What To Do When Temper Tantrums Are Extreme

Category: Behavior and Discipline

PSP parents discuss handling tantrums.

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One parent asked the PSP group: 

“I am writing in the hope that someone can offer some advice or insight about my 5 year old son. He has always been a challenging child, with severe mood swings and extreme reactions to things. Now he is 5, and he has near daily tantrums that last up to an hour."

They almost always take place with one of his parents, usually me since I spend more time with him.  The tantrums are usually provoked by something small, such as me having brought the wrong snack after school or finding that his toys have been put away in the morning. The fits involve not only crying, but also screaming verbal abuse at my husband and me and threatening to hurt us. He does not usually end up lashing out physically, but will run away from us, or cling to a bench or doorknob to prevent himself from being held. These episodes never take place at school, and everything seems to be going well there.

He also seems very sensitive to hunger and the effects of sugar. He is a picky eater with an extreme sweet tooth and if sweets weren't restricted would eat them to the point of vomiting.  However he usually only eats about 25% of his school lunch and is ravenous after school, craving sweets and junky snacks, cranky and irritable.  

I am at a loss as to how to respond to his behavior and how to manage the fits. Ideally I would like to let him know that feeling strong emotions is okay but lashing out and verbally abusing me as a response is not. However I find myself short of the emotional resources to maintain my own calm in the face of the fits and often end up feeling silently furious with him, and ashamed (especially when it happens in public, with the extended family present, or on the subway when unkind people criticize and tell me they would just spank him etc.). I have spoken to his preschool teachers about these behavior problems from time to time but they were simply puzzled because none of it wasn't manifesting at school.  He is currently in public kindergarten and again, no problems at school.  

Can anyone tell me whether this sounds outside of what is typical for a five year old?  I don't see similar behavior in his friends.  Would a psychiatric evaluation make sense at his age?  There are people in my family who suffer from depression and I worry he has inherited that disposition.  

Thank you for all the parenting solidarity this community has provided to me over the years.  One thing about modern parenting that I have struggled with is how alone one is with one's children and I value the stories and wisdom shared here.”




Get professional advice:

“I had a difficult child at age 6-7, who was good at school, and it did not get better on its own. Get help now. I highly recommend NYU Child Study Center. They can work with you about what is going on and what you can do differently, what is normal, etc.”

""My advice, having been a kid like this and now being a parent myself: perhaps you should go first on your own without your child to see a therapist or doctor or specialist. See if there are things you can try, or things to help you cope, first. Then, the idea suggested by many others here about family therapy is a good one. Also nice to hear people say this sounds normal. Like all things, it is, on a spectrum, and each case is unique. The question is how to help your child and yourself in the long run. This too shall pass. Good luck!"

A regular sleeping and eating schedule is important:

“I don't mean to minimize your experiences with your son, which sound very trying for you and your family, but I did want to let you know that we are having similar issues with our five year old daughter, who has always been an "easy" child. Disruptions to sleeping and eating patterns seem to lead to terrible tantrums - which I know would never happen at school. I think, at least in part, it's part of being five and testing boundaries, etc. Hopefully others have some good advice for you - I suspect we're not alone in this!


Talk to a child pyschologist or social worker:

“As a speech pathologist, if a parent described this type of behavior, I would definitely advise them to seek an evaluation from a child psychologist or social worker who specializes with children and behavioral difficulties.  From reading your description of his a behavior, I had a few thoughts:

1. Since he doesn't demonstrate the extreme tantrums at school, it sounds like it is behavioral and he finds these tantrums get him whatever it is he is looking for at home and knows that the same behavior would not be effective at school.
2. When any child of that age is very upset, trying to intervene at the moment with language is likely going to be ineffective.  Keep it very short and clear and then stop.  Assuming he is not endangering himself or others and does not let you hold him or help him calm down I would say something like "I can see you are upset. I can try to help you when you calm down."  And then let him do his thing, just keeping an eye on him to make sure he is safe, but do not engage with him (physically, verbally, even eye contact), even if it's a hour. Watch to see if he does things like scream louder when he notices you aren't paying attention or moves closer to you if he thinks you can't see him or aren't noticing. That will tell you a lot about what his intentions are.

