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8 Year Old Tantrums - is this normal?

My 8 year old has "melt downs" that seem extreme.

One recent example. We were camping. I asked for the bag of marshmallows. Instead of carrying them the 4' to me she threw them. The mellies ended up spilled on the ground. I asked her why she did this and she started to throw a tantrum. I told her that she could go in the tent to cool off. Once in the tent she was screaming, yelling, crying and causing such a ruckus. I had to quiet her down but by the time she got to that point I couldn't calm her. Then her 14 year old sister made matters worse by mocking her. I was so worried at this point about getting kicked out of the camp grounds I put my attentions on the 14 year old to stop making the situation worse. My 8 year old then gets even more upset because I am paying attention to her sister and not her.

I am totally at a loss as to how to deal with her when she gets like that and it doesn't take much to set her off. Someone looking at her on the playground, someone has something she wants, whatever it seems so unimportant to me but the way she reacts it seems important to her. I can't predict when her meltdowns will occur. Once she is in this meltdown it can go on for at least a half hour, and longer if the 14year old gets involved.

The short answer to your question is, No, it is not "normal" to tantrum over slight provocations at the age of eight, although if this were the last of a string of upsets, it would be predictable. If it happens often, it's a red flag that your daughter needs your help. She’s showing you that she needs something from you, something of critical importance in her emotional development. She needs your help to learn to regulate her emotions.

You may have heard that letting children calm down in isolation helps them learn to self-soothe.  The opposite is true.  Brain development requires little ones to be soothed by someone else, and from that they develop the neural network to soothe themselves.  If they don't develop this neural network in infancy, whether because they are left to cry or for some other reason, they will need your help to develop it during childhood.

The next time your daughter has a meltdown, see it as an opportunity to help her develop the ability to self soothe.  How? The most effective parenting tool there is: Empathy.

Instead of sending her off somewhere to calm down when she starts to lose it, stay with her and try to just restore a sense of safety. If she feels safe, she can have a big cry, show you all those tears and fears she's been stuffing down, and let them go. That will help her be more emotionally regulated in general. Being alone when she’s very upset won’t teach her what she needs to learn. She needs to borrow your strength and calm. Remind yourself to keep breathing, not to take anything she says or does personally, and how much you love her. 

Does it seem like she's over-reacting?  She almost certainly is.  Children store up their big, scary feelings, waiting for a safe place to discharge them.  Some children are especially sensitive.  Some just have a big "backpack" of pent-up emotion that they need to release; these kids -- like your daughter -- react with tantrums to provocations that seem slight to us.  So while you may not see the reason for such a big reaction, see it as a chance to help your daughter work through some feelings that she hasn't been able to manage.  Usually, once children feel safe enough to let these feelings out, they use every opportunity to cry for a week or so.  In between, and thereafter, they're calmer, sweeter, and happier.  Letting our kids cry in the safety of our arms or presence is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.  And because it transforms our relationship with them into one of deeper trust, it's also a gift to us. In fact, it restores a lot of the joy that some parents find is missing from parenting, because the relationship with our child is deeper and sweeter.

How can you do this?  Start by taking a deep breath to calm down. You're disappointed the marshmallows dropped. And now you're probably exasperated at your daughter's dramatic response to such a minor incident. But you've been showing her your exasperation her whole life and it hasn't helped her to regulate her emotions. So let's try something new, which begins with you regulating your own emotions so you can stay calm and comforting with her.

Start by trying to see things from her perspective, and reflect her feelings to show her you’re trying to understand: "Oh my goodness, you didn't mean for the marshmallows to fall on the ground. You didn’t realize what would happen when you threw them.  And then I snapped at you. Now you feel so terrible…”  (At this point she is likely to wail louder, because your acceptance of her feelings lets her really feel them.)

“I see how upset you are right now. You’re crying so hard. You probably wonder if I’m mad at you, too, and that scares you.” (Now you have to be truthful –you were indeed mad when the marshmallows fell, and your tone of voice let her know it. You also have to get over that, because it really is unimportant in the scheme of things.) “I do feel bad, because I wanted a marshmallow -- but don't worry, I'll get over my disappointment. Your feelings are a lot more important to me than a bag of marshmallows.”

Now you may owe her an apology: “I’m sorry I spoke so sharply when you dropped them. I know you didn’t do it on purpose.”

Could she have walked over with them? Of course. But this is not the time to be sure she has learned that lesson. That’s much later, probably tomorrow, when you’re all calm and feeling good. And all it will take is one question, asked with a genuine smile of commiseration, something along the lines of “Next time you have to pass someone the bag of marshmallows, what do you think is the best way to do that?”

