Our six-year-old son is having some problems with rage and often the red mist overcomes him. I’m sure it is within a spectrum of “normal” child behaviour but I am struggling to get advice on how to help him.
In general he is happy and settled and gets on well at school – interestingly, he never has these outbursts at school. What I would really like is some advice to help him control and manage his anger. These outbursts often happen over really very minor things where he’s not got his own way over something such as watching more TV, or having more sweets, or getting ready for bed. The red mist falls and he can’t control his temper, lashing out and shouting/screaming/crying, sometimes for over an hour. I think he wants to control it and I sympathise with him as we’ve all felt this totally unreasonable rage, but don’t know how to support him. Often we try to coax him out of it, without going back on whatever the issue was, or divert him, or give him space, or get him to run it off, but this often doesn’t work. Do you have any tips?
My second child is very similar to your son, so I sympathise. Sometimes I look at her and think “I feel just like you do at times” but social niceties mean we often clean up our behaviour in front of others. In fact, that’s what your son is already doing because he doesn’t behave like that at school and I’ll bet he doesn’t behave like that, very much, out of the home either. My daughter doesn’t. And even when I’m in the foulest mood, I do temper it in front of strangers.
I consulted Hilary Ann Salinger, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), because I really wanted to get into the mind of a small child again to try to help us understand what was going on.
“As a six year old, your son is moving out of his infancy into a latency stage of development where the need for control, structure and order becomes paramount. Yet, like all of us, he still has within him the raging two year old whose demands he somehow recognises as inappropriate for his age.”
Salinger explains that it’s not so much that he wants more telly or sweets or whatever. What is causing the rages is the conflict between the foot-stamping two year old and the older boy who actually wants – needs – order and control. It’s the conflict that’s causing the distress and the temper.
Now, before I go further, I need to quantify what we’re talking about here, which isn’t making sure children just blindly do what we ask (regular readers will know that I strongly believe children are individuals who have a voice). It’s about helping them manage their emotions about disappointment and distress, about being, as Salinger says, “firm and understanding in a kind and compassionate way – this is what builds their mental health.”
We often talk about the physical health of children, not so much about mental health yet it’s important we teach them that emotions are OK and how to manage them, not bat them away.
Salinger says it sounds as if you are dealing with this well: “Your son is fortunate to have a parent who is able to identify with him and think about what is going on for him.
“If you try to help with the dilemma, you are taking one side or another – it’s about acceptance of the conflict. What you have to do is help him manage it. You could try saying something such as, ‘I know it’s painful but it’s OK, it’s all right.’ Ultimately, a child wants to lose graciously. It doesn’t help when they win – that’s not what temper is about. If you give in, they are in control – and that’s a frightening world for a six year old. If you give in, it is triumph for the child and that’s not what they really want. They want safety.”
Salinger says, “The child is looking for the backbone in you – if you can find it, they can use it.”
So stay calm, be confident and pick your battles. Sometimes I’ve looked back at epic meltdowns and realised that what my daughter wanted wasn’t so unreasonable. Your son will learn to manage his emotions in a better way and you’re helping him on this journey.
It’s better that he behaves like this in the safety of home and not at school where, Salinger explains, “He might then feel humiliated for his behaviour.” She also suggests that if he’s the type of child who needs routine, then perhaps looking at a more structured environment at home might help with clear demarcations. Also, after having to behave at school, children do like to kick back a bit. He may also be hungry, a snack and a run around straight after school is often a good idea. Also, make sure he is getting enough sleep.
This article first appeared in the Guardian family section on 2 May 2014.