my camera and took pictures of her. There wasn't a third. (She and I talked afterwards, though, about why that wasn't appropriate and better ways to behave.) –  Brian White Nov 13 '12 at 15:04
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+1 for A tantrum never wins. –  mthomas Nov 13 '12 at 20:29
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I always like the "Let me know when you're done." response :) –  Christine Gordon Nov 14 '12 at 0:20
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