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7 year old hitting parents, tantrumming

Dear Dr. Markham,
What is a parent supposed to do when his bright, sweet and good 7 year old boy (brother to 5.5 year old) hits them (his parents), throws things in the house, clings to his parents body to prevent them from moving and sometimes pulls his parents' clothes until they are torn - when he does not get what he wants or when he cannot have it on the spot, or when he is jealous of his brother. we tried positively talking to him, but it just escalates it. we are againts bribes or punishments, but we ARE looking for a relatively short term solution to change the atmosphere and bring calm into the child-parent relationship.
Thank you,
frustrated mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,
I can understand why you are frustrated. I know that having your child behave this way is very upsetting, especially when you try hard to be good parents and resist the urge to punish and bribe.

The short answer to your question is that your son needs limits.  A seven year old has big feelings, and certainly there is a range of ability to manage their emotions. But a 7 year old should not be hitting anyone, including his parents.

I agree with you that punishment is not the answer, because that will just teach your child that use of force is ok. Talking has its limits, because your son does not yet have the ability to control these powerful feelings from within.  How does a child develop that ability?  By encountering the limits set by his parents, along with their love and understanding.

Firm limits are definitely in order when a child as old as 7 hits, throws things aggressively, or hangs onto your clothes and tears them because he doesn't get what he wants. These limits should not be enforced in a punitive manner, but with understanding: "I know you are really angry, and you wish you could get what you want right now. I'm sorry, but you can't have that. Hitting is never ok, no matter how upset you are. It's ok to show me how mad you are by punching the pillow, or by making a mad drawing, or by pounding the playdough. But if you hit me I will need to move away from you, or hold you so you can't hit. It's my job as the parent to keep everyone safe."   I strongly suggest a zero tolerance policy toward hitting, if possible by removing yourself from range. If he follows you and hits, you may hold` his hands gently but firmly so he cannot hit. (I am not suggesting that you make your son feel abandoned by banishing him until he can control himself, because that won't teach him what he needs to learn.)

Ultimately, to change your son's behavior, you will need to change the belief under the behavior. I suspect that the belief is that he cannot tolerate disappointment. When he feels those negative feelings of sadness and disappointment, they feel intolerable to him. So he fends them off with anger. (Anger is always a defense against deeper unhappiness like hurt or sadness.) One of the most critical tasks of childhood is to learn to tolerate the wounds of everyday life (which often feel at the time like the end of the world) without moving into reactive anger. (Some people, of course, never learn that lesson, but that is not a path you want for your son.)

The happiness of all small children, to some degree, depends on them getting what they want. These everyday losses and disappointments, as I said, feel like the end of the world and their whole sense of the world being good, and them being ok, collapses. Kids will do anything to fend off these intolerable feelings, so they cry and rage. But gradually they internalize the ability to weather disappointment, and learn that while they cannot always get what they want, they can always get something better -- someone who loves them and accepts all of them, including the yucky parts like rage and disappointment. Once they have done this, we say they have unshakeable internal happiness, in other words, they are resilient when bad things happen.

How do kids achieve this? They have parents who are not afraid to set limits on their child's behavior, but allow him to have his full range of feelings, including his disappointment and rage about the limits they set. Parents who use -- as I suspect you already do -- empathy rather than punishment. These kids learn not to go into anger when they're disappointed, because they can tolerate their sad and hurt feelings.

Next time your son gets enraged, I suggest that you try to help him get under his anger. "I hear you are so angry that you can't have that, so angry you want to hit. I wonder if you are also sad. You really wanted that. You feel so sad and disappointed that you can't have that." Once you recognize the feelings under the anger, he will probably pause in his anger and you will see some vulnerability or even tears. "I wonder if you are so sad it makes you want to cry. That's ok. Everyone feels that way sometimes. We all need to be held so we can cry sometimes. You feel so sad...." etc.

I suspect that your son will need to do some serious crying, with your support ("It's ok if you need to cry. I know you're disappointed") because he probably has some powerful feelings built up that his anger is covering over. But after he cries, you will see a different child, because these feelings are not pent up inside him.

I encourage you to read the related articles on this website, especially the Discipline section,  which has articles about why kids need limits (Why Permissive Parenting doesn't work) and how to set limits effectively.   I also encourage you to check out the article on Empathy.  

I do believe that you can solve this challenge in fairly short order, and that it is important to do so for all concerned. If you would like more support in this, please consider family counseling.

I wish you much luck in handling this issue with your son. I hear your love and appreciation for his wonderful qualities, and I know that with your commitment to him he can master this next milestone.
My very best wishes,
Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 20-Apr-2009 03:34 AM
Dear Dr. Markham,

Thank you so much for your prompt reply. you have given me some ideas to start implementing with my son, and i liked the exact phrases that you provided , because at such times parents feel at loss for words. i just hope he will be willing to listen to me when i talk, as when somebody is in rage their logic does not work at best.

