Josh* was seven-years-old when his mom reached out to me. I will never forget the phone call. Two minutes into her description of her son’s temper tantrums that occurred frequently and seemed to last “forever”, she broke down into tears. Feeling alone in the situation, the family quietly dealt with Josh’s tantrums behind closed doors and didn’t seek advice from anyone. They were exhausted, embarrassed and frustrated. The tantrums, which I later discovered lasted approximately 45 minutes in duration and occurred about three times per week, were negatively impacting the family.
Mom and dad were out of energy and out of ideas. They fought constantly and lost their patience with Josh regularly. His sisters, both older, began to shut down. They avoided him and pulled away from their parents. Nothing seemed to work.
This family felt very alone in their struggle to help a child with explosive tantrums, but the truth is that tantrums aren’t just for toddlers and many families face very similar situations.
Tantrums can and do occur in the school age years. As parents, we tend to reframe big kid tantrums as “meltdowns”. Many school age children have difficulty coping with their emotions and lack the ability to verbalize their feelings. Meltdowns occur when emotions build up and kids need to release their feelings. It’s common for kids to direct these pent up emotions toward their parents or care givers. The good news, if you choose to see it, is that this expression of misdirected frustration is actually a sign of trust.
What makes a tantrum “explosive”?
Tantrums shift from average to explosive based on a number of factors.
- Length: Explosive tantrums tend to be long in duration
- Aggressive behavior: Can include hitting, biting, throwing things
- Excessive screaming (can include cursing and verbal threats)
- Behavior that can be considered dangerous for the child or the bystanders (ex: jumping from a moving car)
- Can occur across multiple domains (ex: home, school, baseball practice, etc.)
Note: All children are different and you should always evaluate your child’s behavior against his own baseline (his average daily behavior).
Why do children engage in explosive behavior?
It’s important to remember that behavior is a form of communication. A child who is so overwhelmed that he lashes out is distressed. There is no one reason that triggers explosive tantrums, but there are a few things that explosive children tend to have in common:
- Difficulty managing emotions
- Poor (or no) coping skills
- Lack effective communication skills
- Poor impulse control
- Lack problem-solving skills
There is a tendency to view explosive behavior as “manipulative”. Children who experience explosive tantrums tend to run high on emotion and low on coping skills. They aren’t trying o manipulate – they are trying to communicate.
What can parents do?
When parents yell, command and/or criticize kids during explosive tantrums, the aggressive and explosive behavior increases. These tantrums are very difficult for parents to manage. Practice deep breathing techniques when you’re calm so that you can calm your senses when your child engages in explosive behavior.
Use calming phrases (on repeat) and don’t give in.
It’s tempting to give in the moment an explosive tantrum begins, but giving in won’t necessarily stop the behavior and it certainly won’t help long term. Giving in reinforces the behavior.
When your child is calm, talk through some calming phrases that you can use when he’s upset. “I know you’re upset; I will help you calm down” works for some kids, but many kids are specific in what words actually calm them (versus inflame them).
THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK is packed with great strategies to deal with big feelings!
Keeping a tantrum log helps. I know that writing down the event is probably the last thing you want to do once it’s over, but keeping a log helps you establish patterns and find the triggers. When you know what sets your child off, you can make a plan.
You don’t have to fill a page. Start with this:
- Time of day
- Length of tantrum
- Behaviors that occurred (screaming, hitting, breaking things, etc.)
- Possible triggers
- Interventions that worked
- Interventions that didn’t work
- Baseline status: Where it occurred, last time child ate and what, how much sleep the night before, what was coming next
Create a daily discharge plan.
Kids need to vent or discharge their emotions. In addition to the fact that kids are sitting for longer periods and expected to learn and even play (sports) at an accelerated pace, many kids spend the day in survival mode. They stuff their emotions to avoid a meltdown in front of peers and save it for home.
Create a safe space for venting emotions. Some kids respond well to venting while drawing, some need to yell it out and some like to write it down then tear it up. Find a strategy that works for your child.
Set clear limits and expectations.
As parents, we have a tendency to provide stern reminders of our expectations and limits when we’re under pressure, but many kids fail to internalize those limits and expectations and need reminders. Make your behavioral expectations and limits clear when kids are calm. You don’t need 100 house rules, you simply need to talk about your expectations and provide frequent reminders.
Structure is essential for kids who tend to have explosive tantrums. Keep to a consistent bedtime, have consistent meals and snacks and factor in downtime.
Increase 1:1 time.
Sometimes explosive kids struggle to relate to or bond with their parents. They often feel sorry after their tantrums and carry around feelings of guilt. Plan regular 1:1 time with your child to spend time bonding with him and getting to know him better.
Deal with your feelings.
Many parents experience frustration and resentment as a result of their children’s behavior. Some also feel sad and anxious. Work through your own feelings about your child’s behavior so that you don’t bring those feelings into the mix when your child experiences a meltdown.
Many parents benefit from their own therapy or parent education to work through these feelings.
Be aware of possible underlying issues.
Explosive tantrums can stem from other underlying issues. A few to consider:
- Learning differences
- Sensory processing disorder
- Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
If your child experiences explosive tantrums more than twice a week (on average) into the school age years and fails to improve, seek an evaluation. If your child displays any suicidal behavior (thoughts, actions, plans) or is a danger to others, seek immediate help.
This article does not replace an evaluation from a licensed mental health professional.
*Names, genders, ages and other identifying features changed.