Dear Mr. Dad: My son is six, and he’s still having temper tantrums. Call me crazy, but I thought they would have petered out long ago. Most of the other parents we know say their kids stopped having tantrums when they were two or three. But my son is giving no indication that he’s going to relent anytime soon. What should we do? How long do we have to wait for him to stop?
A: Since you asked for it, I’ll tell you: You’re crazy. If you think you can just sit around and wait for your son to grow out of throwing tantrums, you’re going to be very, very disappointed and frustrated. In fact, given how long this has lasted, there’s a good chance that you and your spouse are the reason your son is still having tantrums in the first place. The only way to bring his reign of terror to an end is for you to step in and start doing something about it. Now.
Your Friends Are Right
Almost all children have temper tantrums, but they usually end by age three—unless there’s something going on that encourages the child to continue. Tantrums are actually a fairly normal developmental phase: they’re the way children test the limits to see what they can and cannot get away with. But just because something is normal doesn’t mean you should let it go. Making it very clear to young children that they can’t have their way every time teaches them what the rules are and, more importantly, helps them learn to control themselves
Tantrums won’t blow over. And they won’t go away on their own. At this point, getting your son to express his feelings without pitching a fit is going to be hard, but it can be done. And the only way that’s going to happen is if you stop trying to be your child’s friend and start being a parent. Unfortunately, that means you’re going to have to be the bad guy. Your first mission is to work with your spouse to come up with firm boundaries and even firmer consequences if those rules get broken. It’s essential that you’re both on the same page here.
Consider Other Options
The first few days and weeks of the new “we’ve-got-rules-around-here-mister” plan will be uncomfortable, but when your son realizes that you’re serious, he’ll most likely start changing. I say “most likely” because, even though tantrums can be the result of a lack of structure and rules in the home, there can be other causes.
If, for example, your son’s tantrums are violent and he’s doing harm to himself or anyone else, you may be dealing less with a limit-testing issue and more with a mental health issue. Behavior that looks like tantrums can actually be caused by a number of conditions such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, or OCD. If you feel you’ve tried everything to get your son’s temper under control and are still coming up empty, seek out professional help.
I get that when some parents hear the phrase “professional help,” they immediately imagine that their child will be put on medication for life. Just so you know, those fears aren’t necessarily well-founded. There are many, many options that don’t involve medication at all, such as individual talk therapy, family counseling, and group behavior training. But the first step is to get your son evaluated so he can get the help he deserves.