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Five-Year-Old Throwing Tantrums

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My son is almost five, is very intelligent, loving, helpful, until he has one of his tantrums. Then he turns into a 5-year-old monster! It is usually when he wants something he can't have, usually in public where he throws horrendous screaming fits. He doesn't do it often, but when he does have one it sounds as if someone is beating him! We've tried time outs, spankings, squirt bottles, talking to him, and push ups(that seems to work the best). Is there something more we could be doing to let him know that it is not OK to scream and have a fit for something he wants?(He has a younger brother that I don't want doing this too!)

A: The great news is you appear to have a delightful little boy. This problem, which is one of controlling his impulses and self-regulation is not an unusual one. That said, normalcy doesn't make dealing with it any less frustrating when it occurs.

The fact that this behavior usually occurs in public places may suggest an immaturity in his emotional and social skills while outside the familiar setting of home and/or an awareness that he can be successfully manipulative with these tantrums when in public. Have you ever given in to him in the past when he has pitched one of these fits? Sometimes, even though negative behavior was "successful" only a few times, children will keep trying it to get what they want because they have not developed emotional self-regulation and/or an alternative way of "making their point".

You know what punishments, consequences and discipline techniques don't work so let's try a few that may, over time. First, don't attempt any sophisticated reasoning while a tantrum is going on, it's wasted energy. Although it may not bear fruit, since it seems he cranks up the volume very quickly, as soon as you see the stage set for him to begin to start screaming in public, physically get down to eye level with him and give and use the empathy/alternative technique: "Billy, I know you want that candy bar right now. I can't let you have it because if you eat it now you won't be hungry for your supper. If you start screaming, you will make me take you home right now. Or if you want, I will buy you that candy bar now, we can take it home and you can eat it later, after supper". A technique like this acknowledges the child's desire and encourages alternative appropriate self-control that will get him what he wants, if his wants are reasonable.

Secondly, have a discussion with your son when he and you are in a calm state and explain how you are going to respond every time he throws a fit in public (or anywhere else): "Billy, you seem to be showing me that you're not ready yet to go out with me because you scream when you don't get something you want. I'm not going to accept that kind of behavior any more so you let me know when you're ready to be a boy I can talk to in a store and not one who screams, and you can begin coming with me. If we go out and you still scream, I'll give you 2 minutes to calm down and listen to me, because I know it might take a few times for you to stop. If you haven't stopped in 2 minutes we'll go home and we'll wait a longer time before you go out with me again. It's up to you to see when you want to stop the screaming. "

I understand that these techniques may cause you to get sitters or leave a bag full of groceries in a store a few times but I have seen the positive results of this combination technique work many times. Give it a try. It shows the logical and natural consequences of good and of unacceptable behavior and gives the child the responsibility and opportunity to change.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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