I do hope it will have an impact on him, as first of all my husband and i differ vastly on the setting of limits, which means that my boy will witness 2 different strategies which may clash (e.g: helplessnes on the part of one parent vs. the setting of limits on the part of the other)! let's say i am more capable of setting limits and that my husband cannot force himself to do that; at the same time,i do not wish to be the house policewoman. also, what's the use of limit setting if it is used only by one parent and if the other parent remains passive?

finally, as to your suggestions to stay away from the boy or hold his hands - what is a parent to do if his child follows him wherever he goes or tries to get his attention? and, how long should his hands be held? and what impact does it have if he strongly resists as best he can?

Many thanks,

frustrated mom
Anonymous commented on 21-Apr-2009 03:54 PM
I have 10 years old daughter and she is overall very sweet , but sometimes when things doesn't go on her way she does throw her frustration on me and i get tired and started getting my voice up what should i do because mu hubby blames on me that because of my nature she is like this way
Anonymous commented on 27-Apr-2009 10:46 PM
Unlike everyone in here,I'm a grandmother,that's worried sick with the way my 7 yr old grandson acts.
I have a lot of theories,but my daughter won't listen to any of them.She thinks that I'm a lunatic,but if only you knew my grandson,he's the sweetest,most caring,good hearted,patriotic little boy I've ever seen.He's very sensitive,and since he's been called a"drama queen"cry baby"too emotional for a boy,by his parents(which by the way,are getting a divorce,but he still"uses" my daughter,for whatever he feels like telling her what to do,and the idiot listens to this man)!!!She thinks that he knows everything about parenting,but on the contrary,knows nothing!Still she doesn't see it.My grandson has specifically told me that he's scared,terrified of his father,so when he has him on week ends,he tries very hard to please him,and then when he comes home,he's the opposite with his mother,because he feels free!But with this comes their play times,hitting,pushing,you name it THEY do it.She thinks it's alright!He gets very angry at school work,even,silly things,like not understanding the homework,throws his pencils,homeworks,etc on the floor and gets very frustrated.I've asked my daughter to take him to a therapist,or some proffessional,but since her husband(not yet divorced,he has no time to file the paperwork that were done almost a year ago,and won't let her do it either)doesn't believe in it(although he's been going to the same psychiatrist for the last 20 years,just for meds,he says)so,she won't listen to me.I cry almost every day for this little boy that has stolen my heart.I try talking to me,and I know things that not even his mother knows,but cannot tell her,because she won't believe a thing I say.She thinks that I hate that man,and forgive me Lord,I do,but would do anything for my grandson.I forgot to mention,that he's a very dysfunctional man(man is to good of a word for him)he miitreated my daughter,and used to yell at her all the time.I don't know if he ever got physical with her(she'll never tell me)but I do know that the curses used in that household before he moved,were out of this world.I also wanted to say,that he didn't want my grandson close to me,"just in case I die,so he doesn't have to suffer".mY GRANDSON HAS A 17yrs old brother,that was raised by him and my daughter,for the last 14 yrs,and this boy went thru hell too.That was what my grandson saw and heard from even before coming into this world,so that what he knows.I try talking to him,but,I've been told what I can say and cannot say.I'm sick about the whole situation.My grandson's very smart at school,and loves people,but he's been raised all alone,and I know how that is.Me,I'm too old to keep up with him,although I try,and his uncles are way too busy with their working situations to help much,if anything.Please,someone out there,give me an advice on what I can do.I know I have no rights as a grandmother,but,maybe some proffessional that can either speak to me or my daughter,or even a book that I could get her.I don't go on vacations,because,if I leave,he tells me that he misses me too much,and he rather be with me than with either one of them.
I'm sorry,I have so much inside of me,that I needed to get all this out of my chest.I just want to stop the crying and start helping,but I do need the help with my daughter.

Laura Markham commented on 07-May-2009 01:37 PM
Dr. Markham here-- I just want to say that I am always available on my weekly parenting call to help you with these issues.

It is true that a Grandmother's rights are limited, but giving your grandson a loving presence could be a lifeline for him and is very important to maintain.

About your ten year old daughter, please take a look at this answer I gave to a mom who has a daughter who is tantrumming at age 8, because I think this letter may be helpful to you:

You might also want to read the section on Preteens and Tweens, which has a lot of info on how to deal with it when they get huffy. Please know that it is normal and will pass if you can handle it without getting upset yourself (which I know is not easy!)

And about your husband not setting limits -- that is his choice, although not good for your son. It will still be MUCH better if you begin setting them. Remember that holding your son's hands is only so that he does not hit you -- it is not a punishment. Stay calm and loving and hold his hands lovingly, not harshly, and no longer than you need to. Please do email me if you want to sit in on one of my weekly coaching calls.

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