Sunday, August 19, 2012

5 year old tantrums at home

Hi Dr. Dave,
My five year old has been acting out at home and sounds to have what you describe as anger overload. He does not act out at school or for anyone else but at home with us. He has meltdowns if I ask him to help pick up his toys or if he gets frustrated at a toy he can't work or if he gets in trouble for messing with his little brother. Lately it worse with starting kindergarten and not really napping like normal. He has been screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting himself in the face, throwing stuff and just acting crazy. We've tried time outs, talking, and sending him to his room. Usually it escalates to spankings which don't help either. He usually calms down 15 minutes later after being sent to his room. He then acts loving and sweet. I don't know what to do, but I'm emotionally exhausted and would rather stay at work everyday than to come home with him. I'm worried my two year old will soon start acting like his older brother!!! Help please???

Hi,  With kindergarten starting and with less sleep, it is not unusual for five years olds to have some melt downs.  Your son will probably do better with more sleep, and you should see a decrease in his overload behaviors as he matures in the coming year.  However, here are some suggestions to move things along--to help him develop greater self-control:

1) Try to catch your son's frustration in the early stages, if possible.  It is easier to re-direct a child if the anger is not so intense.  So if you see him starting to get into it with his brother, try to distract one of them, or invite your older son to do something or show you something--it has to be something he really likes to do. 

2) If your son is getting frustrated with a toy, try to help him (if he will let you) or empathize by saying something like "Ugh is that toy being a pain in your butt?"  Your son will be less likely to explode if your comment strikes a chord in him. 

3)  When he is in full anger overload, try not to say or do much of anything unless he is hurting himself or someone else, in which case you may need to bear hug him, or restrain him in some way.  Anger overload does take some time to wind down because your son's brain is "overheated" at that point.  It takes time for the chemicals in your son's brain to return to normal.  Until that happens you do not want to talk with him because that will likely prolong the outburst and may inadvertently reinforce his negative behaviors.  You can either send him to his room, walk away yourself, or just sit there and act like you are deaf, whatever is easiest to do in your family situation.  When your son calms down, then talk with him about something of interest to you both.  That reinforces his efforts to be in self-control.  Furthermore, once children calm down, most act normally, as if their explosion is way in the past.  It often takes parents longer to relax after these explosions, and it can be a trying time for parents to get through them without feeling like they've been through the ringer! 

If there is not a decrease in the frequency of outbursts in the coming couple of months, check with your doctor or teacher to see if they would recommend you get a psychological consult.  All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb


  1. Thank you so much dr gottlieb! Do you have any suggestions for when there is a crazy fit when it's time to leave the house or of we have to get somewhere on time and he doesn't want to do his responsibilities such as being his bike back into the garage or put the dog in the kennel?

    1. Try to change the sequence: in this case have him put the dog in the kennel or put the bike back a half hour or so before you want to leave. Then he can do something he wants (if he completes the chore). Now he has an incentive to finish the chore so that there will be time for him to play before you leave.

      Also, you could give him a five or ten minute warning before leaving. Sometimes that helps.

      One last suggestion is to talk with him ahead of time about leaving the house on time, and explain that you will count slowly to three when it is time to leave (a technique popularized by Dr. Phelan). Explain that if he does not start leaving by the time you get to three, he will have a consequence (specify what it will be) later that evening when you get home. If he cares about the consequence, he may be more motivated to leave on time.

      When it is time to leave, begin counting slowly. Don't wait until your child is in anger overload to begin counting. This technique will probably not help if he is already in anger overload, because children will not be thinking rationally then. At that point, you will have to wait it out, leave him with another adult (if possible) or carry him out (if possible). You can see that your better bet is to try to intervene by changing the sequence or using the 1-2-3- method before your child experiences anger overload. All the best,