Monday, March 11, 2013

Almost 5 year old has "terrible" tantrums at school

Hi Dr. Dave -
I stumbled upon your article about anger overload and your ask Dr. Dave blog when googling anger in children.  I have a 4 year 11 month old child who is super sweet, super kind, focused and creative.  She has been sent home early from preschool two times in the past two weeks because she throws terrible tantrums for at least an hour and they cannot control her.  She will throw items, scratch anyone who gets in her way, knock down items.  I, at first, wanted to blame her school environment because I do not see these issues at home.  I was at first afraid that it might be ADHD or bipolar because of the severe mood swings that can occur.  However, your description of anger overload describes my child to a T.  It is like you wrote the description based off her.  

In school everyone loves her, everyone loves playing with her and everyone calls her their best friend.  She is super smart, but lately, when asked to clean up, or pick up a mess she created she gets set off and cannot be controlled.  We think this may be due to having to stop an activity, or being treated unfairly (in her eyes).  Today's episode was because her and her friend made two messes during free time.  The teacher asked each child to clean up a mess.  My daughter said it was unfair that she had to clean up one mess by herself because she had help making it.  It set her off.  We also had a teacher tell us when she was two that she was a four year old (her sister's age) stuck in a 2 year old's body.  She gets frustrated with kids her age and when given a choice will always play with older kids because they think and act more like her than kids her age. 

I don't think I see these episodes at home because I do in fact stop them with distraction techniques or making her laugh before they get out of control.  (Mother's instincts kicking in).  I was wondering two things.  1.  Can this be seasonal?  We notice that these episodes happen more frequently and more severe in Feb / March time frame.  (She was actually expelled from her last preschool in February last year, and now she is getting more calls home to be picked up because she is uncontrollable these past few weeks at her new school that she has been at for about a year now).  Do you have any suggestions that I can give to her teacher to help us with controlling the anger before it gets out of hand?  Are there any resources for teachers, or do I direct her to parenting resources.  It is really frustrating for me because I am not with my daughter when these episodes happen, so I am going off of second hand experiences, and I do not see the full blown episodes at home, although I do believe that they are happening at school.

Hi, See if you can share with your child's teacher some of the strategies you are using at home, such as distraction, or using humor.  In addition, I would suggest the teacher continue to track the situations when your daughter gets frustrated.  Which activity led to the mess she did not want to clean up?  Could the teacher direct your child away from that activity and toward a different one?  Would a five minute warning before clean up time help?  

I would also help your daughter "re-frame" the issue after she calms down.  The teacher could do this, or you could do this if the teacher shares the details with you.  You could talk about what was happening before she had a tantrum and then explain that the teacher just wanted things cleaned up and did not mean to single anyone out.  Do this each time after your daughter has calmed down.  You would be trying to help her look at things from a different perspective.  This may not help her avoid tantrums right away, but pay dividends down the road.

 You could also suggest a "catch phrase" which you could practice at home, such as "All right I'll do it." or "She didn't mean to pick on anyone."  or "Better to clean than scream."  I explain more about the use of catch phrases in my parent's manual. 

I would also suggest you offer a reward if the teacher sends a note home that your daughter was a big "helper" today.   You want to reinforce the idea of helping the teacher.  If "helping" is not usually the issue, then use different words to capture what you want your child to work on.

If clean up time is not the usual precipitant, you could use these ideas--reviewing other points of view after she calms down, catch phrases, distraction, and daily rewards-- for whatever situation precedes her tantrums.   

I am not aware of seasonal changes in angry outbursts in late winter, though some children and adults have "cabin fever" by this time of year.  But in that case there would be mood changes or irritability in other situations throughout the day.  All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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