Tantrum conundrum

Dear Sharon,

My 8-year-old son is becoming tiresome. He went from being a really nice little boy who was mostly manageable and agreeable to someone who pitches fits far too often. Any advice for a weary mom who wants to poof him away some of the time? His tantrums are driving me crazy, and I have lost all patience for dealing with it.

Dear Parents,

When a “manageable and agreeable” little one begins to “pitch fits” far too often, I usually recommend that parents start by reviewing possible causes of stress in their child’s life at school or at home.

Young ones I know have brought their bad moods home from school when their teacher is not interacting easily with everyone in their classes, when there has been an increase in academic expectations because of a new grade or academic challenge, or when they are reeling from difficult interactions with peers.

Parents I know have also noticed that “fits” grow when their own pressures increase, such as a move, renovation, illness, disagreement with relative or friend, or strain from their professional lives. Tensions between siblings can also contribute to pent up frustration.

Of course, children, especially when they are young, often “pitch fits” about little things that have nothing to do with the actual cause of their irritation. If parents can minimize underlying pressures — I know, easier said than done — then this is often the best way to help a child calm down.

Sometimes an increase in explosive behavior is not a result of underlying issues, but an attempt to get time and attention from parents. When a child is pushing his parents’ buttons to get their attention, it is of course common that such difficult repetitive behavior makes parents want to “poof their child away,” and ends up with them becoming impatient and weary.

Under such trying circumstances adults often explode back at their child in spite of better judgment. Unfortunately, when this happens, parents are offering their full attention and oddly satisfying their child’s desire to be the “center of their parent’s universe.” This kind of parent-child interaction rarely brings about a change in behavior.

If parents are stuck in repetitive fights with a “difficult” little one, I often suggest that parents begin by making sure they are spending plenty of fun, caring, quality time connecting with their child. I particularly recommend playing physical games outside of the house, as this is one of the best ways for adults and children to relieve built up stress and to model positive ways to give and receive parental attention.

When a child does explode, I also suggest that parents try hard to stay calm when helping him. Parents can continue to set their limits or express their opinions, but doing so in a few calm empathetic words is often more effective than explaining things in a long, angry lecture.

This, of course, is difficult to do when a little one is doing everything in his power to get a reaction. As it is understandably difficult for a parent to stay calm but clear under these circumstances, I sometimes recommend that parents pick an afternoon or day to practice staying calm in response to their child’s fits. A short successful time can help parents and children begin to step out of unproductive behaviors that can undermine parent-child relationships.

Good luck thinking through this common problem!