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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Screaming tantrum & hitting...4yo new behavior..What are the possible causes of this behaviour?

    Son has recently started showing signs of anger and having breakout tantrum type episodes where he screams and starts to hit me with his hands and legs, this is usually around sleeping time...mid nap or during the night if he is woken or wakes up before it is time. I have noticed this behavior during the day a couple of times too.. Sometimes around being disciplined... No you cant do that or son that is not a nice thing to do because...types of talks/discipline..I avoid physical discipline of the children and never physically violent with his mother when we were together.. interim custody - a weekend then weekday the following week etc. 9mths separated. the new care arrangement seemed to be going great since March..previously only 1 day care however now there seems to be something wrong? Surfboard/Stiff Screaming action with arms waving to hit you...may happen 2-3 times in one session. I know son is finding this separation hard..how can i help him?
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    I have been working in Eltham, Melbourne as a relationship and family counsellor for over twelve years. I draw on current theory and research about … View Profile

    There are many possible reasons your son may be expressing his distress in the way you describe. Children (especially young children) let us know how they are feeling through their behaviour, rather than being able to tell us with their words. He may be showing you he feels sad, or scared - whether about being disciplined, or about waking up in a place that is not so famiiar. If you would like to learn more about what may be going on for him, a place to start may be to see a family therapist, or a child psychologist, who can ask you more questions and observe your little one's behaviour in order to work out what is going on, and to give you some strategies for helping him settle.

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    Dr Janine Clarke

    Clinical Psychologist, Psychologist

    Dr Janine Clarke is a Clinical Psychologist with experience working with individuals and couples. Janine has trained extensively in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and … View Profile

    It may help you to know that tantrums, although unpleasant, are common in young children, especially when their emotions become overwhelming.  Not able to use language effectively to communicate their feelings, and not knowing what to do when unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness and frustration show up, tantrums become a way for young children to let us know that they are struggling and that they need our help.

    All of the things that you mention, including discipline, changes in routine and changes in family circumstances, are potential 'tantrum triggers' for very young children.  That you have a good idea of the situations that are likely to be distressing for your son is helpful.  It means that you will be able to plan for situations and times when a tantrum might occur.

    Here a few things that you and your son might find helpful when he next becomes distressed:  

    • Try and remain calm yourself when a tantrum starts - take a few deep breaths to help you manage your own feelings and try to avoid screaming and shouting 
    • Use words that your son will understand to reassure him that you have noticed that he seems angry or mad or upset - this will help him to start labelling his own emotions
    • If you are able to notice your son's distress building, perhaps suggest a change in activity.  Helping him shift his awarenss to other things might reduce the likelihood of a trantrum occuring
    • Stay with your son so that both of you know that he is safe until the distress passes.  As much as possible use a calm and gentle voice to help soothe him.
    • If it is possible, some children respond well to a very firm hug when they are overwhelmed with distress - the type of hug that enables them to feel a parent breathe slowly, so bring him close to your chest (you may need to crouch).  If you are able to try this, what you might notice is that after a minute or so, your son's breathing will be slower and deeper too.

    I hope you find this helpful.

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