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3.5 Year Old Tantrums/Rages

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 

I'm new here (hi everyone! :-). And I am hoping for some advice or other perspectives on this:
My 3.5 year old has gone through a few challenging phases before, but none like this. He is usually very joyful, inquisitive and helpful, and has always been a pretty good listener for his age. He's also never been an aggressive kid at all. But lately, he's been having these tantrums...well, rages.
I feel like I've tried everything that I consider to be "right" (and unfortunately resorted to some not-so-right things like yelling back too). I empathize, identify what he's feeling, explain the reasons why he can't have/do something, discuss appropriate ways to express anger, etc. I try taking a playful/silly approach if possible. We've tried cool-down breaks and time-outs, but that escalates the situation to be worse.

If he's doing aggressive things or screaming rude demands...I say "when you yell and scream it hurts my ears, so I'm going to sit over here (or go into another room) until you can talk to me in a calmer voice." Or "It's ok to be angry but not ok to hurt other people/pull on my shirt/etc., so I'm going into the bathroom and when you're able to control yourself then we can talk/cuddle." He screams "NOOO!" and holds onto my leg, pulls on my shirt, etc. and he is strong. If I am able to get myself or him into a separate room or area, he won't stay (or let me stay in there alone) unless the door is locked or I hold it shut. But it feels wrong to lock him out/in. Although, admittedly, if I do manage to separate him for a couple minutes, then he is quicker to say he's ready to calm down and actually do it after a hug (usually after 2-5 rounds of repeating this process).
So he obviously has a strong need to be right near us when he's having these feelings. I'm fine staying near him if it helps...But when he is screaming rude things at me, or if he is being aggressive, then it doesn't seem right to just sit there. And the entire time he is yelling "YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO ME NOW! Just LISTEN!" (which, when I do, he proceeds to tell me or ask me the exact same demand he's asked 20 times that I already said "no" to).

So...Do I need to get better at ignoring the yelling until he uses a calm voice? Is there a better way to deal with this?

Also, we've always offered hugs to him if he's upset or having a tantrum. They used to diffuse the situation almost immediately (boy, those were the days!). Now, he does always eventually want a hug to help him calm down. But when he's in the middle of a tantrum, he will *demand* them rudely.


I usually end up giving him a hug, but I'm conflicted on this. Should I give him the hug whenever he wants it? Even is he is still screaming for it disrespectfully? Or do tell him he needs to calm down and ask me in a normal voice first? If I do ask him to control himself first, then he says "No! I need a hug to calm down! I can't/won't calm down without a hug!" So...I want to help him, but I also want him to learn how to calm himself down and know that he is capable of doing it (of course, we'd still give him a hug when it's over).

I am emotionally exhausted. I've read that 3 is a tough age, but any help (or commiseration - haha) is so appreciated!

post #2 of 9
Thread Starter 

To give some context, below are some examples of the types of tantrums I'm referring to. If he's feeling frustrated because something isn't working right, or if he's upset because I said "no" to watching TV, then that is much easier for me to work through with him than these...

#1: This was one of his "impossible to fix" tantrums:  He wanted to show his dad a funny looking carrot, but forgot and ate it. And so he has a tantrum and is screaming "HOW?! How are you going to get it back?!! You need to get it back NOW!" over and over again. (after empathizing with how he felt, we tried saying he could draw a picture of it, describe it, look through the bag to find another carrot similar to it, nibble another carrot into the same shape - he would have none of it. It had to be the EXACT carrot that was now in his stomach otherwise he was not going to be happy. And we do not own a stomach pump.)


#2:  Then there are other ones that are just plain out-of-line, as far as what he's asking us to do:  After arriving home from a restaurant, I picked up a water bottle from the car holder but HE wanted to do it. So I put it back for him to grab himself. That wasn't good enough. He threw a tantrum because he wanted me to drive back to the restaurant so that we could "do it all over" and he could get the water bottle himself. This sort of unreasonable demand - and the resulting tantrum when we say no - happens all the time. I eventually carried him inside because I could not get him to go in willingly, and he proceeded to pull my hair and try and grab the keys so that I couldn't unlock the door to bring him in. All the while screaming at the top of his lungs "NO! You will NOT bring me inside! I won't let you open the door! Put me down NOW! Etc."

