5 year old Aggressive Tantrums

I struggle with my five year old's tantrums when she is screaming and wants to hurt me. The other day she woke up from a nap ok, but when I told her that my mom was sleeping and she couldn't go see her right now she went into a rage. I said all the things about seeing how angry and sad she was (to which she said at one point that she wasn't sad) and that I wouldn't leave her, but I also wouldn't let her hurt me. But, then it always turns into a bit of a wrestling match because she is trying to claw me, even if I move away a bit, and so I am defending myself and holding her arms and such. At one point she managed to swipe my glasses off of my face and tried to break them in half. Luckily, they are plastic and I managed to grab them back before she succeeded. Eventually (maybe 15 min later) my mom came out of her room to try to distract her. When DD saw my mom coming she jumped into my arms, ceased trying to hurt me, and just sobbed. She was probably afraid my mom would pull her off of me as she and DH often do to protect me. She sobbed and sobbed, then calmed, wanted a snack, and was pretty good the rest of the evening. So, how do I avoid wrestling matches or are they actually a good thing?

Aggression in kids (and probably in all mammals) is linked to feeling afraid. In this case your daughter seems to have awakened on the verge of an upset, which might have been related to what she was dreaming. A five year old has all kinds of fears, mostly not things she can verbalize. She may not seem to be afraid, but fear is almost certainly behind her aggression.

It's interesting that she ended by jumping into your arms and sobbing, and then was pretty good for the rest of the evening. The sobbing released something, which was good for her. But that doesn't mean that it's good for her to get stuck in the anger, or to hurt you, which we will talk about in a moment. She is resisting those sad or scary feelings ("I'm NOT sad!!") and fending them off by being angry. Kids often need to do that. But the sobbing is what they really need to get to, which is what releases the deeper upset that's driving the anger.

It's important to keep in mind that kids attack like this when they feel disconnected, so the advice often given to parents to leave the room when their child gets aggressive is misguided. She follows you and wants to attack you partly to reconnect with you (which I know is a funny way of showing it.) Then she will feel safe enough to cry and let out the fears that are behind her attack. So you're doing great by staying near.

Here is what I would advise.

1. As soon as she starts to get angry, acknowledge why she's upset and describe what's upsetting her. Rage doesn't dissipate until it is fully acknowledged. "You want to see Grandma right now! You're so disappointed that she's asleep and you have to wait. I'm so sorry, Honey."

2. Don't let her hurt you. Drop your glasses in a safe, high place. Say "I don't think I want those teeth so close to me" or "Clawing hurts me. You can be mad, but you can't claw me." It can really help kids to be able to push against us, so if she wants to push against you and you can handle it, that's totally fine. But don't set yourself up to get hurt, which isn't good for either of you. 

3. Help her feel safe. Stay as compassionate as you can. You don't have to say much. Just acknowledge what she's upset about. Make eye contact if at all possible. Since making eye contact will bring her closer to her fears/sadness, she may avoid it. Just tell her that she is safe with you, and you want to hear what she's upset about.

4. Behind the anger, tears are waiting. If you can stay compassionate, she may collapse into tears and cry (as she eventually did in this instance). Hold her.

To avoid getting into these standoffs to begin with, be sure that she's getting daily opportunities to laugh, which will change her body chemistry so that she's less anxious. Over time, the child becomes less aggressive, especially as you become more empathic when she's upset.

I know this is challenging, when you're feeling attacked. Here's an article with more information on how to do this. 

When Your Child Is Hellbent on Misbehaving: Time for a Scheduled Meltdown?

I hope this is helpful.
Dr. Laura


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