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What to Do When a Young Child Rages

Does your child ever have major tantrums? When I say ‘major,’ I mean thrashing about, knocking furniture over or even trying to attack you?

Sometimes a child can become majorly dysregulated; only using the more primitive survival-focused parts of the brain. Children who have experienced trauma are most likely to have such dysregulation, but it is also present sometimes with young children with no history of trauma due to immaturity of the still-developing brain. You can tell the child is dysregulated because he or she is acting like a scared animal. The child is not talking and is hitting or kicking and perhaps throwing furniture. Sometimes when an adult sees a child in this state, he or she might unintentionally add to the child’s distress and frantic behaviors without intending. Below are the essential things to consider when a child is severely dysregulated (and obviously in a safe environment, not somewhere dangerous like a street):

  • Get at or below the child’s eye level and stay in one place. If the child comes at you, though, take back your position of authority by standing back up.

  • Do not touch the child while he is in a dysregulated state. The child’s whole system is completely overwhelmed and extra touch just makes things worse. Plus, in such a fight or flight state, most children respond to touch or an approaching person as if being attacked.

  • Make a point to take deep breaths. Hopefully the child will unconsciously imitate you and also take a deep breath which will help him or her calm. Either way, it can help you remain calm.

  • Say as few words as possible. Now is not the time for teaching or lectures. Instead name the child’s apparent emotions while trying to mirror the child’s feeling repeatedly until the child shows sign of understanding you understand. For example, with a grumpy look on your face, “ooh, you do not want to turn off the tv. Why does it have to be bedtime already? Watching tv is way better than bedtime.”

  • If the child is doing something dangerous then state limit while giving choice of how. “I see you are so mad. Kicking the wall is not safe. You may kick one of the pillows instead.”

After a while you should see signs that the child is calming. You might notice breaks in his or her yelling or his or her thrashing movements will lessen. Usually once a child is calm enough he or she will walk over and be near their parent or caregiver. At this point you can have a conversation with the child but make sure you remain empathetic of the child’s perspective. This is not the time to give the child a lecture on the reasons he or she needs to follow rules, or in the earlier example, go to sleep. Rather, “Oh, wow. You were so mad that it was bedtime, weren’t you? I’m sorry you felt that mad.” If the child has made a mess while he was upset, I suggest that the parent help the child clean it up or at least continue having an empathetic tone while the child cleans it up. Remember that this is a time of repair. A time for the child to get back to feeling okay through the relationship and understanding he or she has with you, the parent.

One other major point to consider If you have a child who becomes extremely dysregulated, is to make sure all the child’s caregivers understand how to respond. This includes educating your child’s school about how to respond to your child when he or she gets dysregulated. I have experienced many school staff who unfortunately further exacerbate the child’s behavior.

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