Why Does My Kid Seem to Have Regularly Scheduled Tantrums?

I noticed that my seven-year old son seems to have tantrums when he comes home from school. What can I do and is there a pattern here? What might it mean?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It’s very important to notice when your kid is having tantrums so that you can look to see if there is a pattern. Sometimes there is a definite pattern: sometimes breakdowns can regularly happen when kids come home from school, or they may occur frequently at dinnertime or even at or before bedtime. What you need to look for are patterns because patterns of behavior can tell you so much. If it turns out that her son is coming home from school and having tantrums and being mad at his mom, she really should have to talk with her child about what’s going on. That child probably can not see a pattern in his own behavior.

MOLLY: What do you mean talk with them about what’s going on? As a parent, you’re already probably  saying, “Hey, why are you having tantrums?”

MOM: Well, first you have to notice the pattern. Most people don’t tend to reflect about the pattern in the middle of a tantrum, so it’s very important to be conscious of the pattern.

Then you say to your child, “ I notice that every Tuesday when you come home, you have a tantrum and I was wondering what’s going on at school? Is there something particular on Tuesdays?” And then the child will begin to talk about things. They won’t necessarily see the connection until you make the connection for them. So you, the parent, could say, “I notice that it’s every Tuesday when you come home that things erupt, and I know that you have that special class at school on Tuesdays. Do you think you might be upset about something going on at school?  And then you come home and have a tantrum?”

Most kids will look blankly at you and say they don’t understand that connection, but you should just give them time to think about it. Days, even. And then the kid might be ready to talk about it, or they might not want to talk about it. You, the parent, have to respect where the kid is in their process, and if they don’t want to talk about it at that time you’ll have to bring it up again at another time.

MOLLY: How do you bring it up later?

MOM: Well, first of all, you don’t bring this kind of discussion up while the kid is in the middle of having a tantrum. You bring it up when the child is thinking rationally and not in the throes of emotion because you want to engage the rational part of his brain at that moment, not the emotional part.

Even if you pick a quiet time to discuss a link between Tuesday’s tantrums and and Tuesday’s classes, the kid probably won’t get the connection. However, you just say, “It seems to me that there’s a connection here, so you might want to think about it some more and let’s talk about this again another time.” And then you do talk about it again.

On Monday, before the pattern starts again, you say, “You know, I’m still thinking about whether you’re having trouble at school on Tuesday’s at that class and coming home to have a tantrum. Have you thought any more about it?” The kid might have or might not have, but you’re reminding him of the connection before it has a chance to play out. Now there’s a better chance that the kid will come home on Tuesday and not have a tantrum.

When this happens, you might ask, “What happened today in class? What was it like for you?” Never do this kind of questioning when the kid is already upset because it would likely be a waste of everyone’s time. So you ask these kinds of questions when the child is calm. Generally, depending on the age of the kid, he will be able to give you something to go on. The very interesting part of all of this is that, after you’ve had these conversations, the child feels so grateful (unconsciously) that someone is listening to them and helping them figure out what’s going on in their lives that they’ll often become quite affectionate with that parent. If that happens, then you can have an idea that you’re on the right track.

MOLLY: What if her son says, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “There’s nothing going on.” You know how kids can be.

MOM: Yes, there isn’t a lot you can do about that except to say “Well, I hear you but I’m still wondering if something’s going on, so let’s just keep our eyes open.” And then move on. Don’t force your interpretation on your child; your interpretation might not even be right. It might be something else altogether! But, as a parent, you often have to go with what your intuition is telling you when you recognize a pattern.

If you don’t recognize a pattern, you’re likely to get very angry with your kid over these tantrums. You want to head that anger off because if you end up punishing the child because you don’t know what else to do it’s not helpful and it doesn’t get to the core of the matter. The idea with raising balanced children is to try to address core issues in a way that will help the child become self-aware and able to control their behavior and emotions in order to live peacefully with others.

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MOM:
Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU), and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now have long term effects.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with tantrums using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

ding One comment on “Why Does My Kid Seem to Have Regularly Scheduled Tantrums?

  1. I love the idea of seeing beyond the immediate firestorm when addressing tantrums. I totally agree that it is imperative to explore an emotional connection when you see this kind of behavior in a child, but I would not overlook other environmental stimuli in the meantime. When my 10-year old son comes home upset and moody, I can usually track it back to something he ate at school: It was a birthday and someone’s mom brought in cupcakes with brightly-colored frosting (food dyes plus wheat); or he had a piece of candy (food dyes plus high fructose corn syrup); or even, once, he ate chicken gumbo for lunch (onions, celery, and green peppers). His body has hypersensitivity reactions to all of these substances, causing him to become inflamed internally, including his brain and his colon. Science tells us that it’s impossible to think rationally when your brain is swollen, so emotions take over and, for little kids, these can feel almost impossible to control.
    When I see a regular pattern of tantrums, I will look for any corresponding pattern in his diet as well as engaging in talk about an emotional basis. Often, though not always, a reaction to something he ate affected his perception of events around him and made him touchy to begin with, which then leads to a meltdown.
    With my 8-year old daughter, on the other hand, tantrums are less about what she ate and more about her current level of exhaustion.

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