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Trouble With Tantrums

By Mike Snyder

Temper tantrums. All kids have 'em (lots of adults, too). How much fun would parenting be without them?

We know the mantra: Deep breaths, remain calm, keep your own temper in check, be firm and maintain control of the situation. Time Outs did the job when necessary for our now six-year-old daughter.

Lately, my four-year-old son's tantrums have been increasing in number, particularly since he began a preschool regimen that includes an afternoon program to address his education delays. It seems to be a home problem. He's been referred to by his former daycare provider and his current teachers as "sweet" and "easy," especially for a boy. They love him. I'm grateful for that; but if they could see the battles on the home front lately. Oy vey.

My wife and I haven't been able to determine what's setting him off, though we agree that he does seem to have a hair trigger of late. The simplest requests, announcing it's jammy time or teeth-brushing time, asking him to sit while he's eating, telling him that he can't have a cookie as a morning snack, and he goes ballistic. He escalates immediately to screaming "No," falling on the floor, kicking, crying. It usually doesn't last very long, but he's having at least two or three -- and sometimes six or eight -- outbursts a day.

We're good about getting him fed and put to bed on time. Our weekdays and even our weekends are fairly routine. So, what's the root cause? We're questioning ourselves: Is the stress level too high in our home? (I don't think so.) Is it still the transition to school? He likes going, has friends, likes his teachers and is proud of his work. So what gives?

Maybe it is just a phase. But because we're dealing with a delay in expressive language, not knowing what's behind the tantrums is a topic of greater concern for us. He might not be able to tell us what's bugging him. (And we DO ask him.) Also, his Child Find evaluation this summer found he lacks self-confidence.

What to do, short of a full-on psychological analysis, which we're considering? How do you deal with tantrums? Better yet, how do you determine what's causing a spate of tantrums when it's not apparent?

By Mike Snyder |  December 11, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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i don't think any anthropological or childhood study could ever even claim to understand why pre-school kids have temper tantrums. We have a 3+ year old and while it is not does happen. Some times you think it is because he is tired, but then how do you explain the mid-morning tantrum after a good 11-12 hours of sleep. Some times you think it is hunger, but then how do you explain the tantrum after lunch where his belly is full after his favorite foods. What I'm getting at is i don't think you can ever fnd the root cause, I think you just have to figure out how to handle them best with your child to cause the least stress for everyone. on our end, sometimes it is good to let him cry it out. Sometimes we find that distraction still works well. But the thing we have found that does not work is to give in to the tantrum. If it is because he wants a cookie for breakfast...don't do it. That's is pretty much my best advice. I am definitely interesteed to hear other people's takes.

And oh......FIRST!!

Posted by: happydad | December 11, 2007 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Can't help too much, since the underlying causes of DD's tantrums are always glaringly obvious (hungry is #1, followed by getting sick, which of course we don't find out until the next day, followed by overtired).

The most important thing I figured out recently with my DD is that the worst thing we can do is make too big a deal out of them- I think it just makes her more upset. So, for example, if she is having a fit while we are both home, both parents really need to not be dealing with it. She had a nasty one the other week when I was trying to fix her breakfast (yup, she was hungry), and DH and a were making it worse. So he went for coffee while I finished fixing her food, and within 2 minutes she was fine.

The "hungry" ones are the worst in our house, since they tend to occur first thing in the morning, aren't really "about" anything, and usually involve her getting so upset she won't eat (which is the only thing that will fix the problem). I give her some milk when she first gets up in the morning and that has helped a lot, but it still happens now and then. Tends to be worse on the mornings she sleeps late, too.

She's up now- must go!

Posted by: reston, va | December 11, 2007 7:39 AM | Report abuse

I think you're putting too much thought into what's causing the tantrum (is he tired, hungry, angry, frustrated, etc.). The point is that that he's having them, and they're "working" for him in some way.

I suggest you instead look at your reactions to the tantrums. I have a 4 year old and a nineteen month old, and, believe me, we've seen our share of tantrums. But I have developed a gift for completely ignoring them. The moment a tantrum starts, I look away and walk away. It took a few times to extinguish the behavior, but it really has worked. My children get no reaction whatsoever when they tantrum, and the tantrums are now few and far between.

Don't waste any more time trying to figure out the reason behind the behavior. You can't change another person's behavior - you can only change your reaction to their behavior.

Posted by: JenTal | December 11, 2007 7:46 AM | Report abuse

I agree with JenTal. As hard as it is sometimes, you have to just walk away. Even if your son had the capacity to express why he was having a tantrum, I doubt that he could. Even the most articulate kids don't really know why they are acting this way.

Also, people say the terrible two's! That age was a piece of cake compared to the 4's! It was simply a phase though and now we have the teenage years to deal with!