As your daughter begins to feel understood, she will eventually begin to calm down. By then, you can be hugging her and reassuring her that you love her. That’s when you say something like “I’m so sorry you got so upset. Mostly I want to get back to that nice feeling the three of us had, sitting by the fire together. Do you think you’re ready to calm down and snuggle with me and watch the fire?”

At this point you may be thinking that you’ll be letting your daughter get away with being lazy and careless in her marshmallow-passing skills, not to mention throwing tantrums. But kids don’t learn by being criticized. They learn to be considerate in passing the marshmallows by seeing our instantly disappointed face as the marshmallows fall to the ground. Adding criticism to that just makes them defensive. Judgment is developed from experience, and often good judgment develops from bad experience. They’re motivated to get up to pass us the bag because they love us, and they’ve learned through experience that the risk isn’t worth disappointing us. 

And the tantrums? Kids have tantrums because they’re overwhelmed with emotions they can’t control. They need help from a parent to learn how to regulate those emotions. Because your daughter didn’t learn this valuable skill earlier in life, it may take her some time – a year, even, of your using this technique every time she has a meltdown. But if you commit yourself to empathizing every single time she’s even a little upset, I guarantee you that not only will she stop having meltdowns, she will become the kind of person who would walk across town to bring you the marshmallows, and who would never taunt her sister when she’s upset.

Which brings us to your 14 year old. Clearly her sister’s tantrum upset her. Maybe it was because the lovely family chat around the fireside was interrupted with shrieks. Maybe it was because she wanted more marshmallows. Maybe she was so embarrassed she would have happily thrown her sister into the fire to get her to shut up. Maybe she’s so jealous of her sister that she takes every opportunity to needle her. Maybe in your family it’s considered normal for the kids to be mean to each other. Or maybe it was because her sister’s distress upset her. But her response reminds me of a toddler who reacts to another toddler’s shrieking by clobbering him. That’s the reaction of a child who hasn’t yet developed much empathy.

My prescription for your oldest, therefore, is not much different than what I’m recommending for your youngest. Help her develop more empathy by offering her understanding. Start with a conversation about what happened with this latest meltdown. Ask her how she felt about it. Reflect back her feelings: “Sounds like you were mortified when your sister started screaming in the middle of the campground. That made you want to do anything to shut her up. I was pretty embarrassed too.”  Then ask her what she thinks her sister felt. Without attacking her, see if you can get her to acknowledge that her sister’s feelings were real, if inconvenient, and that taunting her was cruel and made things worse. The combination of empathy and limits ("Please don't taunt your sister.  That's the rule in our family. If you can't say something nice, please say nothing at all") will eventually encourage empathy in your eldest.

I know this is a tall order for you as a mom. It would be a tall order for any mom. Our kids always seem to lose it when all we want is a little peace and quiet around the campfire. But when they lose it is the perfect time to turn a tantrum into a learning experience. And the learning she needs is emotional, not intellectual, something along the lines of "I know your strong feelings scare you. I won't leave you alone with them and I'll show you how to accept them and let them go, so they don't overwhelm you and make you act out.  Feelings can be scary, but they are just part of being human.  I will help you learn how to manage yourself.  It's going to be ok. You are safe and loved."

This is probably a different way to parent than you're used to. I have a book to recommend, if you’re interested. It’s one of my all time favorite parenting books: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Your local library should have a copy.

I wish you luck, and would love to hear how this empathy strategy works for you. And as for what to tell the campground authorities, just say your daughter stepped on a bee.

