Ask Dr. Merry: Son’s Out of Control Tantrums

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Family Life, Parenting | 0 comments

Angry Boy

Help!  I’m at my wit’s end with my 7 year old son, who is out of control with his rages.  He’s always been over the top with his tantrums but lately, he’s been banging his head against the wall when he’s angry, and then saying that he wants to die.  Normally, he’s such a sweet and lovable child, but when he has one of his fits, it can take him hours to calm down.  He’s starting to act out at school too when I drop him off, crying and wailing that he doesn’t want to go in.  Its gotten to the point that I have to drag him into school kicking and screaming, so I get so tired of fighting him that I sometimes just let him stay home.  I don’t have a lot of support from my husband because he is fed up with our son.  All he does when my son has one of his fits is yell and scream at him and spank him when he won’t stop, which only makes him worse.  I know that some Christians spank their kids, but I don’t personally agree with it, especially when I see my husband spanking our son so punitively, and honestly, I don’t think it’s working!  It’s really affecting our marriage because we are so polarized in how we want to parent our son.   It’s getting so bad that I’m afraid to take our son out in case he has a fit in pubic and then everyone thinks that I’m a bad parent.  I’ve taken my son to the doctor but he thinks he’ll grow out of it and that I just have to be firmer with him.  Everyone keeps giving me tons of parenting advice but none of it’s working.  What should I do?


My heart goes out to you as I can hear your frustration and fears for your son.  First of all, let me reassure you that you are not a bad parent – I can hear your deep love and concern for your boy and I know that you truly want to do what’s best for him.  I’ve been in this business long enough to know that kids’ acting out isn’t always about our bad parenting!

It’s important to realize that kids don’t have the ability to tell us with words when something is wrong so they show us through their actions – clearly your child isn’t thriving and there are things preventing him from being at his best – he sounds like he’s really struggling and does need some help to manage his very intense emotions.  Please keep in mind that kids don’t CHOOSE to act out and to do poorly – kids are wired to WANT to succeed and to please their parents – but something is preventing him from being able to do this – he doesn’t have the tools to handle the challenges of life and his emotions and so he acts out.

Rather than labelling him as a “problem child” and giving up on him or alternatively allowing his tantrums to reign in the house – we need to carefully assess where the gaps are and help him develop the skills he needs to thrive.  There are many possibilities of what might be going on so it’s very important to do a thorough assessment first.  For example, it sounds like your child may have problems regulating his emotions – which is a learned skill by the way; no kids are born with the ability to control their own emotions.  But some kids’ brains are wired so that when their emotions are triggered, the little part of their brain called the amygdala goes haywire and their brain is literally flooded with strong emotions.  When this happens, their ability to reason vanishes until their brain is able to calm down – and judging by the way you describe your husband, there may be a biological basis for this over-active brain response to emotional triggers.

It also sounds like there is chaos in the home with the yelling and spanking and conflict between you and your husband on how to handle your son – kids NEED a calm and secure home environment and when there’s emotional chaos in the home, our kids are like radars picking up on it and then acting out what they witness in their home – if parents aren’t regulating their emotions, how do we expect our kids to?  That is something we need to model for them and teach them how to do, especially for kids who are emotionally as intense as your son is – something we call emotion coaching.

It sounds like there may be something going on at school that is causing your child to be resistant – is he experiencing bullying, did something happen, is he struggling academically?  Some kids with undiagnosed LDs struggle with school but demonstrate it with a lot of resistance to going to school.  For many kids with anger problems, there is an underlying problem with anxiety and fear, and so they fight what they’re afraid of with anger (the old fight or flight syndrome) so that they can avoid the thing that is causing them to panic.  So doing a thorough psycho-educational assessment can help you determine what’s actually going on at school for your son.

Some kids’ brains are wired so that when they encounter “No’s”, their brain is flooded with uncomfortable emotions and so they react – these kids are sometimes described as “oppositional” – punishment and anger is the LAST thing that works with these kids – if anything it only escalates their out of control emotions.  You need to be creative in handling and disciplining them, for example, using a technique that has been found to be very effective called Collaborative Problem-Solving where the focus is on teaching your son skills as well as giving him some sense of control and say in handling the issues that are causing him to escalate.  For more information on this type of disciplining, check out Dr. Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child.

I would like to add that a lot of times in treating kids, we look at the family issues as well as marital – as parents, you NEED to be united in how you parent – but it also sounds like you may need support to manage the stress of raising your son so marital counselling may be warranted.  Regardless of what you choose, there are solutions for you and excellent support available to help you.

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