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Mama Drama: Tantrum Trouble

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Dear Mama Drama:

My six-year-old son is struggling with anger. He is often very frustrated with his sister or us when he doesn’t get his way and every little thing leads to extreme outbursts. He screams, yells, hits, and throws things. When we try to get him to calm down he yells no and stomps off.

His sister never went through a stage like this, so we don’t have the benefit of experience. We are feeling at a loss as to how to help him and are becoming exasperated with his tantrums.

~Totaled by Tantrums

(photo credit)

Dear Totaled:

Dealing with tantrums is definitely exasperating. Your son sounds like he is feeling miserable as well. When children throw tantrums they are trying to communicate, but are doing so very ineffectively. They can also get into patterns of reacting to situations and struggle to know what to do instead.

You have recognized that your son is frustrated when he doesn’t get his way, so this is a good place to start. Work with him before hand, when he is calm, on strategies for handling his frustrations differently.

What does he get the most frustrated by and why? This will give you insight into his perspective on the situations. It is also a great opportunity to help him understand other people’s perspectives.

What is thinking when he doesn’t get his way? Some children think it means they aren’t loved or valued. Some assume it means they are dumb. It may not be rational, but it is important to understand and address.

How does his body feel when he is frustrated or angry? Children are often not aware of the signs their bodies give them when they are in the early stages of irritation or frustration. They feel like their anger just explodes. Describe for him what you see when he is becoming agitated. He may talk faster, have difficulty sitting still, clench his fists, or begin to turn red.  Ask him to think about how his muscles, stomach, and breathing feel when he is irritated. He may not be able to answer all of these questions right away, but raising his awareness is the first step.

When we get into habitual reactions we forget that all problems don’t require the highest level response. A fun visual way to demonstrate this is to draw and anger chart or thermometer together. Brainstorm all the different words you can think of for anger from irritated to rageful. Then put them in order on your thermometer from least intense to most intense. Discuss different situations that would warrant each level of response. For example, your sister is sitting in your favorite chair again might fit with irritated. Having spaghetti for dinner when you wanted macaroni and cheese may lead to feelings of annoyance. It is difficult to come up with valid reasons for becoming furious and enraged which can be helpful in giving some perspective.

Next work on learning calming strategies. He may already know a few that you or his teachers have taught him so give him the opportunity to start making the list. Have some strategies that can be used anywhere, like taking five deep breaths, and some that can only be used at home such as yelling into his pillow or jumping on the trampoline (mini-tramps are great for this.)

Practice the strategies regularly and role play different situations where he typically tantrums and have him use another strategy. Also decide on a cue you can give him to remind him such as, “Make a choice.” Then when the real thing happens he’ll have a better chance of remembering his new skills.

Reading books such as When I’m Angry by Jane Aaron, When I feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman, and How to Take the Grrrr Out of Anger by Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis will help validate that anger is normal and will reinforce the strategies you are working on with your son.

As always, if you these issues do not improve or you feel you need more support, seek further assistance from a mental health professional.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to, and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson July 9, 2010

    This is great. So often we focus on silly toddler tantrums, which pass quickly. But for the older kids, you’ve really hit the hammer on the nail by looking into the cause and feelings involved.

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  • comment avatar Michelle O'Neil July 11, 2010

    I highly recommend the book, The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Green. It helped us so much with our daughter’s meltdowns.

  • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith July 12, 2010

    Thanks, Amber. Parenting is definitely an evolving process.

    Great idea, Michelle, thanks for the reminder. Dr. Green’s strategies are fabulous for helping families sort out which behaviors are the most important to tackle first and how to respond (or not respond) to the rest.

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