Posted by: MDMom | December 11, 2007 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Came in pretty much to post what MDMom and JenTal did. Kids do tend to have more tantrums if they figure out that they "work" for them.

Posted by: Me | December 11, 2007 8:02 AM | Report abuse

I think the tantrums are probably caused by tiredness and hunger. Your child has a much more rigorous schedule, and he's probably tired and most likely hungry. A long day working those brain cells can work up a good appetite. Even at 11, my child gets incredibly cranky when she doesn't get enough sleep or is hungry.

When he gets home in the afternoon, immediately give him a snack. This will dampen the hunger until dinner. Once my child started preschool, we found that by sitting her down for a snack as soon as we walked in the door ensured a much happier evening. I know you said that you are putting him to bed on time, but you might try putting him to bed a half hour earlier. After a month or two, you will find that he will have adjusted to the much more rigorous schedule he is now following.

Then when he does go ballistic, ignore, ignore, ignore. I'm with JenTal on this. My child went through the temper tantrum phase at around 3-1/2. She would drop to the floor kicking and screaming. I would just walk away, pretend to read (who can really read while all this is going on) and wait it out. Fortunately, it didn't take her long to learn that this wasn't working. It took about 2 months and it was done with.

I don't think the stress levels are too high, it's just normal 3-4 year old behavior. But giving in only makes it harder to stop.

Posted by: AnotherMom | December 11, 2007 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Even if school isn't tiring him out so he needs to sleep, I bet it's STRESSING him out.

When my oldest was 4 years old, she'd often end up screaming and kicking on the floor after p.m. preschool. The teachers didn't believe it when I told them. She was perfect and happy at school!

Same thing happened in the afternoons after K. In a calm moment, I asked her what the deal was - she was a very articulate child who thrived at school.

She told me, "mommy - I am so good at school - I use up all my goodness at school."

Ignore the tantrum, de-stress the life as much as possible, be firm and kind - I think he'll outgrow it.

Don't you feel stressed when you get home from work? Children who spend all day outside the house - even if they're just playing with blocks at daycare - need some stress relief when they get home. Imagine being the child and think about what he wants.

Our 4th child is high-strung and always wants to be left alone to de-stress after any event.

I don't think I'd jump at the eval. yet.

Posted by: Amelia | December 11, 2007 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Mike, I think the 2 top reasons why a 4 year old would lack self-confidence is
1. The child doesn't feel loved
2. The child has experienced failure

Knowing that your family is experiencing frustration over your son's developmental delays, I think there may be a little more stress in your house than you may be aware of, and though your son may not be able to verbally express it, you can bet that he is picking up the anxiety. He certainly shows the classic symptons anyway.

I too, have an out of control (5 year old) kid at this time. He started all-day kindergarten, and the stress of it leaves him mentally exhausted at the end of the day. The big problem is, however, is that he isn't physically tired enough to fall asleep, so I'm spending hours in the evening taking him for walks and wrestling with him, (good for doses of affection and his older siblings help out with this one too which leads to other parenting issues). When it comes time for bed, I go up and brush my teeth and he follows, and when I get dressed for bed, he follows.

One last thing, I wouldn't punish a 4 year old for having a tantrum. Tantruns take a lot of energy and may be the most effective way for your son to release all the emotional frustration he has built up throughout the day. In fact, I've coached my kids through many a tantrum by saying things like "You've got to pound the floor harder", "You're not screaming loud enough", and "Now hop around in circles on both feet and really mean it!" Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Usually, they will end up laughing at their own silliness, then they will have to resort to faking their crying to carry on. Note: ONLY try this at home! Not for public display!

I think the occasional tantrum can be ignored, but if a child is having 6 of them in an evening, every evening for over a month, something ain't right, and I think it's a good idea to figure out what it is and address the problem. As always, use as much patience as possible.

Doncha love being a parent?

Posted by: DandyLion | December 11, 2007 8:54 AM | Report abuse

My older son has similar melt downs after the PM special ed class. His teachers don't see this behavior at all, either! Couple things that work for us:
1) We make sure to give 2 minute warnings for transitions (I ring a bell and announce: 2 minute until dinner/bathtime/whatever), then set a timer to beep when 2 minutes is up.
2) Have you tried using pictures (since he has few words)? This worked well with my guys--a sequence card that shows: first dinner, then bath, then book, then bed. That way he knows what is coming.
We are starting to use the picture exchange system with my younger guy, who has a severe language problem. He actually takes the pictures and hands them to us to let us know what he wants.
You can find pictures free on the web in a lot of places.

Posted by: Beta | December 11, 2007 9:29 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with JenTal, it isn't always true. My 3 yo has tantrums for 30 minutes at a time, with us ignoring him. Part of me is impressed with his ability to stick to his guns, the other part is dismayed by his stubborness. We know what causes his - he doesn't like to be told to do something (brush teeth, sit at table, get out of the car, etc). We have tried asking, but I am not going to negoitate with him. We are hoping that he will learn that the half hour tantrums only mean that the rest of the family is doing something fun and he is miserable by himself. Ask me how well it worked in 20 years!

