Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School, and expert on child behavior, offers his tips for parents of children with rage and temper issues.
What distinguishes a temper tantrum from a rage?
The difference between a temper tantrum and a rage is in the eye of the beholder. But presumably, because this is not well-defined, there are different extremes of behavior that one could exhibit when one is upset that I suppose some people could think of as the difference between a temper outburst and a rage. It's not a distinction I think quite frankly is worth making. Because whether a kid is screaming at us, or swearing at us or hitting us, or punching a hole in a wall, or holding his breath and turning red, irrespective of severity, the child is letting us know something is getting in his way and we need to figure out what that something is and help him with it.
What can you do to help a child in a tantrum or rage?
The first thing you do is you get the right lenses on. Instead of, as we have historically done, seeing the behavior as attention seeking, manipulative, coercive, unmotivated, we now recognize the kids who are exhibiting those behaviors are lacking the skills to respond to frustration in a manner that's more adaptive. Responding to frustration adaptively requires skills. If you don't have those skills, you're going to scream, hit, kick, swear, throw, bite, bang your head, something. So the first thing we've got to do is make sure the adults in the kid's life have the right lenses on.
Often, adults describe the behavior of these kids as if they're “always challenging.” These kids are never “always challenging.” They are challenging under specific conditions that I call unsolved problems. What conditions cause challenging behavior? Conditions in which the skills the kids are lacking are demanded by the environment. If the environment is not demanding skills a kid is lacking, he's not going to be challenging at that moment. If the environment is demanding skills that a kid is lacking, we've greatly increased the likelihood of a challenging episode.
Basically there are two ways to solve a problem with a kid. One I call Plan A, the other I call Plan B. Plan A is when you're solving the problem unilaterally, through imposition of adult will, usually with adult-imposed consequences attached. The best way to get a challenging kid to exhibit challenging behavior is to do Plan A.
What I teach people how to do is Plan B—that's when you're solving problems collaboratively. This involves gathering information about what the kid's concern or perspective is on the unsolved problem you're talking to them about. Then, letting a kid know your perspective on that unsolved problem. And then, working toward solutions that address the concerns of both parties.