The Family Project: Tantrums
Q. When does a child having a tantrum cross the line ino this behavior being a real problem? My nephew, who is age five, has been having major tantrums starting at around age two. My sister keeps saying that he is going to grow out of it. It has been three years, and it is getting worse. Is this normal?
Panelist Chad Stefanyak started the conversation by asking if the child was yelling, throwing himself on the ground or throwing things.
“In other words, is he becoming a danger to himself or others?”
Panelist Pam Wallace asked, “Is the child trying to hurt himself or are the tantrums lasting a long time? Is he able to come out of them?”
The panelists agreed that “normalcy” depends on a lot of factors, including length, nature and severity of the outbursts.
“Tantrums are not necessarily normal or abnormal,” panelist Mike Daniels explained, “but there is an issue if the child has been having significant tantrums that have been continuing or getting worse for three years.
“Child development tells us there should be a little relaxation in this. There should be more verbal expression in terms of emotions. Children under the age of five are reactionary. They are dealing with their environment and reacting to what is happening to them, which is normal. But if the reactions continue to be on the level of stress, agitation, frustration and anger and tantrums for three years that indicates that the parents need to explore further what is really going on,” Daniels said.
Panelist Denise Continenza said, “Parents who are concerned about their child’s behavior should really observe what happens prior to the outburst. What was the parent’s response, and what was the outcome? Sometimes by taking the before, during and after approach, parents find out it is their own behavior that is perpetuating or reinforcing the behavior.”
Stefanyak suggested considering how the tantrums end: “Does the child get his way?”
“The question I would ask,” Daniels said, “is whether the tantrums are related to a specific thing, such as being told ‘no,’ or having to wait for gratification, or are they just tantrums about anything? Also, do they occur only in specific environments, like the home?”
Daniels said the first step should be for the uncle to have a conversation with the parents about his observations, and do so in a compassionate way. “He [the uncle] should be prepared for the parents to be defensive. You can see it already with the parents saying ‘He will grow out of it.’”
Given the nature of the tantrums, and the fact that the boy is five, Wallace also recommended having the child checked by a doctor to make sure the problem is not physical.
Continenza observed, “There are children who have very strong personalities who blow up a lot quicker than others. That’s where the guidance and teaching of social and emotional competence comes in, that is, teaching children how to label their feelings.
“The emotion itself is not the problem, it is the expression of it. It’s all right to be angry or frustrated, but it’s not acceptable to kick the dog or break something. There are positive ways to handle anger,” Continenza said.
This week’s team of parenting experts are: Pam Wallace, Program Coordinator, Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House; Chad Stefanyak, School Counselor; Wanda Mercado-Arroyo, Educator and Former School Administrator; Denise Continenza, Extension Educator, Food, Families and Health, Penn State Extension, and Mike Daniels, LCSW, Psychotherapist, CTS.
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The Family Project weekly column is a collaboration of the Lehigh Valley Press Focus section and Valley Youth House’s Project Child.