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6 Year Old with Explosive Temper

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Dear Dr. Laura,
We have two daughters aged - 6 and 3. We need help in understanding and raising our older daughter. She is getting more and more volatile and prone to explosive reactions. She tends to lack compassion almost all the time and I'm afraid that her behavior has the ingredients of that of a bully.

Both my husband and I are well educated, peaceful, loving people with strong family foundations and values. We feel bewildered when our older daughter behaves so obnoxiously. We have been trying to figure out what hurts her but do not have any real answers. We moved her from a public school to a private school so she is in a smaller group setting of more equal age classmates. She also went to the same private preschool and we are happy with that school.

My questions are : How do we figure what the triggers are? How do we figure what the problem is  what hurts her? How do we encourage her to express in positive ways? I try all the things that you recommend. I have to admit that while I succeed some times, I falter many times too.

We try to give her one on one time. We give her attention, play with her and try to guide her into becoming a positive person. Can compassion be 'taught'? Could sibling rivalry be an all pervasive cause? How do we protect our younger daughter from learning bad things from her sister?

Another question I have is how does one successfully find common ground when two parents have different parenting approaches? My husband believes in time outs and consequences and I am more inclined towards making the child feel good within like you say. Many times I feel this conflict.

Both my husband and I treasure a happy, healthy, peaceful family life but our daughter's behavior vitiates the environment. 


I am so sorry for your frustration with your daughter. When a child is volatile and explosive, it is indeed a challenge for both the parents and the siblings. But it is also a sign that the child is struggling and miserable. 

You ask what could be causing your daughter's anger and reactivity.  Anger is a defense against deeper feelings that we can't bear. When children lash out, it is because they feel frightened. What could cause a child to feel frightened to the point that she becomes volatile, explosive, bullying, and without compassion?

a. Some children have sensory integration challenges, which means that they experience the world differently than we do. For these children, things are often overwhelming. Because they are constantly off-balance, they get angry easily and need help to regulate themselves.

b. Some children are simply MORE. More sensitive and perceptive, so they pick up on everyone else's emotions and find life overwhelming and dysregulating. More persistent, so they can't give up on getting what they want when things don't go their way. More impulsive and intense so they have a harder time regulating themselves.

c. Very occasionally a child has a trauma that the parents don't know about, such as a situation in which the child is sexually abused. Sometimes a six year old has undiagnosed learning disabilities and feels "stupid" in school, which makes her terribly anxious. I have no reason to think this is going on with your daughter, but you should simply be aware of the possibility and make sure that such a thing is not occurring.

d. In some families, the parents are reactive and lose their temper, either with the children or with each other. The child then feels unsafe, and becomes angry and lashes out because she has been the recipient of that kind of behavior. It does not sound to me like this is going on at your house, because you describe yourself and your husband as "peaceful, loving people."

e. The birth of a sibling is always a challenge for the older child. I believe that all children wonder if somehow they were not good enough, and thus the parents got a new baby. When two children are of the same gender, there is more sibling rivalry. Certainly your daughter may well be reacting badly to sharing her parents with her sister. I have seen many families in which the older child has never gotten over the birth of the younger. If your daughters seem to have a lot of sibling rivalry, I suggest that you get your hands on my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life .

f. Some children find themselves in a school environment in which they feel unprotected or unsafe.Sometimes they are actively bullied, other times there are cliques, other times there is simply "exclusive" play or bigger kids of whom the child is frightened. In all of these cases, children may respond to their fear by beginning to bully others who are smaller or less powerful. You say that you changed her school setting, so I am wondering if her former school was not working for her socially? If so, she may still need to work out some upsets from that experience.

g. She may be highly sensitive and just need to cry. All children need regular opportunities to "discharge" their pent-up emotions. The normal life we take for granted can be quite stressful for children, particularly sensitive children. They may feel overwhelmed by school and peer interactions. They may feel frightened of the dark, or dogs, or whether they will go down the drain with the bathtub water. They may feel frustrated with their attempts to master new skills, like tying shoes, telling time, or riding a bike. They may be stressed by too many activities, or being interrupted when they are concentrating, or by the parents being stressed out. What do children do with all of these emotions? Nature's answer is tantrums. They cry and rage, and then feel better. As they get older, they usually can "let off steam" without tantrums, but they still need a chance to cry on a regular basis.

