My sensitive son had some major tantrums in his toddler and preschool years. You know how it is. If you have a kid who is prone to tantrums and they’re tired enough, hungry enough, pissed off enough – and if you just happen to cut their toast wrong, or dare to buckle them into their car seat – all hell might break loose.
Dealing with a tantrumming little kid – especially in public, or if you happen to be sleep deprived, anxious, or PMS-ing – is one of the hardest things on earth. Even though you know it’s “normal,” it doesn’t really help you feel supported when you’re in it. And those of us with really intense kids wonder if perhaps we have the loudest, most out of control kid ever created … and if there was something we did wrong as a parent to cause the behavior. (Spoiler alert: it’s almost all totally normal, I promise.)
Once my son turned four or so, his tantrums started to decrease. Not that they never happened, but they were less frequent. Everyone told me it would get better, and it did. “Don’t worry,” I’d tell my friends with younger kids, “It will pass.” I thought I was done with that shit, and I celebrated my ass off because those toddler years were freaking brutal.
Enter second grade. I don’t know what it was about second grade – about being 8 years old – but my son had the roughest time. For the first time ever, he started telling me that he didn’t like school. There was this one kid who turned into his arch enemy (the kid was kind of a jerk, but I also think my son was super-sensitive about everything he said). And then came the epic afterschool tantrums.
Yes, my big kid who I thought had abandoned tantrums years before was breaking down in a major way. And if I thought things were bad when he was littler, holy shit, I didn’t know what was coming. Watching a big kid freak the eff out is disturbing to say the least. I remember frantically closing the windows, hoping the neighbors didn’t hear the wails that were emanating from my home, because it was loud AF.
What was he tantrumming about? At first, I honestly didn’t know. There was a month or two where a handful of days each week, something would set him off. A small thing, like the fact that I had forgotten to get him a bagel afterschool, or that his dad wouldn’t help him complete a level in a certain video game. Little things that hadn’t bothered him before.
And he would morph into a little child, crumpling to the floor, kicking his legs and screaming his head off.
At first, I had no clue what to do. I was shocked, and now I was truly convinced I had done something wrong as a mom, or that there was something seriously wrong with him. But what? He wasn’t having issues in school, he was developing normally – he’d just been to the doctor and gotten a clean bill of health.
Disciplining him did not help. If I told him he needed to stop screaming or I’d take away X, Y, or Z, that only made matters worse. And honestly, because he wasn’t hurting anyone, and just crying and crying and crying, I didn’t think discipline was what he needed, and I certainly did not want to invalidate his feelings.
Eventually – after losing my shit a few times in front of him, which definitely did more harm than good – I decided that I needed to do something different. Time-outs definitely were not going to work (ever try giving an 8-year-old a timeout?!), but I knew that my son couldn’t just lie on the kitchen floor kicking and screaming, because that wasn’t good for anyone.
So I told him that he needed to go to his room, and that I would be going with him. He resisted at first, and then I did end up having to get my husband to carry him into his room, which wasn’t pretty at all.
Once we were in the smaller, safer space of his room, I began to let my instincts take over. I decided to stop analyzing the situation too much. I thought to myself: “What would I want if I was really upset and I couldn’t articulate why, and I couldn’t stop crying?”
And that’s when things really clicked for me. I wrapped my son in his favorite blanket, and I said, “You can totally be upset, and you don’t have to tell me why. I’m here for you when you are ready to talk.” Then I added: “Just turn down the volume a few notches, please?”
At first, nothing changed. But soon, the screaming turned to sobs, and his body stopped heaving so violently. I was sitting next to him and eventually he crept over to me and lay his head down on my knee.
“Sometimes I have a really bad day, and just need to cry,” I said. And he nodded. He began to tell me about recess, how the boys hadn’t picked him for the kickball team he wanted to be on. And then, at math time, how the teacher had misheard his answer and how he hated to be wrong. The list went on…just everyday second grade stress, but through the lens of a kid who was feeling extra sensitive these past few months.
And that’s just what it was: 8 years old was just an extra sensitive time for my son. Maybe it was something developmental. Maybe there was extra stress in our house that he was picking up on. Maybe he was just having a shitty year.
I don’t remember when the tantrums started to pass, but they did, just like all the hard kid stuff. It was hard, but even harder than the tantrums themselves was the judgment I was putting on the whole situation. I really had no idea that big kids could have tantrums. But they can. I opened up about it to a few friends who had similar age kids, and there were some knowing nods. And my friends with teenagers? They nodded even more vigorously.
I think the problem is that we don’t talk about these things. But then we don’t end up getting any support. So I’m here to tell you that older kids can have epic toddler-style tantrums too. It’s normal. It mostly has to do with the fact that big kids have GIANT feelings sometimes and still don’t have the faculties to process them like a reasonable person. The truth is, sometimes even us adults don’t know how to do that.
Obviously if your bigger kid is unable to function or if the tantrums are absolutely uncontrollable or harming others, you should speak to your pediatrician or a child psychologist. But I’ve found that most of the time, just “holding space” for your kid’s feelings and letting them know that you are ready to talk when they’re ready, is all that’s needed. Oh, and if they’re hungry, feed them!
Most of all, know that this will pass eventually, just like those darn toddler tantrums did. And then hold tight, because I’m told that big kid tantrum have nothing on teenage ones. OMFG.