Family Life: Rid your child of tantrums by resolving his frustration
Q We have two adorable boys -- a five-year-old and a one-and-half-year-old, but the older one has bouts of terrible tantrums.
He is a very affectionate, outgoing and intelligent child so we just can't fathom his behaviour. He could be tantrum free for a week and then have lots of them every day for a couple of days. Mostly it is about his clothes; what he loved to wear one day would be a major no-no another day. Even if he chooses them himself, at some stage during the day he will drag everything off and just roar and scream. We have tried cuddling him until the bout passes, naughty step etc to no avail. My husband and I are really worried about him; it seems to drain him of energy and he looks so miserable for days after. We have tried to find something that triggers it but can't think of anything. He says he doesn't like school but he seems happy there and his teacher says he mixes well and is very sociable and vocal. He actually is such a lovely little chap it's hard to believe how bad he can be. Can you suggest anything which might put him back on track?
A It can be very distressing to witness your child in the throes of a major tantrum. Not only are you worried about the harm they might do to themselves or others, but also the uncontrollable nature of the tantrum.
It is the irrationality of so many of the tantrums that really perplexes us parents. There is often no pattern, no obvious explanation or clear trigger.
In these situations, then, we have to work a little harder to try to understand the source of the tantrum and to then respond to it.
It seems that your son struggles with frustration. It appears that he can contain a certain amount of frustration but that over a couple of days or a week it builds up and then it explodes out over a few days. This explains why he seems so 'spent' after his tantrums.
I would imagine that he likes his normal sunny, sociable and friendly demeanour. He probably doesn't like to be cross or to get into conflict with other people. Accordingly, when he does feel upset with someone he tries to hide this feeling away so that he can stay 'friends' with them.
The difficulty is that when he hides the feeling away it just joins up with other feelings and eventually he isn't able to keep them hidden. Many small stresses can build up to become a big stress that shows itself in tantrums.
It is interesting that he says he doesn't like school and yet appears to be sociable and involved. It could be that the pressure of having to get on well in school is what is building up. He might not like school because it is such hard work for him to keep up the façade of getting on with everyone.
When tantrums seem to be caused by frustration we can approach them in two ways. One option is to resolve the source of the frustration. So if your child is distraught because their favourite cup is in the dishwasher and it is possible to open the dishwasher and get it out for them, then do it.
If, however, we can't easily resolve the source of frustration then our second option is to rely on empathy and time to allow the feelings to regulate and dissipate.
Early on when your son seems to be getting distressed let him know that you recognise that he seems to be upset or frustrated.
Use a warm tone and try to genuinely understand things from his perspective, even if that perspective seems a bit irrational. Encourage him to take a bit of time to calm down.
Give him the space and time to calm down without an audience and without any pressure to get over it. Do keep him and others safe. Keeping some distance is often the best way as it means you won't put yourself in his way to be hit or hurt.
Avoid punishment of frustration-based tantrums as this will only make the situation worse; your son will probably try to retaliate by getting more angry and violent.
It is also important to give him plenty of down-time each day where he can just relax and chill out. This might give him the opportunity to let some of his stress or frustration dissipate.
Talk to him during his good weeks about school and try to find out what he doesn't like. He is unlikely to be able to express fully why he doesn't like it. The more opportunities you give him to talk about his feelings the better.
I think that if he can learn to express his frustration sooner then he won't have to keep showing it to you through his tantrums and their frequency and intensity will reduce.