Sometimes I accommodate within reason - like if he wanted to open the door himself, then I might close it again so that he can do it. But other things are just absurd - I am certainly not driving all the way back to a restaurant and then back home just so he can "start over" and be the one to take the water bottle out of the car.

post #3 of 9

Well, I might not be able to help, but I can at least empathize. My son who is 3 years 9 months went through this phase too. He sounds like the same type of kid (very sweet and kind usually, but very particular about things being exactly like he wants). He had a period a few months back where the littlest thing would set him off. For example I would flush the toilet when he wanted to do it and him flushing it a second time was completely not going to make it up to him. Or he would want a WHOLE bowl of yogurt and I would say that he could have a half bowl of yogurt since he never finished it and if he ate half, I would give him more. Also resulted in a complete meltdown and absolutely no consumed yogurt.


My words of encouragement are that he is now mostly over this stage. Last night I was reading him and his baby sister a book that had flaps and we had to "do over" a page, because I accidentally helped him open a flap, but there was no screaming or fit. He's definitely MUCH better.


My only advice based on what you said you already tried (which is mostly how we try to respond too) is to "give him his wish in fantasy". I forget which book that is...I think maybe How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (http://researchparent.com/how-to-talk-so-kids-will-listen-and-listen-so-kids-will-talk/ ). I also recommend Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (http://researchparent.com/peaceful-parent-happy-kids-how-to-stop-yelling-and-start-connecting/ ) which is like my favorite parenting book ever. Anyway, following the fantasy bit, you would try saying something like, "I'm so sorry that the carrot is all gone and we can't bring it back. I really wish we could make it be here on your plate right now so that you could show dad how funny looking it was." That tactic sometimes at least stopped the screaming if not the tears with my son. Another thing I try when I really can't stand to deal with another fit is to look at the clock when he starts screaming and hug him and think, "I bet he can't do this for 10 minutes." I don't say anything, just hug him and wait. The fact that I'm sort of challenging him to keep it up for 10 minutes somehow makes it more tolerable for me. And it usually actually only lasts for like 2 or 3 minutes, though it feels like much longer. Good luck!



post #4 of 9

My son has these exact same upsets about impossible-to-fix situations. I've read that it's very typical for the developmental stage, and knowing that has helped some. Ditto on PP's fantasy suggestion. The other thing that's helped me is letting go of my need to fix it. I've tried to shift my role to just being with him through it, instead of the goal of getting him to feel better quickly, and trying to take the long view that by doing the things you're already doing - the remaining calm, the giving him words for his emotions - will help him develop the emotional intelligence to regulate himself in a healthy way when he's developmentally ready. Mostly I'm just quiet and there with him, but I'll also say things about how everyone feels mad sometimes, and has big feelings, and it can feel scary sometimes, but then after a while those feelings go away and we feel other things again, and that I love him, and I'm there with him. Just trying to make him feel safe and loved in those moments just like all other moments. It's anything but easy - my instinct is still to try to fix - but when I manage it, it does seem to help us both come out of it feeling better. Hugs.

post #5 of 9

I am watching this thread still hoping that more people contribute (bump bump).


My 3+ year old girl has just begun having some shocking rages. I relate to everything the OP is talking about! Ours is the same with control issues, and also have no idea how to help her express herself better. Ideally she'd be able to express her feelings more during the day instead of in one volcanic outburst.


Yesterday she sat on my knee for 45 minutes kicking, screaming...occasionally hitting and scratching me. All the while yelling at me to wipe her tears away...but as I tried, she screamed and screamed about how I was not doing it right - "Do it like THIS!!!! NOOOOT LIKE THAT!!! NOT LIKE THAT!!!! NOOOOOOO!" Even how I had my legs crossed, not crossed, positioned...sent her raging too.

The best I could do was sit there and wait whilst she raged and flailed. I cried too in the end, and she screamed at me for that too. "DON'T HAVE THAT FACE!!!!! DON'T!!! HAVE A HAPPY FACE!!!!!!"