Posted by: Burke Mom | December 11, 2007 9:31 AM | Report abuse

We have the reverse situation--our son's tantrums at school scare everyone in their intensity. He hurts himself (head banging on the floor and windows, slamming his elbows into things) and others (kicking, hitting, flailing) and no one knows WHY he's having these or what is setting him off. We've been taking him to a behavioral psychologist for a couple of years to deal with his behavioral problems, and while this has been helpful for some things, everyone seems mystified about the tantrums.

My son DOES have tantrums at home, but not nearly with the same frequency as at school and we always can tell why he's having them. As long as he isn't hurting himself, we leave him alone (and if he is hurting himself, we still let him have the tantrum but we'll move him or put a pillow between his head and the floor).

A couple of things stood out to me in your description--you said that the smallest requests can set him off. And clearly something that seems like a small request to us is a big deal to a child, and an even bigger deal to someone who might be having problems with transitions, with expressive speech to tell you why he doesn't like what's going on, and with a feeling of a loss of control over his days now that he's in school.

There are ways to mitigate these things. To make it easier to handle transitions (like from play to eating or getting ready for bed), either set up a picture schedule at home so he can see what's going to happen next so he knows exactly what to expect and can control the transition by moving the picture of the next activity to the "done" pile (if they don't use picture schedules at school, ask about them--I'm sure they can get you set up) or use a kitchen timer and lots of verbal reminders--ten minutes to jammie time, five minutes to jammie time, when the timer goes "ding" it's time to put on jammies. The picture schedule works well for my non-verbal child and the timer works well for my only mildly delayed child. We're thinking of getting her one of the timers that moves from green to red--she's very visual so seeing the time left might work well for her. The picture schedule, which lets kids physically move an activity from "next up" to "done" also helps with the control problems. If he wants a cookie now and it's the morning and not time for a cookie, he can see on the schedule that he'll get a cookie for snack after the next three things that happen. We have a "first/then" card that we use with my son as well--it has space for two pictures, so we can put in pictures for first X, then Y. It helps when he's being really impatient and is about to break into a tantrum because he wants something NOW but has to do something else first. He thinks we're just denying him what he wants, and being able to see that he WILL get what he wants eventually helps keep him calm.

And finally, when there's something setting off a tantrum in a child with expressive speech problems, one of the best things you can do is give him the words to express what he's feeling--when he's having a tantrum, keep repeating "you're so angry and sad." Identify what he's feeling so that after the 50th time or 500th time he gets it and can use those same words to tell you what he's feeling instead of acting on it. Give him the words to help him learn to negotiate, something kids without speech problems are adept at ("just three more minutes" or "I want to finish my game.").

Good luck!

Posted by: Sarah | December 11, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I've often found that a major developmental step forward is preceded by a major step backward. It sounds like your son is getting lots of encouragement to grow. Taking that all in and incorporating that into new behavior is stressful in ways that are hard to see. This may be the dark cloud before the sun. I don't know for sure, obviously, but if everything else is going well, I'd consider this as a possibility. I agree with the poster who recommends trying an earlier bedtime. Sleep is critical to memory and integrating new information as well as being restorative.

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 11, 2007 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Ugh! At 4 years old, a child should not be having full blown, fall on the floor, kick and scream temper tantrums. They should be past that stage and be able to vocalize what he/she wants. A temper trantrum past the age of 3 means the parent is failing in discipling the child.

I simply refuse to ignore temper tantrums when my now 4 year old daughter was around two. To those parents who say they ignore them-do you ignore them when you are in public and your child is having a meltdown?? I bet you do cause I heard enough screaming, bratty children in grocery stores and the like. Parents think it's best to ignore them even if that mean dispruting the peace in public.

Best way to handle temper tantrums? Stop it as soon as it happens Say firmly and look your child in the eye, hold him and say, "No Timmy, I am not having you have a tantrum."
Temper tantrums should be met promptly with repurcussions. It works. That's why my daughter didn't have many.

Please spare us your screaming, crying child. Especially if he/she is 3+ year old.

Posted by: Soguns1 | December 11, 2007 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Mike specifically said his son is well behaved in public, which is why the meltdowns at home are surprising! I think it's great that his son knows he's safe at home and can fall apart when he needs to. If no one is hurt and they blow over quickly, it's not too much to worry about and may be an important relief valve for the boy until he's able to find alternatives.

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 11, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Smack 'em around a bit. Once they learn a tantrum = a whipping they'll straigten up.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

" At 4 years old, a child should not be having full blown, fall on the floor, kick and scream temper tantrums. They should be past that stage and be able to vocalize what he/she wants. A temper trantrum past the age of 3 means the parent is failing in discipling the child."

