I have an eleven-year old daughter who gets angry very easily. When I nicely try to explain why she can't have what she wants, she yells, slams doors, or even throws things. She is perfectly fine at school or at other people's houses. Why does she have these temper tantrums when she is at home, and what can we do about them?
Many parents tell me they are mystified by the fact that their aggressive, explosive child behaves like an angel everywhere but at home. What I have learned over the years is that the brain plays an important role in determining how a child behaves, depending on her environment.
The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain behind the forehead which governs many functions, including impulse control and inhibitory responses. When a child is anxious or concerned about getting in trouble or receiving approval, this part of the brain is quite active, keeping her behavior in check.
But when she comes home and feels relaxed and secure, the mechanism that manages those outbursts is not operating with the same vigilance, allowing big feelings to come out without restraint.
In other words, although she might feel frustrated at school or her friend's house, her pre-frontal cortex will prevent explosive behavior from manifesting. Whereas when she returns home, the built up stresses of the day come rushing out in temper tantrums and meltdowns.
When a child is frustrated, there are essentially only two possible outcomes: adaptation or aggression. Either she will find a way to make peace with not getting what she wants, or she will become aggressive--toward siblings, parents, or even herself.
When we come at our children with rational explanations or advice at a time when they are already very upset, we actually fuel their frustration. This is a common pattern; parents desperately try to talk frustrated children out of their feelings by using logic when they are too agitated to process the information.
This is why your daughter gets even more angry when you helpfully try to explain why she can't have what she wants. She feels flooded with words when she is drowning in feelings.
Instead, what a frustrated child needs is for us to hold a place as what I call the Captain of the ship. (Click here for a description.) We make it clear that we aren't afraid of her big feelings, and that we are capable of helping her sail through the rough and stormy seas of her stirred up emotions.
What I have found again and again in the trainings I teach is that when parents help their frustrated kids simply feel their sadness or disappointment, they move from aggression toward acceptance.
Rather than fixing your daughter's problems or pleading with her to understand why you have imposed a limitation, help her find and feel her sadness and tears. Let her know that you love her, and that you're going to help her ride the storm.
I often say that we aren't raising children; we're raising adults. While we all want to empower our children to push through obstacles, there are times when they simply cannot have what they want; psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls this the Wall of Futility, which I discuss at length in Parenting Without Power Struggles. By guiding them through the dark woods of their sad feelings, they develop the ability to endure disappointment, and move toward greater resilience.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in an upcoming blog post.