Parents who see life from the child's point of view are more able to accept their children's challenging feelings without taking them personally. They are empathic ("You are so upset") without judging, and they stay with their child, or nearby, so she doesn't feel abandoned and alone with her big, scary feelings. Parents who are scared of their child's emotions, on the other hand, often give their child the message that her feelings are not ok, and the child is left alone to cope with feelings she can't handle. She stuffs them down, but of course they pop out at the least provocation, making her volatile and explosive.

h. Some children have what I would call a "learning delay" in the self-management function of "changing gears." They are not very flexible emotionally. When something happens that is not what they wanted or expected, they explode. Why does this happen? We don't know, but brain scans show that the parts of the brain responsible for transitions and flexibility are not working normally. Usually, this is just a delay in learning for the child, and they eventually master this. Luckily, we can "train" the brain so that it functions better in this regard by remaining calm ourselves, which helps our child to remain calm so we can problem-solve together. It also helps to offer our child empathy even when we think she is over-reacting, so for instance, you might say "You are so upset that we are out of your favorite breakfast cereal. It is hard for you when things don't go as you were hoping. It takes extra work for you to breathe and control yourself when you are very disappointed." I suspect this could well be part of what is happening with your daughter since you describe her as volatile and you don't know what is triggering her.

i. Some children have a harder time bonding with parents. That, in turn, makes them feel disconnected, so they are less cooperative. It hinders their development of empathy, so they are meaner to others. It also makes them feel alone and scared, so they are more likely to lash out.

Why would some children have a harder time bonding? Maybe the mother suffered from postpartum depression when the baby was tiny. Maybe the parent or the child was ill during the first year, so the parent and child were separated. Maybe the parent previously lost the child, or in some other way suffers anxiety about giving her heart entirely to this child. Maybe the child was born extremely sensitive physically and close contact is overwhelming for her so she rejects close contact. Maybe the child has a challenging temperament and the parent responds by feeling that it is hard to love this child; which of course the child picks up. You will have to consider how close your relationship with your daughter is.

j. When we use discipline methods that include punishment, children learn that it is ok for big people to push small people around. Even timeouts, which are a mild form of punishment, can have this effect. That does not mean that we don't offer guidance, and enforce expectations, but it means that we guide with empathy, instead of punishing. Punishment models bullying and many kids respond to it by becoming bullies themselves.

k. Some parents who see themselves as "peaceful and loving" don't set many limits, or impose routines and structure in their home. Sometimes they are responding to a child who is strong-willed and they just don't want to fight. Or, they may subscribe to a parenting belief about letting the child choose her own course. With some children, this seems to work, but much of the time it doesn't. Children need predictable structure and routines to feel safe.

That doesn't mean we need to impose lots of rules. Children do want and need to have a span of control "“ in other words, to know that they can choose what to wear, what to eat, who to play with, what to do to occupy their time, etc, all within basic parameters that parents set for health and safety. But there are two negative results when parents don't provide sufficient structure, routine and limits for kids.

First, when parents don't offer structure (such as bedtimes), children often don't get their basic physical needs (such as sleep) met, and therefore don't have the internal resources to rise to the everyday developmental challenges that confront all children. They often don't develop the kinds of habits "“ like getting the unpleasant chores such as homework done before playing—that lead to success and mastery in life.

Second, when parents don't set limits, children keep "testing" until they find the limit. In fact, they often become demanding and needy and begin to challenge parents. This is a very common cause of children who have loving parents becoming explosive and acting out.