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Elizabeth commented on 29-Mar-2010 04:50 PM
Thank you for this. I have a six year old who sometimes has tantrums and I *know* that a sharp word doesn't do much to stop them and I hate feeling like I have to approach her harshly because they are "not appropriate for her age". I am going to try this approach, because I think in a way that her big feelings actually scare her and I don't want her to feel like they are too big for me to handle either.
Anonymous commented on 30-Jun-2010 09:37 PM
Thank you Dr. Laura for your gentle and helpful insights. I'm enjoying reading the posts. I'm struggling with my own inability to be present and show empathy to my young children when they are having meltdowns. I want to be able to do this. I know this is the right thing to do. But when the meltdowns start, something in me shifts and I all my good intentions fly out the window and I just want to get away from them. I'm not sure how to change this behaviour because it seems so deep-rooted in me.
Sarah Woodward commented on 05-Jul-2010 11:50 AM
This was so helpful. I'm reading Dealing With Disappointment" b/c my 8 yr old has the same problem but this article was so concise and easier to understand that the book. I'm struggling very much and hope this helps and that I can implement this approach successfully.
Anonymous commented on 27-May-2011 04:54 AM
My eight year old has the biggest temper tantrums - she is mean and cruel when she doesn't get her own way - she uses these "melt downs" to get me to do what she wants - which doesn't work so she tries again and yells longer. yes we have tried your method
and she sees it purely as getting her own way - she gets attention!!!
Sarah commented on 05-Jul-2011 10:22 AM
That actually made me cry. I've just had a weekend where I didn;t do very well at handling my 8 yr old's feelings and that has inspired me to do better
Anonymous commented on 06-Aug-2011 10:19 PM
Thank you Dr. Laura; I am going to try this method and I feel bad after reading this because I am thinking back in the store where she had the melt down knocking things down and putting herself on the floor at 8 years old, and she wanted a hug from me,
and I didn't want to hug her because it seemed like to me it was rewarding that behavior. I have tried many different approaches to teach her how to self express with words but she gets so frustrated because the process of her thinking and to put it into words
is to over whelming for her even when I try to get her to take breathes and calm down so we can talk. I am going to try to put this into motion and see if we can bring some peace and security into her life as to our home in and out.
Daisy commented on 14-Aug-2011 12:15 AM
Ok, what if anything like this helps? My son keeps jumping, yelling, screaming, answering back, saying we don't pay attention on him, we don't like him, he deserves to die, his brother is making his life miserable, we are terrible parents, we don't love
him, and I could list much more than this if I keep going. My heart breaks all the time, and, when I say all the time, it means everything single day of my life, because it happens everyday, sometimes twice or more a day. Specially before dad comes from work
around 4pm and before bed. I really don't know what to do at this point. Seems like anything I tried before, and I already tried everything you can imagine, is not enough. I really wish I could have a magic potion to use on him because I am loosing my temper
as well. Do you think you have anything else to help me with?Thanks a lot.
Misa commented on 16-Aug-2011 05:33 AM
I exhaled when I read this. Thank you :)
Anonymous commented on 17-Oct-2011 06:59 PM
Your advice makes me believe I can help my daughter through this. I need to show her the calm way through this. Her cries and meltdowns are more about her needing emotional support than about her 'lashing out'. Thank you.
Anonymous commented on 02-Nov-2011 08:22 AM
Thank you for these helpful and loving ideas. I think the core idea of empathy is absolutely the only way to shift the tantrum behavior pattern my 8 year old son has started to adopt. I was being strict and stern and old-school because I didn't want him
to think it was okay to talk back or roll around on the floor instead of doing his homework, but I see now that it's simply his cry for help and so what he needs is love not anger. This idea of empathy also agrees with another thought I find helpful...that
only what you have not given can be lacking in any situation, so it's not about another person (the screaming child) doing something, it's all about you accessing your deep resources of love and seeing the pain in the child and soothing it versus reacting
in anger which only confirms the child's feelings of less than or self-condemnation that are prompting the outburst in the first place. Of course, it is difficult to keep your own temper sometimes which makes the whole endeavor a wonderful challenge in terms
of changing your own behavior patterns. Once again, thanks for the advice. It was very well-expressed and really makes me determined to choose love not fear, since fear is definitely at the root of my own negative responses, feeling convinced that I am not
a good parent which only perpetuates the cycle. So, it's time for a new cycle based on compassion, empathy, understanding and lots of love.
Anonymous commented on 17-Feb-2012 07:56 PM
This must be for people with only 1 or 2 kids. You can't give all your attention to one and neglect the other 3 just because one throw sa fit.
prao2k commented on 29-Apr-2012 10:55 AM
Well I have 3 children and tried this approach quietly with me alone with my 8 yr old daughter ,paying complete attention to her. She gets aggressive when I remind her of things to take care and she needs to hurry as she completely looses track of time,and
I am yelling and shouting at her and she is mad and fighting back. After reading this I gave it a try , and it went well . What I have realized is they need you to pay attention to detail , its hard when u have three but its making my relation with my daughter
better.
Anonymous commented on 05-May-2012 05:51 PM
You obviously don't have children yourself
Laura Markham commented on 05-May-2012 07:30 PM
Anonymous- I always laugh when folks use this comment to invalidate my approach. For the record, I have a 21 year old and a 16 year old. They are both straight-A students who are a pleasure to be with -- considerate, responsible, passionate, wonderful
kids. I could not be more proud of them. And I have raised them exactly as I describe on this website.

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