How do I help an almost-6-year-old learn to handle disappointment and frustration? This is a child with big emotions, both positive and negative. Nearly every time he doesn’t get his way, he instantly gives in to his impulse to stomp, throw something, cry, scream, and sometimes hit and push. He is always apologetic and remorseful, and even berates himself, which I find disturbing (he says he is “stupid,” a word we don’t allow in our home).
At nearly 6, your son can learn to manage his strong feelings. The work may be hard now, but it will be much harder later. It is good that his behavior bothers him, which may motivate him to change. But if he is feeling hopeless, he will need your reassurance that he will someday learn to control himself. He will need to know that physical aggression is unacceptable, and that you will do everything you can to keep him under control until he can manage on his own. He sounds like he is scared of himself, and he needs to know that he can count on you until he can count on himself. Help from you will be far more effective if he can keep reminding himself that he, most of all, is the one who wants to learn. In calm times, help him make a list of the triggers for his tantrums.
Some triggers will be avoidable, others not. You can strategize together about how to handle both. For example, when he can’t have what he wants right away, he could focus on when he can have it and what he can do while he is waiting. Instead of pushing someone when he is mad, he can stop and think about what he is feeling, and why. Rather than getting physical, he can say, “I’m mad because I wanted to go first. If you won’t let me go first, then I’m not going to play with you.” Of course he won’t be able to substitute these reasonable responses for the pushing and hitting right away. Tell him he’ll need to be patient with himself. Look at the list and help him to indentify any triggers that have warning signs. You can agree on a special code that you’ll both use, such as, “Looks like it’s time to cool down.” But then he’ll need to know how. Ask him to think about what helps him relax when he’s feeling upset. Share with him what you’ve noticed, and give him some ideas to try. For example, leaving the scene to go to his room, not as a punishment but just to cool down, can make a big difference. Does he have a teddy bear to squeeze really hard? Would it help him to wrap himself in his bed covers? Listen to music? Take a shower? Have a cold drink? Or scribble furiously (on paper) until eventually he feels like making drawings or writing about what bothers him?
If these strategies don’t work, you may need more help. Has your child always had “big emotions,” or is this a recent development? Have there been major changes in his life or in your family’s situation that may have gotten under his skin? Have other family members had problems with “big emotions”? If so, we suggest you consult your pediatrician, who can refer you to a mental health professional skilled in working with young children.