So much anger, and she's only 4?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 13, 2010 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I am so at a loss as to how to handle my 4 1/2-year-old daughter. Most of the time she is an incredibly sweet, thoughtful, very intelligent, loving girl and big sister.

...She is also super-high-energy, has a hard time sitting still, and extremely stubborn. And I thought she would have grown out of it by now, but she STILL has major tantrums. I try to keep our routine consistent and get her a ton of exercise in various activities. I consider myself (and her dad) pretty firm parents. She knows the rules in our household and consequences if she does something wrong, for example, hurting her little sister, or saying something unacceptable to me (it seems to only happen with me and this is why I'm writing.)

Today she wanted to play with something of mine that wasn't a toy, and started screaming about it. I told her if she could calm down and ask me nicely, she could hold it. But the opposite happened - she got more and more mad and screamed louder and louder and then said, "You are such a meanie and I'm going to kill you when I grow up!" This shocked me even more than when she's said in the past, "I hate you!" in anger so I sent her to her room. Usually after some forced time alone she calms down and comes and apologizes to me, which she did. But honestly, I couldn't even accept her apology this time - I was so upset. I told her I was canceling her playdate, even though I felt bad doing it, but I wanted to make an impression and reinforce that she can't speak that way to me (or anyone! and she knows this.)

I try to tell her "it's okay to tell me, 'Mom I'm so mad!'" but not to say things that are going to hurt people like I hate you, etc. She seems to really not be able to control herself once she gets so worked up and nothing I say (in a reasonable tone of voice too) gets through to her.

Then an almost identical situation happened after school. She wouldn't share a toy with her 2-year-old sister, and was being mean about it, pushing her. I intervened, again she wouldn't listen, got madder and madder until she was punching me with her fists and telling me she was going to run away from home. I took the toy away and sat her in a time out and heard her from the other room say she was going to kill me. Again after some time in her room she apologized but I now am at my wits end AND worried she's going to turn into an awful pre-teen someday!

What should I do? I can't get through to her when she starts getting so angry. Our home life is happy, we're a loving family and never hit, her dad and I have a solid and respectful relationship. Where is this behavior coming from? All I can think of is am I spoiling her with too many toys or do I let her watch too much PBS? Sorry to go on and on I just really don't know what to do.

Thanks so much for any advice you can give me.

From: UPset Mama, Boston

(Editor's Note: This letter was condensed.)

Hi upset mama,

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say your daughter is what professionals might describe as an "active alert child" (Linda Budd); a difficult child (Stanley Turecki); or a "spirited child" (Mary Sheedy Kurcinka). I'm most familiar with Budd's work and find it pretty compelling.

I applaud the various strategies you've tried. It sounds like you have the right ideas but sometimes, there's such a thing as being too rational. You may be using consequences too often and too much. Time out, for instance, does not work for every child and it particularly doesn't work for the spirited child who can see it as being abandoned.


Your daughter needs help to deal with her emotional upset. She needs to learn how to calm down. Sit with her. Just sit there, maybe hold her, maybe not, maybe talk quietly, maybe don't. That will feel to her that you are on her side, that you want to help her. It will gain trust and build stronger bonds. You could tell her simply, "I will help you calm down. I know you are angry and upset." At some level, she feels guilty for saying those things to you, but she probably can't control herself when she's worked up in that state.

Where is she learning these mean, hateful words? Just from living in today's world. Not much you can do about that, other than to be clear on your values: "In our family, we do not use words like that." It's not uncommon for kids to use words like that, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. (I once told my son that if he wanted to use S-words -- and we were talking about "stupid," not s__t -- he could go in the bathroom and shut the door and say them as often and as loudly as he wanted. It really did help.)

My other advice is not to take this too personally. The language you are giving her is good, that it's OK to have the feelings but it's not OK to use words that hurt feelings. But if you over-react (as opposed to being matter-of-fact and calm), your response itself is frightening. There's a section in my book about kids using bad words, including saying, "I hate you!" Here's a snippet (content isn't online, at least not that I know of):

"I hate you"! he screamed at me.

"I was stunned not only because it was my child uttering these meanest of words, but also because of his intensity. It made sense for him to be angry, but did he really hate me?

