Where did THAT come from?! All you did was ask your son to pick his clothes up off the floor. Or asked how his day was. Then, whoa! He reacted by biting your head off…or throwing his stuff on the floor…or stomping off…or all of the above.
Out-of-nowhere explosive responses begin to pop up a lot in the early elementary years—especially from our sweet (not-so-little-anymore) boys. Left unanswered, they can last for years.
Their short fuses are actually a stage.
Beginning around ages 5 to 7, boys start paying more attention to their peer group and learning what it means to be a boy, says Lele Diamond, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in San Francisco. They pick up the idea that they should be tough and strong to fit in—and that it’s OK to be competitive and assertive but not OK to feel lost or needy or overwhelmed.
And that leaves them struggling when they feel criticized or cornered.
“Boys have much less margin where they can go with emotions. That leads to eruptions,” Diamond says.
We can teach them a better way.
Just because a boy starts flying off the handle doesn’t mean he’s going to have aggressive behavior problems for life. But it’s a red flag that he needs help developing the skills of taming his temper and expressing his emotions better.
It just takes a little guidance and practice:
1. First the hard part: Stay calm.
“What you want to avoid is snapping back,” Diamond says. “Otherwise it’s just going to escalate.”
So skip the yelling and scolding. But you don’t want to over-engage in a preachy way, either. “When a boy has big emotions, it’s not the time to sit down and talk about it,” she says. There’s too much anxiety and tension for him to really self-reflect and learn.
Try this: As a first step, simply let him know that his behavior wasn’t appropriate. Try “That wasn’t OK to say to me.”
If he continues to grouse, focus on calming him: “I think this is one of those times you need to take some deep breaths.”
2. Give him a second chance.
Even though temper outbursts can seem to come out of nowhere, you can bet there’s probably something else lurking in the background—a school concern, hunger, being overtired, a fight with a friend—that’s bothering him or causing him some stress.
It helps to look past his knee-jerk reaction and keep the conversation going, if possible, in ways that gently steer him to a more civilized response.
Try this: Ask, “Would you like to try that again?” This reassures him that you’re still willing to listen. If he’s been particularly offensive, you can say, “I’m going to give you a chance to save yourself. Are you ready?” If he continues with the outburst or it gets worse, then it may be time for him to take a break from the conversation or situation in order to calm down—possibly some alone time in his room for a “break.”
Or try a little rhetorical-question humor. Simply ask, “Hmmm, how am I going to respond to that?”
This slows a kid down and gives him a minute to “turn on the logical part of his brain,” Diamond says—the part responsible for cause-and-effect thinking. He just might pause, even in the heat of the moment, to think a little more carefully and recognize that his temper has gotten the best of him.
In some instances, you can also choose to “let it go”—while still maintaining authority. Diamond suggests: “I know you had a hard day. And I’m going to give you a pass. But on a normal day, this behavior will have consequences.”
3. Talk about it—later.
Don’t just breathe a sigh of relief after the explosion is over. You’ll also want to make a point of talking about how he manages his feelings. Approach it like you would any other subject, like school or sports. Focus on the idea of improving his skills. Emphasize that it’s OK to have a range of emotions—you just have to learn how to express them.
Try this: Choose a time to chat—well after the trigger incident—when your son seems relaxed and receptive. Good opportunities with boys: during car rides (1:1 listening without the face-to-face pressure) or while tossing a ball back and forth.
Say something like, “Your feelings got away from you earlier. I get it. I have those days too. But you’ve still got to learn how to handle those feelings.”
Reassure him that you’ll help him through it: “When you’re having strong feelings, it’s hard to make a good choice to express yourself. But it’s worth working on it, and I’m going to help you.” Let him know you have to manage your feelings when you’re upset too (maybe like how you want to yell back sometimes but refrain).
Keeping your response to flare-ups nonjudgmental is key. Diamond suggests explaining it this way: “Usually when you feel anger, or you feel like hurting someone you love, you’ve gotten overwhelmed by your emotions. It’s a sign that you’re holding too much in your heart. You need to slow down and talk about it.”
Extending his fuse is just like teaching any other social skill.
Kids need to know that everybody has a big range of feelings—including anger, annoyance, frustration, and others they might not even know the names of. And they’re all okay. There’s no shame in feeling what you feel.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to express those feelings, starting with treating Mom or Dad (or teachers or coaches or siblings, or anyone) with some basic respect—and sometimes a deep breath or two!