Preschooler Temper Tantrums, Yells at Parents to Shut Up

Dr. Laura,
I am writing you because I have a three year old with major temper tantrums. He has always been "strong willed" but lately has become worse. If he doesn't get his way or something doesn't work the way he wants it to he throws things and/or will tell me or DH to shut up. We have put him in time out and explained to him that shut up is a bad word and stated that we don't talk to people like that. We have tried taking certain toys away and have even told him we would wash his mouth out with soap (I don't want to do this). I am at a loss as to how to control his anger. Thank you in advance for your help.
-- JBrinker

Hey, Do you have a male clone of my daughter? She was the exact same way! She's still VERY dramatic...but it does get better. I think becoming a better communicator helped as well as consistency. Us personally never had TO work until we stopped putting a time limit on it. We'd send her to her room (away from people b/c she hated being without people to interact with) and told her "You may come down when you decide you are ready to behave nicely with people". Sometimes she'd go up and get herself under control in a few minutes. Other times she'd stay up there a while with me checking in on her, but it kept us away from each other so we couldn't feed on each other's emotions. Ultimately the decision was hers to make and it put her emotions back in her own control so when she did decide her TO was over she normally came down a much different child. I know it doesn't work for all kids and really I would be crazy to do this with my other son, but for her she seemed to need this type of time out. We still use it sometimes and she is 7 but normally she is screaming her fool head off and I'm about ready to lose my temper. It's those times she goes up and screams a few minutes and next thing I know it is silent. When I check on her she is unconscious so the reality is she was over tired lol.
Good luck!
BF Guru

I know what you mean when you talk about losing your temper too. At times he is screaming so loud and being so bad that he can't hear me try to talk reason in him. I will give your theory a try and see how it goes. Thank you!
JBrinker

Be prepared, if he's as dramatic as mine is, (we never shut her door unless she was screaming and I couldn't deal but even then left it open a crack so she wouldn't feel trapped) he may open the bedroom window and scream out "LET ME OUT OF HERE! I'M LOCKED IN HERE HELLLLLLP MEEEEEEE!" While the door is wide open.
BF Guru

Currently when we put him in his room for a time out he will either cry and scream or sometimes he just stis in there. Gotta love this little devil! -- JB

Dear JB,
Sounds to me like you've got a spirited boy there, intense in every way. That will eventually be a blessing for him in living a rich life, but at the age of three, I know it can seem like a curse.

You say you're at a loss as to how to control his anger. The truth is, you can't control his anger. Only he can do that, and learning how is a big job. Your task is to teach him how.

That means that maintaining your cool is essential (and I know how challenging that is when he's screaming at you.) By cool, I don't mean just staying calm. I mean staying compassionate and understanding. The more you greet his outbursts with patient understanding ("Poor little guy. He must be exhausted."), the more he will calm down and become reasonable. The more you respond with punishment, the more the ugly cycle will escalate.

It's difficult to be three. Kids are trying hard to master all kinds of developmental tasks. Parents often crackdown with too many rules and expectations. Three year olds desperately need their parents and want to please them, and are acutely sensitive to any lack of parental approval. They really can't bear it when they think you're finding fault with them, which is why they might tell you to shut up!

Three year olds haven't internalized happiness yet (which is what happens when kids finally are able to maintain an even keel even when things don't go their way), so they don't have a lot of tolerance to handle it when they're disappointed. And, when you think about it, things often don't go their way, since three year olds don't really have a lot of control over their worlds, so of course they're often terribly disappointed and unhappy. If parents can understand that and empathize, rather than expecting the child to just keep a stiff upper lip, kids gradually become more able to manage their "negative" feelings, and weather life's disappointments.

When three year olds are stressed (from preschool, new siblings, changes in schedule, whatever) or tired -- and they are often tired now that they can keep themselves from falling asleep promptly at night -- they just don't have enough internal resources to cope. So they crack, and all the frustration comes exploding out.

Sometimes they just need to blow off steam, and your job is to give them a safe way to do that, without letting yourself get dragged into the battle.

I can't see into your household, but I suspect that your son has too many frustrations to handle right now. (They might not be too much for some other easy-going child, but that isn't your boy, who takes everything to heart.) My prescription to help him, and you:

1. Pick a few really important rules to enforce, and relax about things that don't matter as much, at least for now.

2. Make sure he is getting enough sleep. You may want to move bedtime half an hour earlier, or even an hour earlier, just to see if it makes a difference.

3. Schedule a specific time every single day for your son to have "special time" with each parent. During that half hour, focus solely on him. Play whatever game he wants, roughhouse to get him laughing, snuggle, etc. Your goal is to connect with him and build a strong relationship, which will make him want to behave for you. Here's an article on Special Time.

