Big Kid Tantrums: Why They Happen and What to Do

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Many parents may not realize that older children are capable of tantrums too.

Parents expect to see toddlers burst into tantrums. After all, preschoolers have limited verbal skills, are often irrational, and don’t have a firm a grasp on social norms—all of which may lead them to lash out into screaming fits. But many parents may not realize that older children are capable of tantrums too. “Early elementary age kids often have poor insight into their emotions, which can lead to angry outbursts,” says Hillary Blake PsyD., licensed clinical psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. If you’re seeing tantrums from your elementary school child, take comfort in the knowledge that this is not necessarily abnormal behavior, and there are things you can do to prevent and deal with these big kid tantrums.

Identify the reasons for lashing out

There are a number of reasons why children resort to tantrums. According to Dr. Blake, frustration or anger can overwhelm kids under these circumstances:

  • When they have so much energy and so many big emotions that they can’t contain themselves
  • When they are denied something they want
  • When they don’t want to do what they are told
  • To get attention

Your first step: Try to assess the reason for the outburst and the emotion behind it. Then, teach your child to define those emotions. “Kids can go from zero to 100 without having control or knowledge of their behavior and irritability,” says Dr. Blake. To help your child recognize what’s going on, you might say, “I see you’re clenching your fists, raising your voice, or grinding your teeth—it seems like you’re angry.” By pointing out what you see and labeling the emotion, you’re giving your child a way to identify the problem.

Develop coping skills

If tantrums begin to happen regularly—say, every week or more—or they are lasting longer than you think is typical, you may want to seek help from a licensed counselor. The counselor will be able to determine if there are underling issues and help your child learn coping skills to deal with his emotions. Those tools can temper an outburst before it gets into full swing or help your child calm down from a tantrum at a faster rate. Dr. Blake suggests tactics such as:

  • Deep breathing. Have your child take a few big inhalations and exhalations, which can dissolve anger enough to change the course of the tantrum.
  • Counting. Ask your child to count slowly up to ten, or count by twos, or as high as he can. Redirecting his attention to a cognitive task could help him shift gears and calm down.
  • Teach your child to walk away. “I’m a big fan of having older kids walk away, calm down and come back,” says Dr. Blake. It puts a break in the action and gives the child a chance to collect himself. “But be sure that both the parent and the child are on board with this tactic so it doesn’t seem as though the child is disobeying when he walks away.

Once you’ve established some coping strategies, the next time you see a tantrum brewing you might say, “I notice you’re raising your voice and slamming doors; this would be a good time to do some counting.”

Stop the tantrum before it starts

One of your best strategies for dealing with tantrums is to head them off before they erupt. For example, if you know that your child gets especially frustrated by the word “no,” rephrase your response. “Instead of saying, ‘no,’ say, ‘you can’t have a play date before dinner right now but you could have your friend over tomorrow morning or afternoon,’” explains Dr. Blake. “Giving children options directs them to think in a different way.”

Another way to discourage tantrums is to reward your child when she’s behaving well. “You would want to set up a system in advance so that your child knows that for every day or week that she don’t have a tantrum, she will get points, or a reward—depending on the system you establish,” says Dr. Blake.

Also be sure to praise your child when you see her using a coping skill effectively. For instance, if you notice your child employing deep breathing to calm herself down, say, “I’m so proud of you that you chose to use deep breathing when you were upset.” And don’t hold back. “You want to work on giving your child positive attention throughout the day for behaviors you want to see more of,” says Dr. Blake.

Of course, do your best to avoid fueling a tantrum. As hard as it may be, Dr. Blake suggests that you employ “planned ignoring” when your child starts melting down. “Don’t look at your child, and put on a poker face so as not to show your emotions,” says Dr. Blake. “After making sure your child is safe, you might even put a book in front of your face so that you don’t give attention to the problem behavior—particularly if the tantrum stems from the child seeking attention.” If your child is throwing things or being destructive, remove dangerous objects from the scene or move your child to a different area.

Whatever you do, try not to give in to your child’s demands. Every parent has caved in the midst of a tantrum, but what this does (other than quelling the behavior temporarily) is teach the child that if she makes a big enough fuss, she will get her way eventually. To stay strong during the outburst, keep in mind that tantrums often get worse before they get better. Once your child has gotten it out of her system and cooled off, then you can talk about what happened together and work on your plan for preventing tantrums in the future.

-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman

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