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Do you have a child who is still having temper tantrums long after you think they should have outgrown them? Rest assured you’re not alone. However, these tantrums can be disruptive to your family life, destructive to your relationship with your child, and when they occur in public, downright embarrassing. Here are some reasons why your child might still be demonstrating this behavior and some tips for how to handle it.
The “Oversensitive” Child
Some children are very sensitive by nature, and this is not likely something they’re going to outgrow. If your child is sensitive, they probably cry easily at many things like sad stories, or little setbacks in the classroom or on the playground. Instead of seeing this as a detriment or just being oversensitive, try to think of it as a personality asset.
A sensitive child doesn’t need criticism heaped on top of mistakes or failure. Usually, simply acknowledging they have done something wrong, such as not using proper manners, is enough to give them the message you are displeased. If even that sets them off, rather than isolating the child in a time out, you need to provide a safe zone for them where they can talk about their feelings with you in private.
With this type of child, you need to walk a fine line between being overly critical and coddling. They need a quick, matter-of-fact statement about any behavior that was not acceptable, like hitting, throwing things, or taking others’ belongings, and then you need to let them know that you understand how their mistake and disappointing you makes them feel sad. There may be a moment of worsening tears at this juncture as the child fully absorbs their sadness, and recognizes their role in the situation.
To support your sensitive child at other times, praise them for having empathy for others and encourage them to act on it. Taking care of lost animals or being kind to bullied schoolmates are ways to channel your child’s sensitivity in positive ways.
The Coddled Child
While tantrums in the toddler and preschool years for this child looked like an outgrowth of the natural way of getting needs met through fussing and crying, when they go on past preschool, they start to interfere in both family and academic life. Many parents hate to admit it, but they may actually be encouraging these tantrums by coddling their children.
If your child is not exquisitely sensitive, like the above, you may be teaching them that tantrums are effective by continuing to soothe them even when they should be calming themselves, or by giving in to demands during tantrums. Kids learn subconsciously in many instances how to get what they want. If they learn that throwing themselves on the floor at the grocery store and begging for sweets gets them a candy bar every time, they will keep doing it. Your child has trained you, so when they manipulate you via tantrums, they always get the desired result.
It takes tough love to break this cycle, but it can be done. First, you need to think about these patterns at another time, not in the middle of one, and prepare a response that doesn’t coddle the child and perpetuate the behavior. You need to hold fast to your decision not to give in, even if it creates a public scene or takes more time than simply giving the child what they want.
You can also head off some of these tantrums at the pass by letting your child know what you expect and rewarding them for good behavior. Offer them choices too, so they feel empowered rather than powerless, the latter being a precursor to many temper tantrums. For example, before going into the grocery store, inform your child that you expect no tears or yelling. If they make it through the shopping trip with appropriate behavior, they may choose the main course for Friday night’s dinner, or pick out a treat for their school lunch the next day. You might want to remove food from the equation altogether and offer a reward like going to the water park or just doing a puzzle together one-on-one at home, where they normally have to compete for your time.
Mental or Physical Health Problems
Sometimes there is more to the story than your child’s personality, or coddling on your part. There are children who act out when they shouldn’t because they have a mental health issue or a physical problem that manifests in tantrum form. Conditions like bipolar disorder, diabetes, and celiac sprue, for example, can all cause tantrum behaviors in kids.
If your child is having tantrums at an advanced age, it may be a good idea in any case to check in with your pediatrician to rule out a medical problem. Their doctor can also give you resources for finding a solution or refer you to another specialist like a phycologist with a behavior specialist certification.
For any parent, dealing with tantrums and fits is anything but easy, and it can be even more difficult to break up this pattern in your kids when they reach a certain age. Before you give into the next bout of tears, take some time to figure out the root of your child’s tantrums and what it means for their health.