You did read that this is a child with developmental delays, right??

Posted by: reston, va | December 11, 2007 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Soguns--did you miss the bit about the expressive speech delay? The reason tantrums are common in two year olds and generally fade out by age three and four is because by then kids have the ability to vocalize what they are feeling and wanting. A child with an expressive speech delay might be chronologically four years old but have the verbal ability of an 18 month old or two year old. If they can't verbalize their needs, they're going to have tantrums. While a tantrum after the age of three might mean lack of proper parenting for an otherwise typically developing child, a tantrum after the age of three for a child with a developmental delay is no reflection on parenting skills.

Posted by: Sarah | December 11, 2007 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I'm with "AnotherMom" on this. If my son, nearly 5 and not delayed, were in afternoon school as well as morning, he would be extra tired and prone to tantrums also. More sleep!

Posted by: Lynne | December 11, 2007 10:26 AM | Report abuse

You're asking for trouble if you ask this bunch of bloggers for advice. Witness the products of these expert parents. Attention deficit, learning disabilities (we used to call them retarded and they wbere in the special class), constant dirty habits they'll grow out of (yeah, right), psychiatric problems, chronic infections, drug problems, runaways, suicides, possible Presidential material, selfish, entitled little wretches. If you want advice on child-rearing, don't ask these folks.

Posted by: Get a Life, People..... | December 11, 2007 10:30 AM | Report abuse

It appears that our 10:30 poster is craving a little attention by getting naughty.

should we ignore it, or send the bad little poster to his/her room?

Posted by: GutlessCoward | December 11, 2007 10:42 AM | Report abuse

"It appears that our 10:30 poster is craving a little attention by getting naughty.

should we ignore it, or send the bad little poster to his/her room?"

You just gave him the attention he was looking for... and now I am.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Ugh! At 4 years old, a child should not be having full blown, fall on the floor, kick and scream temper tantrums. They should be past that stage and be able to vocalize what he/she wants. A temper trantrum past the age of 3 means the parent is failing in discipling the child.

oh yeah, right.

Charles Manson doesn't have your level of self-confidence.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 10:54 AM | Report abuse

"A temper trantrum past the age of 3 means the parent is failing in discipling the child"

"oh yeah, right.

Charles Manson doesn't have your level of self-confidence."

Manson had disciples!

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I go with the look at what these outbursts are "buying" him.

You don't want to get into a mode where your child's special needs cause you to twist yourself around to mollify him. I don't care what the needs are, that's not productive in the long run.

Kids that have tantrums are "tired" and should "get" to go to their room or other place of no distraction (including TV and toys) until they are ready to be nice again.

Posted by: RoseG | December 11, 2007 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Don't mind all the stern judges out there. I remember another parent once observing that with small children, the even years are always harder (2,4, etc). My view is that children get stressed because they cannot control or even predict their environments in a way that adults take for granted. Often they have no clue what's coming next or why they are being forced to quit whatever they just settled down to do. It's like perpetual culture shock. (We would hate it ourselves.) The extra new classes are just adding to that load, even if on the whole he likes them and is making progress. A tantrum is just a way to try to regain control. It rarely succeeds if the parents don't give it oxygen, which is why kids give them up as they learn to process information and express their desires verbally. Sometimes it helps to just try to keep them well informed on what's coming next so they don't feel they're constantly being taken by surprise. A less elaborate form of the picture schedule is the old countdown (ten minutes to bedtime, five minutes to bedtime, etc.)

Posted by: lurkette | December 11, 2007 11:09 AM | Report abuse

We dealt with an upsurge in tantrums when my daughter began preschool this fall (she's 3). I think it had to do with disruption in her routine, the pressure to "perform" and be well-behaved in school for four hours a day, and the stress of change (I also went back to work part-time).

We worked through this period, however, and are back to having a mostly-happy kid. Like you, it was frustrating for us because she never acted out at school - just for us at home. I think I'm supposed to be "flattered" by this LOL.

Posted by: viennamom | December 11, 2007 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Anyone remember the big article that came out recently, saying that it is totally healthy for kids to go through a "tantrum" phase? The kids who don't go through this apparently have some kind of attachment and/or anxiety problem (since they don't feel safe enough in their relationship with their caregiver to lose control).

Not that they should be continuing this behavior indefinitely, but apparently they do need to go through it at some point. Interesting stuff.