The use of the word hate is common and normal among preschoolers, a true rite of passage as they move from one stage of development to another. It does not have the same meaning for them as it does for adult. To us, hate means wanting the demise and destruction of another person. To a child, it isn't that loaded....It can mean almost anything from hate and anger to frustration, disappointment or annoyance. It can even mean, 'I slightly prefer...'"

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
 

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7 comments so far...
  1. I have to say, I have had very similar experiences with my 5 year old daughter. I think things have gotten a little bit better as this behavior really started to manifest itself when she was 3 1/2 to 4 years old. Some of the tactics I have used, that Barbara mentions above, seems to have made a difference.

    When my daughter is really starting to lose control and starts throwing hurtful words at me, I calmly try to talk to her (as you mentioned you do as well) and tell her that words like that are not acceptable in our home. That she has every right to be angry but she can not, under any circumstance, say hurtful things to me. but if that does not work and things escalate, I take her in my arms and hold her very firmly and rub her back and tell her it's okay, that mommy loves her and that I know she doesn't hate me, that she is angry. I tell her that in our family we work through these things together and I'm always going to be be there to help her and support her. That always seems to do the trick.

    I dont want to make it sound as though I'm a pushover and I give in to my daughter. But i think when she gets out of control with her feelings, she needs someone to help her through it and that's what moms are for right?

    Usually after things like this happen and she has calmed down, we talk about how she was feeling and then how it made me feel to hear her say mean things to me. Then we talk about strategies for dealing with this when she starts to get angry or upset again. I reakly feel like we have made a lot of progress this past year.

    Not sure if that helps. just wanted to let you know you are not alone!

    Posted by MomInCT April 13, 10 11:53 AM
  1. My son had horrible, long, screaming tantrums at this age and I tried most or all of the above. It was really hard to deal with, but one thing I found was that prevention was key. First of all, make sure he was fed and well rested. But also I learned to see when a freak out was coming but hadn't kicked in yet, before the point of no return. I would get down to his level and just say to him firmly "Stop! Just stop. Calm down" Often I could see him kind of pull himself together and start to calm down. If not, his tantrums would roll like an avalanch and he couldn't stop himself and we had to wait until it was over. It was really hard and made me feel like a terrible parent when he acted this way, but he didn't enjoy the tantrums either but didn't know how to stop them. However, now he is a sweet, kind, calm and wonderful 14 year old, so don't give up. He still has elements of the traits that made him upset (inflexibility about his plans/ideas how things should be) but has learned to deal with them.

    Posted by Enna April 13, 10 03:13 PM
  1. MominCT: Anger, frustration, etc., can escalate in a child or adult who has Hypoglycemia (as I do) which is Low Blood Sugar. Despite its title, giving "sugar" is not the answer. It is a defect of the pancreas and is, in layman's terms, the opposite of Diabetes.
    I remember telling my Mom at age 13 that I hated her but, as she later noticed, such strong feelings came on just before my monthly period. I was easily stirred to Anger at that time only.

    Treatment: I am now an Elderly Senior and have my health under control. How? By eating six meals (three meals + three snacks) every single day without fail. I never have highs and lows of mood and am never "starving" for food. My daughter & I both are allergic to several foods, also a trigger for emotional outbursts.

    Suggestion: google.com Hypoglycemia. Get library books. Check with amazon.com. Do lots of research yourself Before you take the advice of M.D.s or Psych advocates. Meals/snacks should always include a PROTEIN plus some carb. I stock Salmon, smoked and poached, in the fridge at all times and eat just ONE ounce of it in between meals. And I am then "normal."
    TRY "the food cure" for awhile and observe the quick change in the child's mood. Watch for almost an immediate smile. I also need Salt to offset weakness. Try 4 ou. of Pedialyte (electrolytes are sometimes low in people like me) if the child becomes weary.

