Help! My Daughter Is Out of Control

“My daughter is out of control, and I don’t know what to do. She screams and screams, and there’s no way to stop her. There’s no talking with her, no reasoning with her, no bribing her, no distracting her, no consoling her. I’m at my wits’ end. I admit, I often resort to yelling at her or spanking her, because I don’t know what else to do. Nothing we have tried has worked. Yesterday, it was because she didn’t want to get in her car seat to go to school. We had to go, or I was going to be late for work, so I wrestled her into the seat while she was kicking and flailing. She screamed throughout the twenty minute ride to preschool. She was fine once we got there. She doesn’t act like this at school, just at home with my husband and me. I just don’t understand it. Why is she like this? My daughter is three. I thought temper tantrums were supposed to become less frequent and less severe once the “terrible twos” were past, but my daughter’s temper tantrums are getting worse and more frequent. Can you help me?”

I understand the frustration you are feeling, but in this situation, your “out of control” child is in need of  just as much understanding, support, and compassion as you are. A three year old child who is screaming and melting down on a frequent basis is a child in crisis. She is literally screaming for attention and asking for your help in the only way she knows how to.

Doctor Gordon Neufeld says that the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking, reasoning part of the brain- the “wise leader”) begins to develop from five to seven years of age. Therefore, our expectations are unrealistic if we are expecting our two, three, or four year old children to make sense of their emotions or be reasonable when they are upset. Even children who are five to seven years of age are just in the beginning stages of learning how to regulate their emotions. It is our role to help young children develop the skills to make good decisions, control their emotions and bodies, and develop empathy and self-understanding.

Young children do not have the ability to think rationally about their experiences and feelings and then calmly explain to adults what is troubling them. They are just developing an “emotional” vocabulary; they are prone to experiencing poweful, overwhelming emotions, and they may not know why they are feeling so out of sorts. They rely on the adults in their lives to observe, to listen, to interpret, and to help them manage and express emotions appropriately. When things get too out of balance, they may “act out” their pain, anger, and frustration, or “flip their lids” as Doctor Daniel Siegel (author of  The Whole Brain Child)  says.

Doctor Siegel does a great job of explaining what is happening in our brains when a melt down or tantrum occurs. He suggests closing your fingers around your thumb to make a fist. Think of this as your brain. The hidden thumb in the center of your palm represents the “downstairs” brain – the amygdala – the “alarm center” and area of big emotions. The fingers that close over the thumb represent the “upstairs” thinking part of the brain. As children grow, they slowly develop the ability to be upset but express  feelings calmly, but only if the thinking, “upstairs” part of the brain is still in connection with the “downstairs” emotion/instinct area. When we (a child or an adult) get really upset, we literally “flip our lids”! The fingers rise up and the “upstairs” brain is no longer in connection with the “downstairs”  part of the brain, and that’s when a child or an adult may lose control.

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