Posted by: va | December 11, 2007 11:28 AM | Report abuse

My now 6 year old was also having regular tantrums. She has sensory integration issues, but no developmental delay. We have been through a full psychological evaluation b/c she was so sensitive and emotional. And she is well above average in verbal ability. The evaluator suggested we take her for regular therapy sessions. We found a child psychologist and after 15 minutes with our daughter she laughed and said "Mom, she's 6". There is nothing wrong with her-stop feeding her tantrums with words" I was embarassed that it was my parenting that seemed to be the issue, especially since none of my other kids did this, but it was. She gave us the book o 1,2,3 magic. We stopped responding to the tantrums. When she starts, I count, no other talking and if she doesn't get under control by 3 she is off to her bed until she is calm. No one talks to her until she is calm. We have only had to send her there once. We also taught her some relaxation techniques that we will do with her when she starts geting upset.

Posted by: Momof5 | December 11, 2007 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"Not that they should be continuing this behavior indefinitely, but apparently they do need to go through it at some point."

Right. Men have been using the same excuse for two-timing for centuries!

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Have any of explored the Harvey ? (happiest baby) approach of talking your toddler down during a tantrum by using "caveman" language. Something like "you want toy. Now. Now. You want. Mommy says No to toy. Not now. Later. Soon. Not now." You have to say it with emotion to match their own. I've been doing it with my 15 mth old and it doesn't stop the tantrum, but it brings it down a notch.

Posted by: lovea | December 11, 2007 11:56 AM | Report abuse

You probably feel bad for his delays and worry about the "stress" you feel your child may be under with the extra classes. Your kid is fine. I agree with the earlier posters that you need to not give in to any tantrum your child has. When you give in once they will continue to escalate in order to get what ever they want again since it worked in the past for them. If your child is having this many frequent tantrums you are obviously giving in sometimes just to have peace and quiet. In the end all it does is prolong the phase. Kids have nothing better to do with their time than to get what they want by whatever means nessesary. They will scream for 2 hours, like my friends daughter would. They are determined. There is no worry as to making dinner and getting kids off to bed, all they have is time. You have to be firm with them and ignore it. If they persist and you don't want to hear it, place them in their room and let them know they are disturbing the house and when they are ready to behave they can join the rest of the family. They may escape a few times as they want attention and results with the tantrum that are hard to come by if not in the middle of the house screaming. Just stick to your guns and you will be amazed at the difference in your child. It will take a couple of weeks, but you will get there and be glad you held out. It worked like a charm with her daughter and will work with your child as well.

Posted by: anon | December 11, 2007 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Well, VA, my mother walloped the daylights out of us, so obviously we didn't feel safe in our relationship with her. This yuppie psychobabble is funny. Do you realize how ridiculous you all sound? How many of you actually have degrees in child development or psychology?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree about sleep and hunger, but no one mentioned other needs. My daughter loves school and she is a sweetie there (and generally at home as well), but when she gets home, often she just wants a cuddle with Mommy, and will freak out if I try and fix dinner at that time. Also, I do sympathize with the issue of speech delay. My daughter is incredibly verbal (nearly 2), but she still has moments where she can't get what she wants and can't express it. I'm not talking about cuddling during tantrums, but very often this is what she wants.

Posted by: DopeyMummy | December 11, 2007 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Marguerite Kelly had a column in the post a few months ago that claimed that kids go through "difficult" periods about every six months at this age. So they might be "easy" at 3.5 but "difficult" at 4. Then at 4.5 they might be easy again. I don't know if that is your problem here. I'm sure the language delay is not helping him; perhaps he feels "behind" his fellows in preschool, or perhaps his fellow students are being a little mean to him because kids are experts at making each other feel bad. I say try the strategies of avoiding triggers that are described here, but then ignore tantrums when they occur. I've heard it's important not to allow the child ultimately to get their wish from the tantrum. e.g. if clean up your toys before dinner generates a tantrum, then you have to make them clean up the toys after the tantrum, rather than convince yourself that there is no time for them to clean up because it's now dinnertime.

I dont' know that you should allow the speech delay to make you more lenient with tantrums. The child has to learn to cope, even if doing so is harder for them than for other kids.

Posted by: m | December 11, 2007 12:11 PM | Report abuse

My 3-year-old son has been seeing a speech therapist to work on an expressive speech delay. We, too, were having massive meltdowns -- especially when it was time for him to clean up his toys, take a bath, leave a park, put on his shoes, etc. One of the things the speech therapist recommended is to give the child advanced warning that "in five minutes it will be time to XXXXX, so please finish up your playing" (or whatever he's doing). She's used this successfully in his therapy to help him transition from one activity to a different one. At home it's worked wonders as well, especially at bath time. I'll set an egg timer and tell him that he's got five minutes to finish up looking at his books and then it's bath time when the timer rings. No more temper tantrums. Hope this helps.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Sometimes kids will throw tantrums simply because they want affection from a parent. In this case, I think its best to coddle the child rather than subject them to and add-hoc behavior modification plan.

For heaven's sake, if your kids needs a hug to feel good, give him one and you'll both feel better!

