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8 Year Old Tantrums - is this normal?

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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 feet 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 campground I put my attention 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. And I have no idea what to say to the campground authorities.

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 14 year 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. Since 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 probably sent your daughter to calm down in the tent because you've heard that letting children calm down in isolation helps them learn to self-soothe. New brain  research shows that the opposite is true. Brain development requires children to be soothed by someone else, which helps them develop the neural pathways 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 into the tent (or her room) 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. Scientists call this "co-regulation." Remind yourself to keep breathing, not to take anything she says or does personally, and of 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 to provocations that seem slight to us by having big meltdowns. 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. So I'm warning you in advance that when you make it safe for your daughter to cry, she will! But in between, and thereafter, you'll see a calmer, sweeter, happier child. Letting our kids cry in the safety of our 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 becomes deeper and sweeter.

How can you do this, when you're feeling irritated with your child? 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 showing your exasperation won't help her learn to regulate her emotions. If you can stay calm and comforting with her, she'll feel safer, and she'll be less likely to overreact.

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 compared to modeling self-regulation so your daughter will learn it.) "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." You may think her offense is much worse than yours--she dropped the marshmallows, after all. But you're the grown up. She will only apologize if she sees you model it. 

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 careful 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 it.

And the tantrums? Kids have tantrums because they're overwhelmed with emotions they can't manage. 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 her sister's distress actually upset her. 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. Maybe she was so embarrassed she would have happily thrown her sister into the fire to get her to shut up. Maybe she just wanted more marshmallows.

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 private 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 understand. I was pretty embarrassed too." Listen for awhile and let her elaborate.

When her rant about her sister starts to run out of charge, 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 unkind 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 supportive when someone is upset, please stay out of it until they calm down,") 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 parent. 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. In fact, your emotions are a gift, a message. (The message of the marshmallow fiasco is that you can't throw a bag of marshmallows without breaking it, and you feel terrible when you disappoint your lovely mother!) 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. If you want more support for this transformation, I would love to hear your reactions to my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

And as for what to tell the campground authorities, just say your daughter stepped on a bee. :-)

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