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.

Creating a Successful Sticker Chart to Reinforce Behavior in Children

How do you create a successful discipline program using positive reinforcement?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): You’ll want to gear this to the age of the kid. Children catch on to this very rapidly.

If it’s a young child you want to have a fairly limited amount of things on the chart. At most, five things on the list for a 2 or 3 year old. When they get to be 4, you can add some more.

The most important thing is that you engage the child in the process of setting up the rewards. What’s interesting to me is that the children will often come up with harsher penalties than a parent will. There’s a lot of interesting things that come out of this exercise. One is that you get to see how your kid thinks.

MOLLY: But the chart isn’t about the consequences or the punishments; it’s focused on the behaviors you want to change and keeping it positive rather than negative. Right?

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: Behaviors like saying “Please” and Thank you”…?

MOM: Yes. With a sticker chart you reinforce the behavior on the positive side.

MOLLY: So we shouldn’t set it up that we mark the chart every time the child doesn’t say Please” or “Thank You”?

MOM: No: you mark the chart when the kid does say “Please” and “Thank You”.

MOLLY: So every time the child says “Please” and “Thank You”, he or she gets a sticker on the chart?

MOM: And then you also want to gently point out times when the kid doesn’t say “Thank You” when he or she should have.  You can say, “This is one of those times when you could have said “Thank You” and gotten a sticker. I know you forgot this time, but next time, I know you will remember.” This is the redemption issue, which is so important. The child must understand that he or she will always be able to redeem themselves in your eyes.

MOLLY: So keeping it really positive.

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: What we did when my daughter was 4 was that after five stickers (which was enough for a kid that age), we went to the bookstore and she got to pick out a favorite paperback book. So it was like a $3 reward.

MOM: You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on this.

MOLLY: Right, it was more the fun of going to the bookstore and feeling like it was her special trip to the bookstore because she earned it.

MOM: Now, for an older child who is, let’s say, 7, 8 or 9, you might think about needing a longer period of time during which to earn the reward. Maybe a month or two months, depending on the age of the child. And then it’s one reward, but maybe it’s a bigger reward. You have to plan this according to the age of the child.

MOLLY: Maybe the child gets to pick a place to go to a special lunch or something like that?

MOM: Yeah, or a game on the computer, or whatever the kid values.

MOLLY: The types of things that we could put on the sticker chart for young kids like mine might be: saying “Please” and “Thank You”, using good manners at the dinner table, not whining and crying when you want something…?

MOM: It depends on what the issues are; this will be different for each kid.

You might have a kid who has terrible table manners. They eat with their mouth open and spit the food out and things like that. I’m a big believer in learning manners at a young age so that when they are older it’s something they don’t even think about. You could use stickers for that like, “I noticed that you ate with your mouth closed all night tonight, that was terrific. That deserves a sticker or star. “

The expectations, durations, and rewards are obviously age related, but it’s all about positive reinforcement rather than negative or punitive consequences.

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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 can have long term effects.

How to Deal with Tantrums In Children

I have a verbal 4-year old who has begun throwing tantrums constantly. What should I do?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): So I can assume that all that basic stuff has been done.

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.

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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.

This blog is about raising kids and how your parenting decisions today may effect your child as an adult.

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.