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7 year old hitting parents, tantrumming

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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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