    A spoonfull of peanut butter or One ounce of cheese (Laughing Cow foil-wrapped wedge is ideal to carry) kept my daughter on an even keel. However, we are both Now allergic to nuts and dairy and Never cheat.
    Is there Diabetes in your family history? Was your child a Big Baby (i.e., 10 lbs.) - it might be very difficult to find an M.D. who will agree with me but please keep searching. Some M.D.s will immediately suggest an anti-depressant - Don't follow that advice! Please. That road is a slippery slope.
    If she were my child, I would immediately go to the kitchen to grab some tasty food, invite her in a calm voice to join me, give her a Hug although you won't want to, and seek a pleasant topic to share. It worked in my family; that's all I know for sure.
    Mary,
    The voice of experience; you may contact me if you wish.

    BrightLights


    Posted by Mary Lawrence April 13, 10 10:18 PM
  1. I would ask the pediatrician to check out the inability to sit still but my observation is that people who expect kids to function like little adults make things worse than they have to be. I was required to care for other peoples children long before I had my own, and it didn't take much effort to see what worked.

    Even with children of friends, you get them to pay the best attention when you sit down with them and hold them, or let them sit in your lap--all the way up to about 8 years old. This is the only way to convince them that they are safe, and that you really care to hear what they have to say. The timespan appears to be about 15 minutes to PROVE that you really care about what they have to say, and then the child begins to tell the real truth in short sentences. And you know it's the truth when the solutions start to work.

    Sit down this way when no crisis is happening, and ASK in simple phrases about what the older child finds upsetting. LISTEN to what the child says and assume nothing.

    I bet sharing toys is a big one here--it sounds like this little girl is feeling stuck in the middle between the adults with "toys" and the little sister who takes the kid toys--when you are the one in the middle being deprived from both sides, you get mad. It's a perfectly normal reaction. The timeout in isolation and the cancelled playdate just reinforce that feeling of being deprived.

    The older child here should have some toys in her room that the younger one must respect as being out of bounds. The parents have the duty to make this simple rule and keep it. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO THE HEALTHY EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF BOTH CHILDREN TO MODEL RESPECT. The older child should make her own list of which toys are out of bounds for sharing.

    And BOTH parents here have to ask whether they are substituting TV for the one-on-one that the older child is probably seeking without having the adult words to say so. If Dad doesn't have time to sit down with two children every day WITHOUT THE BOOB TUBE then Dad shouldn't have bothered having kids in the first place.

    I'm bringing this up because when there are two parents and two kids, there seems to be a natural logic that not all families apply--that each parent has an equal duty to provide that one-on-one contact. It makes all the difference between children who verbalize their feelings and children who have to lose their temper to try to get the message across.

    Posted by Irene April 14, 10 10:57 AM
  1. My son who is six now had tantrums frequently until five years old. I could usually see his coming on if he was overtired or hungry. He is very active and intelligent as well. Sometimes I would tell him to go to his room to calm down or if that did not work I would take a drive with him. I finally figured out when he got closer to five that if I said do you just need a hug? He would stop, and I'd tell him I loved him and we talked about how next time he could have handled being upset better. She needs to know that you always love her even if she says bad words or has tantrums.

    Posted by Jill April 14, 10 11:58 AM
  1. There are some good suggestions in here, but I have a question that these answers might be overlooking: When your older daughter pushes (or is otherwise mean to) the younger, who gets the most immediate attention, and who gets the most attention overall? If the answer to both isn't the child who's been pushed, this may be the crux of the problem. Try separating the children, then focusing ALL of your attention on the victim. Don't focus your attention on the perpetrator until after the victim has gone happily off to play, and then address the problem that that child has created as quickly as you can.

    Posted by Susan April 18, 10 01:31 PM
  1. Enna... THANK YOU!!! It is so good to hear that your child has outgrown this phase... I was beginning to think that my child was going to grown up to be an extremely difficult teen and so on. My 4 year old told me this morning for the first time that she was GOING to kill me... OMG, I was so shocked. She is a daily tantrum thrower, defiant, and disobedient. It really gets under my skin. She is my foster child and we are adopting her and her brother this year, along with a wonderful 15 year old who is not their sibling. The 4 year old runs things because of her behavior. I took the 4 and 6 year old to Chuck E. Cheese yesterday where she threw a tantrum and we had to leave early. My 6 year old was so sad. I will take him back by himself next time so he can enjoy it... I am hopeful now that my 4 year old will outgrown this behavior. Also, it seems to get worse following therapy... They are both in therapy for neglect and abuse by their bio father. I sometimes feel like I am at my wits end...