Posted by: GutlessCoward | December 11, 2007 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"How many of you actually have degrees in child development or psychology?"

Do you?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"How many of you actually have degrees in child development or psychology?"

None of the people that run this blog.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 11, 2007 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the previous posters about ignoring tantrums but I'm sympathetic to your concern about whether it is a valid problem or normal tantrums. My kids both had acid reflux as babies and didn't sleep through the night until 9 mos. because I would always go to them since I wasn't sure if it was just waking up stuff or reflux. When my kids would tantrum like that, we would say "I'm sorry you are so upset about that when you feel better, please feel free to come: back to the dinner table, join the game, back with the family etc...." this allowed them to have whatever feelings they were having without all the rest of us having to pay for it.

Secondly re: the self-confidence thing, I would look for things that he can be successful at and encourage those. Is he good a puzzles? Sports, signing - it doesn't really matter what, just find something at which he can be successful and encourage that activity. It will give him something to feeel good about esp. if he is in any way aware that he is different. Don't praise stuff that isn't praiseworthy, but if he is the best hopper, then build hopping obstacle courses for him in the yard. You get the idea. Good luck - its tough - you worry more than you could have ever imagined!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | December 11, 2007 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Just a reminder to our anonymous posters to please use a name when posting your comments. Thanks.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | December 11, 2007 1:49 PM | Report abuse

"How many of you actually have degrees in child development or psychology?"

I'd rather get input from fellow parents on most issues than listen to some *expert* with a degree who doesn't have any idea what it's like to be a parent. I guess a few others on this blog agree. If you don't like it, go get a book out of the library written by an *expert.*

Posted by: anne | December 11, 2007 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"I'd rather get input from fellow parents on most issues than listen to some *expert* with a degree who doesn't have any idea what it's like to be a parent"

How do you know the experts don't have any idea what it's like to be a parent?

Posted by: chittybangbang | December 11, 2007 2:07 PM | Report abuse

How about listening to an *expert* who is a *parent*? A good friend of mine is the father of two and also a fine school psychologist.

There's a bit too much of "when I was a parent, I made my child walk over broken glass--and they liked it!". A universal theme here is to trust one's instincts--that includes asking for help when you feel it is needed.

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | December 11, 2007 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Chitty and Fairlington,
Obviously some *experts* are also parents and increase their credibility as such. The great thing about a blog is you get a range of ideas and can hopefully find one that fits your parenting style. All I was trying to say was a degree by itself doesn't mean much to me.

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 11, 2007 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Other people have already said the things that occurred to me - all the pressures of school, and using up every bit of self-control there, so when he's home he's got nothing left - difficulties with transitions, and giving 5 or 10 minute warnings so that he knows what's coming up.

I also like the tantrum coaching. In our family, punching a pillow is the preferred outlet for out-of-control feelings, and both DH and I have said things like, "Oh, you can hit the pillow harder than that, you must not be as mad as I thought."

Posted by: Sue | December 11, 2007 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I was having tantrums at 7-8. I think it's because a lot of "stuff" was happening our family, but no one was really taking the time to tell me about it. As always the "good girl" I just kept quiet and tried to get along, but sometimes it just got too scary and too much and a little thing would set me off in a big way.

The only reason I've thought much about it is because my mom mentioned it in my teens how I'd have tantrums at the age and she never had any idea what was going on.

I'm still somewhat prone to that problem of repressing and not being able to ask for help so then I emotionally spin.

But for your kid- I think making prep time for slow predictable transitions (family time!) and going through a daily "this is how things will probably go" spiel every afternoon could be quite helpful.

Posted by: Liz D | December 11, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all of the helpful comments. I'm really glad I posted this one.

We have had success with both of our children when we give notice for transitions. I guess I'm just not as disciplined at doing it as I should be. Thanks for the reminders.

I don't think food's the issue in our case. He gets a snack as soon as he gets home. He's pretty ravenous, so perhaps -- in fact, I know -- he's hitting a growth spurt.

Maybe the stress level at home has been higher than I've been willing to admit to myself. Couple that with an extra transition in the day going to two preschools, and I guess I can see the whys and wherefores.

We don't "give in" to tantrums, but I think he might just be in need of extra, positive attention.

And, no, I'm not an expert in child psychology or early development by any stretch. No degree here. Just a concerned Dad trying to muddle through and looking for answers, help and tips. Much obliged to y'all.

Posted by: Mike | December 11, 2007 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Mike -- your son sounds like my daughter when she goes through various phases. When she had just moved up to the 2-yr-old room, she went through this phase where she'd be perfect at school, then the minute I picked her up, she'd melt down over the slightest little thing (one time she had dropped some crumbs in the hallway 2 feet outside the door to her room, and couldn't clean them up by rubbing the crumbs into the carpet with a paper towel -- I swear, you'd have thought the world was ending).