Why do kids test until they find the limits? Because as much as children like self-determination, they want to know someone is keeping them safe, not only from the outside world, but from their own rage and upsets. Children feel fiercely, and are still learning to manage their own emotions.They are still developing their frontal lobe capacity for reason, and still have some magical thinking. Therefore, they worry that their anger is so powerful that they could hurt another person. While they may at times WANT to hurt that person, such as when they are furious at a sibling or parent, they also feel love for that person and guilty about their rage. They need to know that someone older and wiser will always keep them "“ and those around them "“ safe.

Imagine how scary it is to be six and feel like you're in charge, that your parents can't keep your little sister or themselves safe from you. When that happens, kids often feel like they need to step in to be the boss of the family themselves and get even more demanding.


SO I don't know which of these issues is affecting your daughter, but I do know that an explosive child is an unhappy child. Clearly, your daughter is crying out for help. So what can you do?

1. Get clear with your husband on your expectations for your daughter's behavior, and express them clearly to your daughter. Some behavior is not acceptable, such as hitting her sister, or yelling at you, or bullying her peers at school (you do not mention whether she does this, or whether her angry behavior is only at home). Let other things slide for now, such as whether she picks up her room or eats her vegetables. For the next few months, until you see a change, your focus must be on how she treats others.

A six year old can be expected not to hit, and to be civil. Of course, she is allowed to have all of her feelings, but she is responsible for not hurting others with them, either physically or emotionally. If she can't relate civilly to her sister, for instance, she shouldn't be in the same room with her. When she uses a rude or mean or bullying tone of voice, say "Ouch! That tone of voice could really hurt someone's feelings. You must be very upset. Can you take a deep breath and try again, or do you need a little "chill" time with me to feel better, so you can express what you need without words that hurt?"

2. If she remains angry and belligerent, or if she is able to say that she needs a little chill time, drop what you are doing to be with her if at all possible.  (This will have to be your priority for a few months.) Take her hand, if she will let you, and go with her to her room. (If she shares a room with her sister, make a separate cozy place that is all hers, either on her bed or in some other room.)

This is NOT a timeout, so be careful not to use that language. It is not a punishment at all. This is a chill time where she can calm her upset emotions to feel better, with your help and support. It is an opportunity to re-connect with you so that she feels safe.

No talking is necessary, and "teaching" will backfire. Instead, snuggle and hold her. If she will let you take ten deep breaths with her, that is calming and will help discharge emotion; if she responds by yawning you'll know that she's releasing strong emotions from her body.

If she has a meltdown and cries, great. She was being ornery because she had a lot of big feelings bothering her, and now she feels safe enough to cry them out. If she screams and yells, keep yourself safe, and stay calm. Again, she is feeling safe enough with you to trust you with her anger and she needs to get to the fear, sadness, and other feelings under the anger. Stay compassionate, don't get triggered. If you can help her feel safe, the rage will ease and she will break through into tears.

Once she recovers, snuggle and hold her and tell her that everyone has these big feelings sometimes and anytime she needs your help with them, you will be there for her, and you love her no matter what.

These big cries will probably escalate for a month as she tests to see if it is really safe to show you all her big feelings. Then they will begin to diminish, as she gets them out of her system. You will see a big change in her behavior and she will become more pleasant and cooperative. After that, she will still need to cry for "maintenance" but not nearly as often.

By the way, don't interpret this as meaning that you "give in" to something that your daughter was tantrumming for. You accept her feelings about your not giving her what she wanted, and you love her through those feelings, but you don't change your mind and give her something that you said No to because you thought that was best. Instead, set whatever limits you feel are necessary, help her process her feelings about your limit, and give her something she wants even more—your complete acceptance of her, messy feelings and all.

Just so you know, don't evaluate whether she is over-reacting. Of course she will be over-reacting to whatever the presenting issue is. She is using that issue as an opportunity to discharge her pent-up emotions. Most of the time she won't even know what she is actually upset about. You don't need to try to figure it out or talk about it. The work here is accepting her emotions and loving her through them, not teaching her anything.

You ask whether compassion can be "taught." The answer is that every time we respond compassionately to our child (or to anyone else in our child's presence) we are teaching compassion. When our child sees us smile at another driver and let them go ahead of us in traffic, we are teaching compassion. When our child is angry, and we stay calm and loving and extend the understanding that she must be very upset, we are teaching compassion. When we allow her to rage and accept her feelings, we are teaching compassion.