    Posted by Dana April 6, 13 12:01 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. I have to say, I have had very similar experiences with my 5 year old daughter. I think things have gotten a little bit better as this behavior really started to manifest itself when she was 3 1/2 to 4 years old. Some of the tactics I have used, that Barbara mentions above, seems to have made a difference.

    When my daughter is really starting to lose control and starts throwing hurtful words at me, I calmly try to talk to her (as you mentioned you do as well) and tell her that words like that are not acceptable in our home. That she has every right to be angry but she can not, under any circumstance, say hurtful things to me. but if that does not work and things escalate, I take her in my arms and hold her very firmly and rub her back and tell her it's okay, that mommy loves her and that I know she doesn't hate me, that she is angry. I tell her that in our family we work through these things together and I'm always going to be be there to help her and support her. That always seems to do the trick.

    I dont want to make it sound as though I'm a pushover and I give in to my daughter. But i think when she gets out of control with her feelings, she needs someone to help her through it and that's what moms are for right?

    Usually after things like this happen and she has calmed down, we talk about how she was feeling and then how it made me feel to hear her say mean things to me. Then we talk about strategies for dealing with this when she starts to get angry or upset again. I reakly feel like we have made a lot of progress this past year.

    Not sure if that helps. just wanted to let you know you are not alone!

    Posted by MomInCT April 13, 10 11:53 AM
  1. My son had horrible, long, screaming tantrums at this age and I tried most or all of the above. It was really hard to deal with, but one thing I found was that prevention was key. First of all, make sure he was fed and well rested. But also I learned to see when a freak out was coming but hadn't kicked in yet, before the point of no return. I would get down to his level and just say to him firmly "Stop! Just stop. Calm down" Often I could see him kind of pull himself together and start to calm down. If not, his tantrums would roll like an avalanch and he couldn't stop himself and we had to wait until it was over. It was really hard and made me feel like a terrible parent when he acted this way, but he didn't enjoy the tantrums either but didn't know how to stop them. However, now he is a sweet, kind, calm and wonderful 14 year old, so don't give up. He still has elements of the traits that made him upset (inflexibility about his plans/ideas how things should be) but has learned to deal with them.

    Posted by Enna April 13, 10 03:13 PM
  1. MominCT: Anger, frustration, etc., can escalate in a child or adult who has Hypoglycemia (as I do) which is Low Blood Sugar. Despite its title, giving "sugar" is not the answer. It is a defect of the pancreas and is, in layman's terms, the opposite of Diabetes.
    I remember telling my Mom at age 13 that I hated her but, as she later noticed, such strong feelings came on just before my monthly period. I was easily stirred to Anger at that time only.

    Treatment: I am now an Elderly Senior and have my health under control. How? By eating six meals (three meals + three snacks) every single day without fail. I never have highs and lows of mood and am never "starving" for food. My daughter & I both are allergic to several foods, also a trigger for emotional outbursts.

    Suggestion: google.com Hypoglycemia. Get library books. Check with amazon.com. Do lots of research yourself Before you take the advice of M.D.s or Psych advocates. Meals/snacks should always include a PROTEIN plus some carb. I stock Salmon, smoked and poached, in the fridge at all times and eat just ONE ounce of it in between meals. And I am then "normal."
    TRY "the food cure" for awhile and observe the quick change in the child's mood. Watch for almost an immediate smile. I also need Salt to offset weakness. Try 4 ou. of Pedialyte (electrolytes are sometimes low in people like me) if the child becomes weary.

    A spoonfull of peanut butter or One ounce of cheese (Laughing Cow foil-wrapped wedge is ideal to carry) kept my daughter on an even keel. However, we are both Now allergic to nuts and dairy and Never cheat.
    Is there Diabetes in your family history? Was your child a Big Baby (i.e., 10 lbs.) - it might be very difficult to find an M.D. who will agree with me but please keep searching. Some M.D.s will immediately suggest an anti-depressant - Don't follow that advice! Please. That road is a slippery slope.
    If she were my child, I would immediately go to the kitchen to grab some tasty food, invite her in a calm voice to join me, give her a Hug although you won't want to, and seek a pleasant topic to share. It worked in my family; that's all I know for sure.
    Mary,
    The voice of experience; you may contact me if you wish.