Of course, this doesn't work so well out in public or when you have to get out of the house, but if you have the time, it will give you a lot of information about what makes these tantrums effective for him at home.  Once you can identify what the tantrums do for him, then you can start to decide on a consistent response from both you and your husband will be.

This is what a psychologist/social worker can really help with -  both figuring out the reason behind the behavior and coming up with a clear, effective plan that you will both be able to follow that should help to reduce the tantruming over time (it is not instant - from a behavioral perspective, negative behaviors usually spike before they decrease - knowing that ahead of time is helpful) and they can help you practice the techniques in sessions.  These are only thoughts based on what you wrote and are by no means the "right" answers.  But know that there are professionals out there who specialize in child behavior so that you don't have struggle through this by yourself.  And just because you seek out therapy, doesn't mean it's a long term thing.  It could be just a few sessions or a few months and once the tantrums are under control, you wouldn't need to continue.”  


It can be normal and a phase:

I have a normal 5yo son and "severe mood swings and extreme reactions" are not at all unusual. In fact, he will inevitably have crazy tantrums lasting an hour or two the moment the school bus pulls away (no problems at school or around other people) if he didn't eat his lunch, or if he is over-tired. While other 5yos always seem to strike me as more emotionally centered/mature on playdates, their parents have assured me (many times over) that their kids are screamers at home as well; kids always act worse around non-family.


Have a junk food ban:

"It sounds like your guy is holding out for junk food after school, and I'd recommend removing that incentive for him to not eat by not offering treats after school. (My son also has a major sweet tooth but we are relatively restrictive with sugar and other processed foods, and he averages maybe 1 or two servings total per week.)  I offer veggies, whole wheat crackers, nuts, and/or fruit (though fruit is often reserved for dessert) after school and if he doesn't want that, he's not hungry."


Family therapy can be a huge help:

"It sounds like you are having a very hard time. I have had a child who is at times very difficult.  Our family found a lot of help from family therapy.  We didn't want our son to think there was something "wrong" with him. Rather, we took the approach that his struggles were our struggle and I think that helped us.  Our problems were a little later- 4th grade, but did have to do with in appropriate social responses - ie getting too angry about normal life.

Our whole family truly benefited. It can be so hard to have a "difficult" child. He is now an adolescent and one of the great long term benefits of the family therapy was that when issues came up for him in 7th grade, he asked to go see the woman who had seen us when he was younger. He is still "difficult" and will be. The lesson for our family has been to learn the most effective ways to help him modulate feelings and for us to learn appropriate responses. We saw Markie Sallick in Williamsburg, but I believe the most important thing for us was seeing someone who was on board with the idea that his problem was our families problem in the sense that we were all in it together. Best of luck."


Sleep is important, as is no sugar and a non reaction from you:

My second daughter had severe though not daily tantrums with me only at 4 for small things too. Sleep is important. Sounds like for you restricting sugar is important. Non reaction or non over reaction from you is important. I tried to hold her and calm her but looking back I wish I had figured it out better too. Luckily for me and I am sure it will happen for you too she outgrew them…


"It's so interesting to me that you mention this behavior issue AND the sugar issue. As a child, I had a very potent combination of anxiety and hypoglycemia. And each made the other worse-- it was a terrible cycle. I was perfectly behaved at school and in public. I only ever got upset (my outbursts were more sadness than anger, but they all come from the same place) with my mom, the person I felt safe with, because I knew subconsciously that she'd love me no matter what.  All this to say that there is hope. Thanks to therapy, nutrition education, and eventually anti-anxiety meds, I'm a very happy, functioning adult. I'm sure your kid will be, too. But in the meantime, there's no harm in seeking help."


Further Resources on PSP:

Member recommendations for Child Psychologists

Member recommendations for Family Therapists

Handling Hurtful Kids

Challenging 4yo Behavior

More temper tantrum advice (for a 2yo)