Worried About My Ten-Year-Old's Angry Outbursts

We have a very intelligent ten year old boy. He is the oldest of three children. He has always been very well liked by everyone and is full of confidence, not shy at all. He will get involved in all activities and try his best and have fun, but the temper tantrums over the last year are getting worse. He is a happy boy most the time but if we say "no" to something he can go into an extreme temper tantrum. He will throw things, tell us he hates us, say he hates his life, and he has been physical towards me. I find it hard sometimes to keep my cool and lash out at him.

I ask him about these tantrums and he says he can control them but they still happen. We punish him, but it is not working. Is this a serious problem or are we not handling this correctly. We are at our wits' end. After he has a tantrum he says he is sorry and then he is fine again. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your son is very physical, expressive and capable of apology. Still, he may be having difficulty expressing anger in a more productive manner. You are right to be concerned, as his self-esteem could suffer, if he is not able to express anger in a more constructive way.

It is our job as parents to help our children channel their aggressions appropriately. First, it is a good idea to talk with his teacher to explore how he is doing in school socially and academically. What are others' impressions of your son? Does he show any inappropriate aggression elsewhere or does he save it just for you?

If he is experiencing challenges at school, but does not show any particular social problems in the classroom or playground, he may just be "letting off steam" at home and with you because it is the only safe place to do so. Sometimes children experience spurts of this kind of selective fragmentation while adjusting to some other developmental challenge.

Consider also any emotional meaning to his lashing out at you. Does he have any specific complaints about your relationship? Does he feel "under pressure" by his Mom or Dad in some way that needs to come to awareness? Some children are sensitive to parental wishes for success in particular areas and may feel tension from parents' projections that are unintentional. Or, hidden fears that he will "turn out like Uncle Ernie" who suffered from schizophrenia, for example, can pressurize a child's responses to his environment.

Is he getting enough special time with Dad? This is a period where boys can become sensitive to their experience of their father's acceptance or disapproval. Separation from Mom may be psychologically pressing, and the need to be admired by his father could cause extra sensitivity if his relationship with his Dad is emotionally insecure.

Establish consistent and appropriate limits regarding hitting or kicking and follow through on consequences when house rules are broken. But do not stop there. Consider giving him tools to appropriately release and express anger and channel his physicality in some way. Be clear that he can be angry, but that violence is not acceptable. Do your part to be willing to hear and accept his angry feelings as well as his "happy" ones. Reflecting his "negative" as well as "positive" feelings may go a long way towards calming him and giving him an ability to sooth himself in a tense situation.

Would soccer, swimming, aikido classes or other forms of physical expression help him to release pent-up energy? Would words help? Reflect on whether you shy away from accepting angry words. If so, his physical outbursts may be his way of getting past your obstruction of his anger.

Finally, is he expressing anger that is a result of any tensions in your marital relationship? Children sometimes act out aggressively to release family tensions that are not being resolved. If your son continues to experience sudden and uncontrollable outbursts which disturb you, consider consulting a child therapist for an evaluation of what his particular needs may be at this point in his development.

It is sometimes the case that our children's needs are simply not apparent to us. We cannot see past our own blind spots. Outside observation can lend a perspective that allows the "ah ha" to occur that helps us help our children!

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