    BrightLights


    Posted by Mary Lawrence April 13, 10 10:18 PM
  1. I would ask the pediatrician to check out the inability to sit still but my observation is that people who expect kids to function like little adults make things worse than they have to be. I was required to care for other peoples children long before I had my own, and it didn't take much effort to see what worked.

    Even with children of friends, you get them to pay the best attention when you sit down with them and hold them, or let them sit in your lap--all the way up to about 8 years old. This is the only way to convince them that they are safe, and that you really care to hear what they have to say. The timespan appears to be about 15 minutes to PROVE that you really care about what they have to say, and then the child begins to tell the real truth in short sentences. And you know it's the truth when the solutions start to work.

    Sit down this way when no crisis is happening, and ASK in simple phrases about what the older child finds upsetting. LISTEN to what the child says and assume nothing.

    I bet sharing toys is a big one here--it sounds like this little girl is feeling stuck in the middle between the adults with "toys" and the little sister who takes the kid toys--when you are the one in the middle being deprived from both sides, you get mad. It's a perfectly normal reaction. The timeout in isolation and the cancelled playdate just reinforce that feeling of being deprived.

    The older child here should have some toys in her room that the younger one must respect as being out of bounds. The parents have the duty to make this simple rule and keep it. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO THE HEALTHY EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF BOTH CHILDREN TO MODEL RESPECT. The older child should make her own list of which toys are out of bounds for sharing.

    And BOTH parents here have to ask whether they are substituting TV for the one-on-one that the older child is probably seeking without having the adult words to say so. If Dad doesn't have time to sit down with two children every day WITHOUT THE BOOB TUBE then Dad shouldn't have bothered having kids in the first place.

    I'm bringing this up because when there are two parents and two kids, there seems to be a natural logic that not all families apply--that each parent has an equal duty to provide that one-on-one contact. It makes all the difference between children who verbalize their feelings and children who have to lose their temper to try to get the message across.

    Posted by Irene April 14, 10 10:57 AM
  1. My son who is six now had tantrums frequently until five years old. I could usually see his coming on if he was overtired or hungry. He is very active and intelligent as well. Sometimes I would tell him to go to his room to calm down or if that did not work I would take a drive with him. I finally figured out when he got closer to five that if I said do you just need a hug? He would stop, and I'd tell him I loved him and we talked about how next time he could have handled being upset better. She needs to know that you always love her even if she says bad words or has tantrums.

    Posted by Jill April 14, 10 11:58 AM
  1. There are some good suggestions in here, but I have a question that these answers might be overlooking: When your older daughter pushes (or is otherwise mean to) the younger, who gets the most immediate attention, and who gets the most attention overall? If the answer to both isn't the child who's been pushed, this may be the crux of the problem. Try separating the children, then focusing ALL of your attention on the victim. Don't focus your attention on the perpetrator until after the victim has gone happily off to play, and then address the problem that that child has created as quickly as you can.

    Posted by Susan April 18, 10 01:31 PM
  1. Enna... THANK YOU!!! It is so good to hear that your child has outgrown this phase... I was beginning to think that my child was going to grown up to be an extremely difficult teen and so on. My 4 year old told me this morning for the first time that she was GOING to kill me... OMG, I was so shocked. She is a daily tantrum thrower, defiant, and disobedient. It really gets under my skin. She is my foster child and we are adopting her and her brother this year, along with a wonderful 15 year old who is not their sibling. The 4 year old runs things because of her behavior. I took the 4 and 6 year old to Chuck E. Cheese yesterday where she threw a tantrum and we had to leave early. My 6 year old was so sad. I will take him back by himself next time so he can enjoy it... I am hopeful now that my 4 year old will outgrown this behavior. Also, it seems to get worse following therapy... They are both in therapy for neglect and abuse by their bio father. I sometimes feel like I am at my wits end...

    Posted by Dana April 6, 13 12:01 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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