A couple of pieces of advice, for what it's worth. First, I found it to be absolutely true that she melted down with me because she knew she was "safe." She tried so hard all day to control herself, follow the rules, do what she was supposed to, etc., that she needed an outlet for that. And the fact that she's always been a perfectionist doesn't help -- she puts so much pressure on herself to do everything perfectly the first time, that even after a normal day she's completely worn out from the effort. And because she felt safe with me, I was that outlet.

Second, the language issue can be a BIG one. We did what another commenter mentioned, using very simple words and talking to her about what she was feeling (things like, "wow, you're really frustrated," or "you must be very, very tired after such a hard day"). When they can start to put words to emotions, it takes some of the scary out of it for them.

Third, start everything off with a really big, long hug and a few minutes to transition. Sometimes, when you pick them up or put them in your lap, you can just feel some of the tension ebbing away. Oh, and snacks. In the car. All the time.

Finally, it's a really tough line between ignoring and rewarding. You NEVER want to give them what they're pitching the fit over. But my daughter would escalate to the point where she was literally out of control and didn't know how to come back, and that terrified her -- for a control freak like she is, being out of control of herself was the scariest thing she could imagine. I could see the fear and panic in her eyes. So after probably 8 months of hard-line ignoring route with zero results, I changed tactics: I'd calmly tell her to let me know when she was ready to calm down, then go about my business. Every once in a while, I'd ask her if she wanted some help calming down; if she escalated, I went back to ignoring; but when she'd gotten to the freakout point and nodded her head, I'd sit with her and talk calmly and show her how to take deep breaths until she came back down to earth. Once she learned to get herself under control (when she wanted to), the tantrums got a LOT shorter and less frequent.

Oh, and if you can see one coming and come up with a quick diversion, that's the best solution of all. :-)

Posted by: Laura | December 11, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

There's a few very good books by Michael Gurian regarding learning, particularly for boys- The Minds of Boys: Savings our Sons from Falling Behind in School and in Life, in particular, which ARE based on studies, psychology, etc (as some posters were commenting on folks "qualification" to speak) and include some steps and measures to take that can help boys learn and perform better both at home and at school. You might want to take a look- this one particularly DOES address the "Transitions" issue that several posters commented on, and appears to be a problem with your child. You never know- it can't hurt, and might help.

Posted by: Tiffany | December 11, 2007 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Great suggestion Tiffany!

It's been a very long time since I read _The Wonder of Boys_ which was Gurian's first book I think. Anyway, that was our source for the hit-the-pillow strategy, although, as I remember, the author suggested a punching bag, but we didn't have room for that so we improvised.

Posted by: Sue | December 11, 2007 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I DO have a degree in psychology, specifically behavior analysis. And I am a parent, so I feel I am qualified enough to comment here. Using my own name, even. (What's with you anonymous posters, anyway?)

A child who is throwing a tantrum needs something. It may be a hug. It may be help with something that's frustrating. In my household, a child who is unable to be made happy by any other means is obviously tired and just needs to go to bed. I agree with Laura about not rewarding a tantrum. The idea I've always had is that you don't give them what they want, you teach them how to get what they need.

I think 4 is still rather young to have such a fully structured day. Just like adults need to unwind after a long day of work, kids need space to do their own thing. More so, actually. Being basically bossed around at preschool all day and at home all evening (from the kids' point of view anyway) is tough. You can see how a child might feel adults are on him all the time. Give him some space. Try to use the old "Do you want to brush your teeth or put on your jammies first?" trick. You know, offer two choices you can live with and let him decide. Let him have power over his own life where possible, and be firm yet kind on everything else.

Good luck!

Posted by: Karen | December 12, 2007 2:20 AM | Report abuse

Funny... my DD (2.5) had a big one this morning because she didn't want to wear pants. (sometimes you gotta love the easy ones that you really *can't* give in to!). So she had a timeout, a little more tantrum, then she came to me (still bawling) and asked me to sing her a song. I did, she calmed down, we put on her pants and that was that. I still have no idea what was really going on with this one. I think sometimes it's just hard being 2.

Posted by: reston, va | December 12, 2007 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm late to comment but you might also want to consider whether your son's missing a type of activity due to the new schedule - like time to run around outside, or time for sensory play (sand and water and things like that). Not that I have a clue; just guessing.

Posted by: Shandra | December 12, 2007 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Mike --

I just stumbled across your blog today, so this is more a response to the series than to this particular entry. First, I want to let you know how brave and important it is for you to be exploring and exposing such deep fears when you are in a remarkably vulnerable state. One thing I found incredibly therapeutic when going through something very similar was reading essays, articles, and books by others who were going or had gone through similar situations, b/c it's so overwhelming to be the parent of a child w/ developmental delays when you fear there might be something deeply wrong, and when you don't know what you should do.