4. As much as possible, give him choices. (Don't overwhelm him with choices. Just let him choose, whenever it would be ok for him to decide between two things.) Your goal is to help him feel less pushed around so he's less defiant.

5. Empathize with your son, regardless of his feelings. "It makes you mad when it doesn't work out the way you wanted." "You're pretty disappointed." "I know you feel sad right now." You want to give him the message that all of him is acceptable, including his sad and angry feelings. That way he begins to learn that he can't always get his way, but he gets something even better: someone who loves all of him, no matter what. That's what will gradually form the core of an unshakeable internal happiness that will allow him to handle whatever life throws at him.

6. Start consciously cultivating your son's emotional intelligence so he can learn to manage his emotions. There's a whole section on this website on increasing your child's "EQ."

7. If he's looking to lock horns in a power struggle, your job is to sidestep it. You don't have to be the disciplinarian, and you don't have to prove you're right. That will just make him feel worse about himself, which will make him act worse. Let him save face. I guarantee you that if you force him to do something your way, he'll become more defiant in other areas. No one wins a power struggle.

The trick is setting the limits you need to without getting into a power struggle. How? Every way you can. Stretch your creativity! Use Parenting Aikido, which is to go with his need for control but still meet your need as the parent to keep things safe. Remove yourself from the authority position. Instead of "Because I said so" you say "The rule is." You become the empathizer instead of the heavy. Your son feels you're on his side so he's more likely to cooperate rather than fight with you.

My point about power struggles is that it's ok for kids to assert their preferences and express their feelings; it isn't a challenge to the parents' authority. That's what any self-respecting person needs to do.

8. Avoid punishing and threatening, which undermines your relationship with your son. The only reason kids behave is because of their connection with us. When we punish, they feel bad about themselves and misbehave more. The worse they behave, the more they need our love and compassion. So what can you do when he misbehaves? Use positive discipline. To start, check out the section on this website about how to put Empathic Limits into practice in your home.

9. Stop doing timeouts. Here's a whole article on why timeouts just create more bad behavior in many kids. Instead, when he loses it, empathize with him "This is so hard for you, and you are feeling so bad right now. Let's go take some space until we feel better, ok?" Then, scoop him up (lovingly), and take him to his room. Sit with him there. If he'll let you hold him, great. Most intense kids are too angry to be held at this point, so just say "I know you're really upset right now. Take however much time you need to calm down. I'm here with a hug when you're ready." Whatever you do, don't try to reason with him when he's upset, he's in no condition to hear you or be reasonable back.

If you're too upset by his being upset to stay calm, then don't try to stay with him. But be clear that he is in charge of coming back to the embrace of his family whenever he's ready. Just say "I'm upset too, so I'm going to go calm down a bit. Whenever you're ready, come find me and let's give each other a big hug."

10. Help your son show you his upsets. Most of the time when children are acting out as you describe, they need help with some big emotions they're lugging around. Start by getting him laughing every single day for fifteen minutes minimum. That will help him work through the fears and anxieties that are making him defiant. You should see a definite improvement in his mood and level of cooperation. If not, then he just needs to cry. Here's an article about how to help him feel safe enough to cry. Once he shows you all those tears and fears, you will see a marked change in him.

11. Talk with him. I suspect that once you put these suggestions into place and he knows you're on his side, he'll stop telling you to shut up, but if he doesn't, try this: "You want me to shut up, because it's hard for you to hear what I said. Ok, I will be quiet now, and we will talk later when everyone feels more calm." Later, say "You were pretty mad at me to tell me to shut up. It really bothered you when I said that, didn't it?"  Listen to what he says in response. You might learn something. Maybe he didn't feel heard. Maybe he was embarrassed. Empathize with whatever he says. "So it's hard for you when I tell you something you don't want to hear....I understand."  After he feels understood, reinforce your expectation, or limit: "I know that was hard for you to hear. And you still can't say shut up, because it is hurtful. Daddy and I never tell you to shut up. Please don't tell me to shut up, either." You'll be surprised how quickly he'll stop.

12. Read up on parenting strong-willed children. You can start with my parenting tip on this: Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child.

I also recommend Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic which should be available at your public library.

Finally, a great book on helping kids to stop having angry outbursts is called Smartlove and it's by Pieper and Pieper. They may have it at your library, but it's so good you might want your own copy.

BF Guru is right -- this does get better, just because kids grow up and become more able to handle their feelings. Your goal is to move him through this stage faster, and to come out of it closer to him, instead of having damaged the relationship by getting into power struggles.

Please let us know how this works out. I suspect that he will be a very different child in six months, if you are able to put these suggestions into practice. Good luck!
--- Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura
Thank you very much for the response. I spend a lot of time with my son and he is usually an angel who loves to snuggle, but when he gets mad watch out. I am going to try your positive discipline and see where that goes. Again thank you for your assistance. --JB

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