Q: Our 9-year-old son (middle child) is just very immature and over reacts when things don’t go his way. He consistently makes five cent problems into fifty dollar problems. Now it’s starting to effect his ability to have friends. At home, we step in to calm the situation down. However, at school among peers, his outbursts are heartbreaking. Nobody wants to be around him. We recently moved and the problems with friendships have followed. How can we help him reign in these emotions?
A: Yes, it is heartbreaking when a child’s reactions make him unlikeable or have trouble with friends. It’s not at all unusual that a 9-year-old would have trouble with self-control. That’s what he needs to work on, but you’ve contributed to the problem by always stepping in to calm the situation at home—that action, while done with the best intentions, has robbed your son of countless opportunities to learn to master himself.
So first, you need to stop stepping in to calm him down at home. He needs the practice in a safe environment like home. Before he gets upset, say that you’ve noticed he’s having trouble overreacting (give one recent example), and that at home, when he has a tantrum (might as well call it like it is), he must go directly to a special room (like an unused guest room, or powder room, etc.) and stay there until he’s regained control of himself. You’ll remind me to go there. This isn’t a punishment per se, but a tool to help a child gain control over his actions.
Next, tell him (at a separate time) that his self-control muscle is flabby, like a piece of wet spaghetti. That’s causing him to not get along with friends at school and to have crying or screaming episodes. Ask him how those episodes make him feel. If he can’t express it, say that you bet he feels pretty awful in the midst of such episodes.
To strengthen his self-control muscle into a sword (or light saber), he needs some tools. Ask him what he thinks he could do to not overreact. He might have some really good ideas. Tell him to write those down. If he comes up blank, suggest a few calming measures, like counting to ten in his head, taking deep breaths, walking away from the situation, putting his head down on his desk, etc. (I’d also tell his teacher that you’re working with him on self control so that if he puts his head down, she’ll leave him alone for a minute or two). Our elementary school has a “take a break” corner with a chair in every classroom where kids can go if they need a minute to regain control, calm their thoughts, etc. It’s an excellent way for kids to learn how to control themselves, so perhaps there might be a similar method in his classroom.
Remember, giving him complete ownership of this problem will help him solve it more quickly than your stepping in.