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Harvard Commentaries
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A Parent's Life A Parent's Life
 

When Older Kids Have Tantrums


August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Your child has been screaming for the past 15 minutes, and you're just about at your wit's end. You don't want to give in — you said no for a reason—but you need the screaming to stop.

Sound familiar? Every parent goes through this; tantrums are part of childhood. But what if the screaming child isn't 2 — but 12?

When we think of tantrums, we think of toddlers and preschoolers. Indeed, that's when they are most common. They usually grow out of frustration, when children can't quite express themselves, and are learning how to understand and control emotions.

But older children can have tantrums, too. While these tantrums have a lot in common with the tantrums of younger children, they do require some different thinking — and a slightly different approach.

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What's Going on with Your Child?

First, it's important to understand — or try to understand — what's going on with your child. Here are two questions to help you figure this out:

  • Is this old behavior? Perhaps your child has always had difficulty with change, with being told no, or with handling emotions. If so, tantrums have become part of how your child reacts. (You probably have never really had a break from them.) They can get tougher to manage as kids get older, especially when you add the hormones of puberty to the mix.
  • Is this a new behavior? If so, what's different now in your child's life? Older children can be experiencing social stress. They don't always want to tell their parents when they're having trouble with friends, or being bullied. Academic stress can be a factor, as can stress from other areas of their lives. When the tantrum is over, sit your child down and talk. Ask questions in a supportive way. Make it clear that you aren't angry; you are worried, and you want to help.

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What's Going on with You?

It's also important to understand—and moderate—what's going on with you.

When little kids have tantrums, it's easy for parents not to yell back; they are little kids, after all. But when a big kid has a tantrum, it can be harder not to react. But it's really important not to, because it usually makes things worse. If you are feeling upset, separate until you can calm down. (Put yourself in time-out, if you have to!).

Be willing to look at your own behavior. Are you doing things that are triggering tantrums? For example, are you being more rigid than you need to be? A little flexibility can go a long way sometimes.

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Managing Tantrums

Little children need their parents to manage their tantrums. But older children need to manage their own — with your help. Here are some suggestions:

  • When everyone is calm, talk with your child about the tantrums. Make it clear that they can't continue. Have a frank, calm discussion about what triggers them.
  • Involve your child in problem-solving. Find out what they think would help.
  • When you sense a tantrum coming on, you can sometimes head it off at the pass if you quickly involve your child, before they get really upset. For example: "I know you are upset about having to go to Aunt Ellen's today. I can't just leave you at home — that would hurt her feelings, and isn't fair to your sister. What can we do so it's not so bad?"

If these suggestions help and your older child's tantrums become less frequent or rare, that's great. But if the tips don't make a difference, ask for help. Talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a mental health professional.

This doesn't mean that there is something wrong with your child or with you as a parent. It's just that it can be hard to manage really strong emotions, both for your child and for you. Sometimes help from a mental health professional, even just for a brief time, is exactly what's needed. It's good to ask for help early, before the tantrums start causing real problems in your family.

Your child doesn't want to be upset with you, and you don't want to be upset with her. As tough as things can get, you love each other. Remember that, always, and you will find your way through — together.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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