I have a verbal 4-year old who has begun throwing tantrums constantly. What should I do?
MOLLY: The reader added that she’s tried time-outs, talking to her, and putting her in the corner…all the common stuff.
MOM: I think everyone tries that kind of stuff, the punishment kind of focus. But meanwhile, you don’t know what to do and the kid is driving you crazy. With a child that is verbal, you still wouldn’t expect them to say everything about their feelings. I would never underestimate what can be done by talking with a child, even if you think that she might not understand what’s going on.
MOLLY: How would you approach it?
MOM: I would start by listening to what the kid is saying during the tantrum. If she is saying, “But I haven’t finished!” while you’re yelling at her to get in her room, it might mean that she is telling you something but you aren’t listening. So the important thing here is to have a conversation with your child and only have the conversation when you are not really, really mad.
MOLLY: When you’re not in the middle of the tantrum?
MOM: Right, when the child isn’t in the tantrum and you’re not ready to tear your hair out over it. Employ the rational parts of your brain rather than the emotional parts of your brain. You can have a conversation and you may not know what the tantrum is about, but you can say to her, “You know, you’ve had a hard time with this lately. I’ve noticed you’ve had a number of tantrums. What do you think is happening? Do you want to talk about it?”
MOLLY: What if they say “No”?
MOM: Well, let’s remember that your own daughter responded when you asked her this question with, “Not right now.” Then you say, okay, and wait to see if anything will happen. It might mean that she really won’t talk about it right now and you’ll have to bring it up again later, or that she will think about it and say something that’s not like, “this is the reason I’m feeling so upset.” Of course she is not expected to say that, but she might say what she’s upset about. Like the example of when your daughter was having tantrums when your job changed and you were home with her more. It turned out that she was afraid of losing her favorite babysitter. And that because mommy was home full-time, no more fun time with her favorite sitter. What was it that she said exactly?
MOLLY: When I asked her about the tantrums, she said she didn’t want to talk about it. But then about 30 seconds later she asked when her babysitter was coming back from vacation.
MOM: Right, and there you have it. She’s telling you why she’s so upset but she hasn’t been able to put it in to words before. So you help her. If you have an idea you might say, “You know, I’m not really totally sure about this, but I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern going on here,” and you can tell her the pattern and she will think about it.
MOLLY: The tough part as a parent is that you really don’t see it when you’re in it. I would have had no idea about that was what would come out when I asked my daughter that question.
MOM: Yes, but you picked up on it. You knew that was a crucial piece of info. The message was: Is her favorite sitter ever going to come back even though you’re home more now.
MOLLY: I’ll tell you that was hard for me to hear. I thought she would be happy I was home more.
MOM: She gave you what the problem was and you addressed it by saying something like, “Wow, you must really miss your sitter being around. Let’s set up a time for her to come over and play.” And the relief that she felt was palpable.
MOM: Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.
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