Third-Grader's Temper
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Third-Grader's Temper

Jan Faull, M.Ed., answers a parent's question about a 9-year-old who lashes out.

Q. My 9-year-old son has been fortunate, as academics, friendships, and athletics have rarely posed much of a challenge for him. Lately, however, he has had some difficulty in all of these areas. When they arise, he lashes out, throwing frightening tantrums reminiscent of a 2-year-old! The most disconcerting incident happened on the playground. Several kids were working together to bump him out of their recess game, since he was apparently dominating it by being too good for the group. When he finally couldn't stand it any longer, he left, but on his way, he pushed one of his friends as he walked past.

What can his father and I do to help him gain control in frustrating situations so that he doesn't lose control? -- Susan

A. Emotional outbursts can occur in any child who is up against too many frustrations and stresses. Some children simply take childhood's slings and arrows harder than others. Your son seems overwhelmed with managing his emotions, especially when surrounded by his peers.

The good news is that he's not lashing out at you or his dad. Therefore you two can, at his age of almost 10 years, be the ones to help him through this difficult period of emotional outbursts. He still likes you and is looking to you for emotional support. Once adolescence sets in, this will probably no longer be the case.

As you mentioned, his behavior resembles that of a 2-year-old. It's common that the tantrums of the early years don't erupt again until puberty. Regardless, it's important to go back and do exactly for him what you did when he was a toddler, which is to address his emotional state yet contain any inappropriate behavior. Here's how.

Put his anger into words for him, and communicate empathy. To do this, simply describe his emotions and the situation at hand. Say: "You were really angry when those boys bumped you out of the game." Doing so magically helps the anger disappear. Whatever you do, when he's welling up with anger, don't try to explain it away by saying, "There's no reason to be angry." Wait until his emotions have subsided to offer a rational solution. He can't hear your insights when he's emotional. In fact, they might provoke him to become angrier just to prove there is indeed reason to be angry.

If he's yelling, pushing, or stomping, do what you can to contain his actions, while giving him permission to feel angry. You walk a fine parenting line here. Let him know it's okay to feel angry, but it's not okay to yell, stomp, or push.

Your son's angry outbursts are unbecoming and embarrassing for him and worrisome to you. Although you can't make your son's feelings of frustration go away, you can help him recognize when he's beginning to get annoyed, and validate that annoyance to himself, inside his own head. The hope is that he'll then talk about it with you once he gets home and away from the eyes of his peers.

Red flag: If, after following this prescription for three months, you realize his angry outbursts are escalating at school, on the playground, or athletic field, seek help for him beyond what I'm offering here. Hurtful aggression outside the home after age 8 is a red flag. If such behavior becomes habitual, it might continue into adolescence when he will not be so apt to take guidance from Mom or Dad.

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