Cause of tantrum/rage/unbelievably sad upset?

Dad ate a piece of her toast she wasn't eating. (Though, to be fair - that was just the trigger...she had, had a hard and very overstimulating day).


Blimey. :-(


I've just written my own thread asking for ideas too....




post #6 of 9
Thread Starter 

Thank you all for your replies! It really helps to know that other people have gone through this or are going through this, and that it's a stage that will end. Please. Soon. We had two really great days this week, but then a horrible day today. He was tired, so I know that was a big part of it, but I'm so glad this day is over.


Michelle - I'm so glad it's gotten better for you! I have the "How to Talk so Kids will Listen" book and am about 1/3 of the way through it. I'll definitely check out the Peaceful Parent, Happy Child one as well, when I'm not so exhausted that all I want to do at the end of the day is veg on the couch. I tried the fantasy strategy during one tantrum, and it did help! He wanted to watch TV in the car (we don't have a TV or DVD player in our car) and I said "Wouldn't that be cool if we had a TV that just came down out of the ceiling to watch?! Or what about if the whole ceiling was a TV - wouldn't that be neat?". It didn't stop the tantrum, but it did take it down a notch.


baltmom - I'm relieved to know that these types of tantrums are typical for this stage, and I'm trying to take the long view. I have noticed that if I hug him and don't say anything at all for a little bit, he calms down much more quickly (only temporarily, but still!) because if I say something, he just gets more upset by arguing with whatever I say or whatever answer/explanation/suggestion I give.


Grover - Oh my gosh, we have had the EXACT SAME tantrum over wiping away tears and me not doing it right!! It's like it reaches a point where absolutely everything I do (or don't do) will be wrong and will be cause to continue the tantrum. And there is just no way to calm him down because whatever I try is going to make it worse. But then not doing anything also makes it worse. Can't win! Those usually happen when he's tired, but they are just the worst. They are the ones where I often completely lose my patience and ability to stay calm. I'm sorry to hear you are dealing with this too (even though it is nice to hear that someone else can relate). I'll check out your other thread as well.

post #7 of 9
Thread Starter 

Ok, so I met up with a friend yesterday who is a special ed teacher and also has a boy the same age as my son. She mentioned that I was probably more "engaged" in my sons tantrums than I thought I was (she witnessed part of one). Although I can see her point, I don't really know how not to be engaged. Or even whether I should or shouldn't be engaged. If I try to ignore the tantrums or walk away, my son will cling to my leg (and he is strong!), screaming "LISTEN TO ME!" and the tantrum escalates.


We tried time outs or "breaks" a few times, but it would take the situation from a 2 to a 10 immediately.  Most of my friends kids seem to be upset at first if brought to a time out, but then calm down. Or at least let their parents bring them to time out, even if they're upset and crying. My son would fight it tooth and nail, screaming, and if I was even able to get him in his room (NOT easy) and hold the door closed, he would scream "MOMMY! MOMMY MOMMY! I NEED A HUG! You need to come back! MOMMY" and would not let up (not proud of the way I handled this, but was desperate and didn't know what to do). I know some people would say, well you just need to keep doing it and not back down and eventually they will learn. But I don't know...to me it honestly feels like my son is way more strong-willed with these things than many other kids I know. And so it feels like I'm making it worse and not giving him what he really needs to help himself calm down.


It's very similar to my sons sleep habits. He is extremely strong willed as far as sleep. He fought sleep like crazy when he was a baby/toddler - crying a lot, even as we rocked him, and even though he was clearly tired. We still rest with him until he falls asleep now. He is fine with the whole bedtime routine, it's just really hard for him to actually fall asleep.


I feel like some of my friends think we just don't try hard enough or stand firm or something. But I feel we have always set pretty good but fair limits, and I don't at all feel like I give in or am permissive.


Other than these two issues (and the very difficult phase we're currently in), my son is a very happy kid who in the past has never given us many behavior problems and usually listened quite well. So it's weird.