For what it's worth, from your descriptions, it seems pretty clear to me that your son is mildly on the autistic spectrum (as is my son). I'm not a doctor, have never met your son, etc., but I know those symptoms (including tantrums) all too well (and I've devoted countless hours over the past few years to reading everything I can on the subject). Also, and I'm not being at all facetious, an obsession w/ Thomas seems to me to be a far better marker of ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) than most of the elements of the DSM-IV. It's uncanny.

Thomas, plus hand flapping, repetitive running/hyperactivity, difficulty with articulation, difficulty with motor skills, not mingling with other kids, tantrums, unwillingness to respond to direct questions, language delay. That's ASD. (And even if it's not, and, more realistically, even if it's hazy/on the border-line, there are enough similarities/tendencies in that direction that it doesn't matter at all what you call it, except instrumentally, i.e., in terms of whether it helps you convince the school district to give your son the help he needs.)

The good news is that your son's being on the spectrum may well not be nearly as horrific as it sounds, at least in the medium- to long-run. (It's deeply, deeply traumatic in the short run.) There's opportunity for your son to thrive in all kinds of ways, including emotionally -- it's simply untrue that people on the spectrum lack emotions; they often have difficulty expressing it, and often have difficulty interpreting others' emotions, but that does not mean that he won't love you and the rest of your family as deeply as you love him.

I tend to agree that kids who in prior generations would have been diagnosed as ADHD or mentally retarded are now diagnosed (I think accurately) as being on the spectrum. This suggests that your son will likely not be as impaired as you fear (but that he will likely continue, at the least, to be quirky, fragile, and more likely to be chess club president than class president).

Re: tantrums. I agree w/ those who have suggested a) picture schedules/advanced notice, b) timers, and c) presenting a choice whenever possible ("do you want to stop playing and take a bath in two minutes or in three minutes?"; "that's a grown-up computer -- do you want to play with your cars or your phone?").

Re: the bigger picture. We have had remarkable success with Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). I'd suggest reading "The Austism Sourcebook" by Karen Siff Exkorn, which is very informative on a lot of different axes, and open-minded about various approaches to helping kids on the spectrum (and their parents). It is sympathetic to ABA (gently, and I think appropriately, so). For a more comprehensive,detailed, and partisan gide to ABA and behavioral principles, I'd suggest "Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism," published by Pro-Ed.

Having a thought-through approach to dealing with your son's behavior is, I think, incredibly helpful -- both in terms of how it will help your son, but also in terms of your own mental state. I found it really helps to be able to conceive of an unresponded-to (and thus not reinforced) tantrum as a learning experience for my son, rather than (merely) gut-wrenching. And it helps you understand (and foster) positive substitutes -- situations you recognize, or create, in which your son, in manageable steps, is able to, e.g., ask for what he wants rather than grab (and get it, along with a big hug).

We didn't have success with Floor Time (the Greenspan Method), though others have. And though I'm a strong proponent of ABA (as is the Surgeon General, and the vast weight of scientific research), there is some reason to think that intensive, consistent engagement of any stripe will be effective. I'd urge others like you to follow your lead in getting your child checked out, and overcoming the incredibly strong impulse to ignore and repress your concerns, hoping that they will go away.

To Mike (and others in a simlar position reading his blog, and reading the comments, particularly those from parents, educators, and others who have direct contact with developmentally delayed kids) -- I wish you and your son (and your wife and daughter) the best. You're probably more traumatized than you're admitting to yourself at the moment. But it really does get better. Many kids with developmental delays do improve to an amazing degree, and, at least as importantly, if you continue to invest as much love and effort as you are obviously doing, your ability to understand and help your son become as happy and fulfilled as he can will improve just as notably.

Posted by: Romberjo | December 17, 2007 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I had the same problem with my son when he was 4 and in an "all day" pre-k. He would fall apart after pick-up. I then asked his teacher if it would be okay to pick him up a 1/2 hr early. It solved the problem. "All day" is just too long for some kids.

Posted by: joe d | December 18, 2007 10:48 AM | Report abuse

In response to Romerjo -- ASD?? I see precious little in the original post to indicate ASD. All children struggle with the transition to full day school. ASD presents itself throughout the day, not just at home. Love, patience, and time will cure most childrearing issues, thank goodness!

Posted by: Virginia Mom | December 18, 2007 11:14 AM | Report abuse

In response to Virginia Mom -- as the first sentence of my comment notes, I was responding to the entire Child Development Series, in which Mike talks in depth about his son, not to this particular entry.

I know you're trying to be reassuring to counter what you perceive to be alarmism, but kids with this range of issues don't get cured by love, patience, and time. Those all help, but the kind of assistance Mike is getting for his son is also vital.

Posted by: Romberjo | December 19, 2007 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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