Living with Children: What’s up with tantrums at age 5?

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QUESTION: My 5-year-old continues to throw tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. His father and I are divorced. I have primary custody. He is with his dad every other weekend, basically. My ex- has very poor emotional control and I’m concerned that our son may have inherited that from him.

When he throws a tantrum, I make him sit in a “tantrum chair” in the living room, something I read about in one of your books. It sometimes takes him nearly an hour to fully calm down. Is there anything else I can do to help him get control of himself or should I just stay the course? I’m thinking five years old is too old for tantrums and that there may be more going on with him than I’m aware of.

ANSWER: Sixty-plus years ago, it was “unheard of” for a child older than 36 months to still be throwing tantrums; today, it isn’t the norm, but it’s not unusual either. The difference is due to sea changes in childrearing practices that have taken place since the 1960s, the two most significant of which have been (a) a shift from adult- to child-centeredness in the family and (b) a change in focus from instilling citizenship values to making children happy.

As the result of demonizing (by the media and mental health professional community) and all-but abandoning traditional childrearing attitudes and practices, behaviors associated with the so-called “terrible twos” — tantrums, defiance, impulsivity, separation anxiety — continue to occur past toddlerhood and sometimes well past. In other words, I doubt there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

A tendency toward emotionality may be heritable to some extent, but even if that is the case, emotional control can be taught. Behavioral predispositions are exactly that: predispositions. Unlike physical characteristics, they aren’t written in stone. So, for example, you can’t change a child’s eye color, but a tendency toward shyness can be overcome.

For whatever reasons, your son is having great difficulty accepting what I call the Mick Jagger Principle: You can’t always get what you want. (For those readers who suffer from deficiencies in rock ‘n’ roll knowledge, that is the title of a well-known song by the Rolling Stones, Jagger’s band.)

A “tantrum chair” (or some variation upon it) is my standard recommendation concerning ongoing emotional meltdowns in a child your son’s age. The most important element in the equation is that you enforce in keeping with the “Referee’s Rule”: no warnings, no threats, no second chances, no deals.

As soon as a tantrum begins, assign him to the chair. In hesitation, all is not lost, but hesitation when it comes to enforcing rules is almost as counterproductive as not enforcing them at all. This going to be an uphill battle. Stay the course. Your resolve will eventually pay off.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2021, John K. Rosemond]