Sorry if this post is kind of scattered...just trying to figure out how to handle this new phase. Do I need to be less engaged, even if it escalates the situation? And if so, what does that look like with a strong-willed child? (seriously, what exactly do I do/say??)

post #8 of 9

I realize this is a week old, but boy have I been there. Still am, some days. My kid is 4.75 now, but we still go through some of this. It comes in waves. Tidal waves :) A few things that have helped over the last couple of years.  If I can catch, just at the moment it starts to ignite in her, and sit down next to her, put a hand on her arm, look into her eyes, and tell her that I am the luckiest mom in the world, to have her- sometimes that can help. Then, I can ask what she's thinking/feeling, and sometimes there can be a conversation. Other times, if it's too late, when she first raises her voice, I say something like, "Wow, it's loud in here. I'm going to go in the other room. Will you come join me when you're done screaming?" That can shut things down mid-scream. Or not. Sometimes nothing works. Time outs escalate things. Time-ins escalate things. Also, for my girl, anything that resembles discipline, escalates things immediately, bringing out an amazing amount of defiance and rage (and volume!). Keeping myself calm, in any way I can, helps. Often, I focus on comforting her little brother, who is very scared by her behavior. I also remind myself that her way of "shutting down" is to scream. It doesn't mean she's angry, it usually means she's overstimulated and scared. I try not to react to her overstimulation and fear as though it is anger.  I guard her sleep with my life. She NEEDS to get enough sleep.

We have been without tv now for 4 weeks, and that seems to be helping. I realized I was using it as a bit of a parental coping method (not in excess, maybe an hour a day) When nothing else worked, it stopped the screaming! And I really don't like being screamed at.  But, what I've realized, is that it didn't allow her to go through the feelings to the end, if that makes sense. I think, what she needs to learn, is how to express and resolve these feelings. Also, tv is, to her, very over-stimulating. Sugar is also dangerous. I try to give her protein and fat when she gets anything sweet, to help moderate the effect.  I do believe that she has no expectation of getting "her way" by tantruming, but is unable to express her frustration any other way. She is extremely verbal, and at any other time can tell me exactly how she feels about anything, just not when she is in the midst of it.  Transitions are really hard, and giving a 5 minute, then 3 minute, then 1 minute warning helps. Sometimes.....

 I definitely have a "spirited" kid, and she has taught me so much about mothering. She's made me stretch my boundaries and learn to give what she needs. Some days I wish she wouldn't need so much, but she doesn't choose to have such deep needs. It's my job to help her learn to go about getting her needs met without traumatizing those around her. And, hopefully, without traumatizing her in the process.  With my 2 other kids, I got to feel like a good parent, because they cooperated with me easily, maybe had a temper tantrum here and there, and we moved on. I was wholly unprepared for my little fireball. Parents who have not had experiences like these will have lots of advice. I would have had lots of advice. The only advice I have now is try things and see what works, and know that tomorrow it might be something totally different. Get through the day, give lots of hugs. Tell your little one why you are grateful they are in your life, often. Get lots of hugs yourself. I hope something somewhere I've written is useful in your situation, as every situation is, of course, different.

post #9 of 9
Thread Starter 

Sundaya - It's never to late to respond and is always helpful to have support and hear someone else's experience, so thank you! Luckily, we are finally over this phase, I think. I mean, we still tantrums once in a while, but it's not even close to the way it was a few weeks ago. We have been focused on making sure our son gets enough sleep too and that his bedtime schedule stays consistent. We've tried to cut out most sweets, except for on Halloween. We still do TV, but he gets tokens to use for it, so that has completely cut out any battles over watching "more, more, more!"  I'm not sure if any of that helped him get over this phase (I think it was mostly developmental and he got out of it on his own), but I certainly think doing those things is good in general and we are going to continue with them going forward. Plus I think trying to make a more rigid routine/rules as far as TV, bedtimes, etc. helped *me* because I felt like I had some control and was being proactive (especially I was feeling very helpless during this difficult phase). Thanks again for everyone's responses! I'm sure we will go through phase soon enough, but for now I am enjoying having my sweet boy back :)

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