Of course, once she is calm, we can offer guidance and observations to help her develop empathy, such as "When you yelled at me earlier, it hurt my feelings. I don't yell at you and I don't want you to yell at me. Please try to tell me why you're upset, and I will try to help you?"

3. Create a closer relationship with your daughter. This will help her be more cooperative. It will also help her to feel safer so that she can work out the issues that are bothering her. You say you "try" to give her one-on-one time. Given the serious impact of your daughter's behavior, the fact that she is clearly suffering, and especially given that sibling rivalry is part of her issue, you can't just "try" to do this. If you want to see a change, you must make "one-on-one" time with your daughter non-negotiable. In fact, I would recommend that you and your husband each spend half an hour a day with her in unstructured time, while the other parent spends that time with your younger daughter. That way both girls get one-on-one time.

What should you do during this special time? First of all, call it by the most special name there is "“ her name. She can choose what to do with this time with you every other day. On the alternate days when it is your choice about how to spend this time, choose "play-acting" games to help her work through emotions and conflicts, or physical games that will bring you closer.

What do I mean by play-acting games? If she has a dollhouse, play with the family and have the two sisters fight or get jealous of each other. You can also use stuffed animals. Have a little stuffed animal fight with her sister. Trade which one of you is which sister, and use names that are similar but not the same as your girls' names so she feels enough distance to be free in her play. You can also play school to see how she is feeling about the peer dynamics at school.

Here are two articles on this website that I think will help you:

Special Time

Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence

4. Work to heal your own (and your husband's) feelings about your daughter. When a child is difficult, we as parents react with negative feelings of our own that disrupt the natural bond. At that point, the child has no reason to please the parent and becomes even more challenging to manage. Kids only behave because of who we are to them: their guiding star, the person whose love they live for, the person they don't want to disappoint. When they sense our disapproval, they conclude that they've already disappointed us, and they stop trying to please us. Instead, everything becomes a fight.

We can start to heal this negative pattern and become closer to our child by noticing the negative feelings that are clouding our view of our child and blocking out our natural positive feelings toward her. Maybe we feel guilty, sure that if we were better parents, she would be a better kid. Maybe we're angry at her for acting in ways that we would have been punished for when we were young. Maybe we feel helpless and powerless and hopeless. All of these feelings get in the way of our being loving and calm—and setting appropriate limits—with our child.

Give yourself and your husband an opportunity to work out your own feelings about your daughter. You each need someone to talk to about your feelings about your daughter. Take turns listening to each other vent, without responding. You may find it impossible to stay calm and nonreactive (and non-defensive) as you listen to each other, in which case you may each need to find someone else to listen to you, who will not feel a need to judge, fix, or even comment.

Then, write down all the things you love about your daughter. You need to start focusing on the good things about her, which may include the flip side of her more challenging behaviors. For instance, I suspect she is sensitive and feels deeply. Maybe she can be loving, or exuberant. Really get in touch with what a wonderful person she can be, and you will start to see her more that way -- and she will begin to act that way more often. Be sure to comment to her, noticing all the positive things: "I really love it when you _____".

You asked how to protect your younger daughter from learning bad things from her sister. If your younger daughter sees that the rule in your family is that people are kind to each other and that you will protect her from her sister, and if she has a good, close relationship with her parents, she will follow your model, rather than her sister's. But if you do the things we have discussed here, her sister will change her behavior, and become a positive role model, even if she remains a sensitive and somewhat reactive person.

Finally, you asked how to find common ground when two parents have different parenting approaches. You both want what is best for your daughter, obviously. You just have different ideas about what will accomplish that goal. The short answer is that you need to do a lot of talking and educating yourselves, so that you each understand each other's perspective. It is also helpful to understand each other's upbringing because that always influences our parenting.

I hope this answer is helpful to you. I wish you and your family every blessing.

Dr. Laura

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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