How to Temper Temper Tempests


Dear Dr. Ray: My son is four years old. He's very lovable, but be has a temper that is explosive. I think big anger goes beyond normal bounds. He throws at least one tantrum a day. We're looking for ideas. - Shell shocked

Peak temper tantrum years are commonly held to lie between ages two and six. By that standard, your son is smack in his prime. Actually, temper tantrums can erupt at any time in childhood, for that matter, at any time in adulthood. The underlying emotions, frustration and anger, are the same across all ages. The tantrum itself is what changes. A fifteen year old may not fling herself to the floor, flail all body parts in opposing directions, choke back her breath, and wildly punch the air or herself (I said, "may not.") But as any parent of an adolescent can witness firsthand, older kids are quite capable of their own brand of temper display.

Your worry that your son's anger isn't normal is understandable, especially if you have to mimic a tornado drill during his tirades. Rest assured, your son is not abnormal. First of all, he averages only a few blow-ups per day. Regularly, I see children who throw fits almost as naturally as they breathe, and they suffer from nothing psychologically out of whack. They just let their anger loose too often and too spectacularly, and they need to be taught some self-control.

Second, by their nature, temper tantrums can appear bizarre, even scary. Storm's spine is twisting into the letter "Q." Her eyes are darting independently toward her ears. Sounds never before recorded in nature are bursting from her mouth. Standard parental reaction to this level of emotional convulsion is something like, "I know kids get mad but this is not normal." Yes, it is. Sparky is upset, or frustrated, or disappointed at you, Mom, because you're not letting him do what he'd like, or at the world because it's not spinning quite as be thinks it should, so he's letting every emotion hang out. Why? Because he hasn't yet grown into better self control or incorporated the world's rules about such things as self-restraint and verbal tact. In short, temper is when some big emotions overwhelm a little child. He doesn't know what to do with them, so he reacts loud and hard.

Never have I seen a child emotionally scarred from a prolonged temper outburst. Anger itself causes no psychological damage, nor does it automatically indicate any. On the other hand, I have seen many children whose temper has become more regular and intense because it succeeded in manipulating shell-shocked adults to yield to childish demands. Certainly, expressing anger or feelings is not unhealthy. How it's expressed is what needs to be dealt with. Children need to learn to express emotions constructively and with some diplomacy. Screeching like an air raid siren, spitting, biting chairs, and swinging at anything within arm's reach are not choice ways for anyone, even little kids, to win friends and influence people. The younger a child when he is taught this, the easier the teaching will be on him and his parents, not to mention the rest of the world. Do kids exist who don't even occasionally pitch fits? Yes, I saw one once on TV who didn't. But most real world kids do. Life is marked by disappointments and frustrations, even for a four year old. Just because tantrums are a phenomenon of nature, though, does not at all mean you should tolerate them.

There's a bright side to temper tempests. On a miniature scale, they're reminders of what we can look like when we lose control. Not a pretty sight, is it?

So, while prime temper tantrum years are commonly considered to lie between ages two and six, in fact any aged kid, from birth to ninety-three is capable of his own brand of emotional tirade. Further, almost never are temper tempests in and of themselves signs of maladjustment. They are signs that Happy is bumping headlong into the reality that the world and you are not going to behave as he would like. And he's real unhappy about that.

Temper displays take two forms — the theatrical and the destructive. On their face, theatrical tantrums look spectacular, even violent. On closer notice, no one or nothing is really being attacked or damaged. There are no teeth marks in the kitchen table. The cat's tail is still attached. The carpet is getting a full body massage but its fibers are not being ripped out one by one. Almost all that's being assaulted is the air, and it can take a beating and bounce right back. Noise volume may approach pain threshold, but overall, theatrical temper tantrums (TTT) are all show.

The quickest way to cancel a TTT is to give Barrymore what he's ranting for. Let him repeatedly take the phone off the hook because he likes to hear the recording, "Please hang up and try your call again ..." He'll calm fast, but he'll learn to throw another, probably louder and longer fit next time he wants to mis-play with something else, like the microwave to dry his steel truck.

In the long run, a good way to end theatrical performances is to exit stage right. In parent language, leave the scene. As long as you, the audience, is
watching, the production has a purpose. Talulah is hoping you'll eventually yield to her wants, out of fear, exhaustion or in search of every parent's primal desire — peace. If it's impossible to physically move from "ground zero" (technical language for the center of a highly powerful blast), you have other options.

One, turn your back until the show is over. Two, get ear plugs or cotton, for your ears, not Barrymore's. Let him hear himself, he might scare himself into silence. Three, stare into space with the most vacant look you can muster. Your goal is to convey oblivion.

To fight drama with drama, one mother told me she would drop to the floor at first sound of a tantrum and mimic her son's every move, I guess until he gave up or gave her what she wanted (silence) just to shut her up. Another parent would quietly hold a mirror in front of his daughter until she ceased her display, probably through being distracted by the maniac in the mirror.

Any of these styles can work. The common threads through all of them are: one, the tantrum doesn't succeed in causing the folks to buckle under and two, nobody except the child is getting visibly upset over the current situation. I suppose one could argue that the mimicking mom looks upset. But she really wasn't. And her son knew that.

Destructive tantrums (D.T's) are a force of a different color. They hurt people or damage things — defenseless chairs, innocent walls or pathetic, always walked upon carpets. Destructive tantrums must be actively and firmly stopped. Ignoring them isn't usually practical, because something is being assaulted, whether you are paying attention or not.

Here again, you can choose from an assortment of strategies. You might physically restrain Gale until he quiets, and then place him someplace to sit for a while. You might swat his seat (his behind, not the chair). This may not totally stop him, but it could throw him into a more benign TTT. You might send, or possibly take, him to his room to simmer down. He can rejoin civilization when you think it wise.

Sometimes destructive fits leave damage in their wake before you can intercept them. Here, as young as Rocky is, he should still clean his shoe marks off the wall, or pay to fix the chair through money he earns from small household chores that you set up. The guiding rule for a damaging temper eruption is this: As much as possible for a four year old, Rocky makes right what he did wrong.

There's a bright side to temper tempests. After an explosive performance, Conan has expended so much energy that he's too tired to misbehave for a while. At least for the next three or four minutes, until he gets his second wind.



Ray Guarendi "How to Temper Temper Tempests"

Reprinted with permission of Ray Guarendi.


Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.

Copyright © 2001 Ray Guarendi

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