When working with a group of parents recently, the question was asked, “why does my four year old keep having temper tantrums?”

I asked the parent to talk about the last time this happened. She began to tell me about what happened when the little girl was melting down. I asked again, but told the Mom that I wanted to know what had happened well BEFORE the tantrum. The parent answered by describing a very busy day with preschool, swimming lessons, and sitting in the car while driving to pick up an older child at soccer practice. I asked about naps and was told that this child no longer took naps since she began in the afternoon preschool class.

The tantrum happened during a dinner at a friend’s house. The child had been whining and defiant and when the children received their dinner, the little girl screamed that she didn’t like that food and threw it on the floor. the parents tried to get her to stop yelling and kicking. they finally left the friend’s house and went home. The child was put sobbing to bed. The Mom reported that both the parents and child felt terrible at the end. The mother was convinced that she needed to be doing something else. “Should I be more firm? Should I have punished her right away when she threw the food?” asked the Mom.

I then explained that all behavior has something that happens before the tantrum that causes the behavior. No one acts in a vacuum. That is why it is important to understand first what is happening. In this case, I asked the mother when these tantrums started. She said that they didn’t really happen when the child was two like she expected. She thought maybe they started about six months earlier. When I had the mother examine her child’s schedule, she realized that that is also when the little girl stopped taking naps. With the time freed up from having to be home to nap, the child began to be involved with more activities.

At this point, the parent looked at me and a light went on in her eyes. “Oh, my. She is probably overtired. Is she doing too much?”

I answered by saying, “Remember, children need down time to relax. Actually everyone needs it, but children can still act out dramatically when they are trying to tell you that there is too much going on in their lives. Try not to schedule so many things, and give your daughter some time to do nothing. ”

Two weeks later, the mother called to say that things were far less tense for both her and her daughter. The mother felt more confident which made easy to regain her sense of good parenting.

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Gina Crozier, the director of Sonoma Family Counseling has been working with families and children for over thirty years. Her style of counseling is positive, solution-focused with the idea that within everyone there is the ability to solve their problems.