Off their rocker: Why do older kids still have tantrums?

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt is the host of Feed Play Love, the bite-sized parenting podcast.

I’m standing in the kitchen, caught between anger and laughter, feeling completely helpless.

My six-year-old is leaning towards me, her brow creased in concentrated rage. She’s trying hard to articulate her fury. She’s reaching for words that will cause maximum damage.

All because her brother poured the milk first at breakfast.

My initial reaction is anger. After all she’s six. She shouldn’t be flipping her lid over this stuff anymore. Then laughter is triggered because I can see her trying so hard to find the right words but the insults she’s coming up with are almost sweet, they’re so nonsensical.

I’m feeling helpless because I know that neither of these responses is what she needs right now.

Just because a child is no longer a toddler, doesn’t mean they know how to handle anger

The woman who does know how to respond to a child’s anger is psychologist Dr Vanessa La Pointe, author of Discipline Without Damage. She wants to remind parents that developmental stages are a real thing.

While five- and six-year-olds are more articulate than younger kids, their brains are moving and changing in ways that can be confusing.

Firstly, they’re growing from a child who thinks in very concrete terms to a child who is starting to learn more abstract thoughts.

What can happen for a lot of our littlies as they move through that stage of development is they kind of freak themselves out. You can see a regression of sorts in their behaviour because they're getting unsettled by their own mind,” Vanessa says.

“The other thing that is happening is that their frontal and prefrontal cortex is changing. The outer layers of the brain, which thicken up in a wave-like pattern starting at the base on the back of the brain and push on forward to the front. These are just coming online.

Listen to Vanessa on Feed Play Love:

“This means that kids are going to be much more capable at times of being able to have two big thoughts live side by side. For example, thought number one: ‘Mummy's asking me to get ready for school and I know that that's going to make the morning go more smoothly if I just do what Mummy's asking.’ Thought number two: ‘and I really don't want to.’”

In effect, kids of this age group are only just managing to deal with these two thoughts at once. The struggle itself can translate into an outburst of anger at the parent who is trying to get out the door for school.

Does an angry child mean a challenging teenager?

While I’m standing in the kitchen, thinking that my daughter is actually quite adorable (I mean, she’s having to try really hard to be mean) I’m struck by the sudden fear that if I let this go unpunished it might become an intrinsic character trait.

Visions of a sulky teenager slamming doors and swearing at me fill my mind.

Vanessa says to hit the pause button. Stop predicting the future and look at what is happening now.

She says young children need to be able to let their big emotions out, to process them and then move on.

When it comes out it's a moving kind of emotion. If we can respond with empathy we are growing neural connections that increasingly will promote capacity for self-regulation. That's going to look very different at age 15 than at age six,” she explains.

“When we put our faith in the developmental process and trust nature to do its job it releases us from some of that fear.”

Parents need to be aware of our own response to anger

Have you ever shouted at your child to “just calm down”? Has anyone ever said that to you when you’re distressed?

How did that go down?

Chances are meeting anger with anger only creates a tornado of fury.

This is when Vanessa says we need to be the adult in the relationship.

“Our own wires get tripped by the communication of our children's big emotions. We go to an alarmed place inside of us which actually takes us out of our adult brains and into our regressed brains. You become emotional, you become angry. All anger is regression, which means you're probably in that moment neurologically more like four or five years old. You might find that you start to respond with fear and reactivity that's more typical of a child then of an adult.”

Being aware of your own response to anger gives you the opportunity to take a deep breath and try to see it from your child’s perspective.

How do we help kids deal with their anger?

Apparently, anger is just another way our kids are saying “I love you”. No, really.

Vanessa says, “When your child is coming at you and communicating all of their big awful, messy feelings it means as a parent that you have won, because children will only let those big emotions go with their chosen comforters. They tend to kind of shelve them or keep them tucked away in front of others, because they're saving those emotions for you.”

The important thing is to be the safe haven your child needs.

Vanessa says parents need to create a “big invitation for big emotions”, to allow our kids to express how they feel. Offer them a hug and a few words of understanding.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly that will help them calm down.