Are you concerned about your 7-year-old throwing tantrums or having meltdowns?
We enter parenthood expecting tantrum behaviors in the toddler years because we’ve been warned about the “terrible twos.” Knowing this makes it a little easier when your two-year-old has a toddler tantrum after a long day.
Even more, our culture expects young children to display negative behaviors at times. However, when older children lose it in the middle of the grocery store, it’s no longer culturally acceptable.
When your child’s behavior becomes out of control in a public place, you likely want to curl up into a ball and hide.
Of course, you can’t do that, but at the moment, you don’t know what to do. You know that if you use some authoritarian approach, it’s gonna end up like all the other power struggles in the past.
So, what in the world are you supposed to do with an older child who’s losing it as part of their daily life?!
Friend, I get it 100%. I’ve been there and am here to help.
Today, we’re talking about the best way to support your 7-year-old (or any older child) who’s throwing tantrums.
Specifically, we’ll discuss how to encourage positive behavior the next time they experience strong emotions.
Table of Contents
- Why Do Kids Throw Tantrums?
- What’s the Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown?
- Why Is My 7-Year-Old Throwing Tantrums?
- The Power of Our Response
- Behaviorism Can Hurt Your Child
- Causes of Temper Tantrums
- 7 Self-Regulation Skills to End Tantrums
- 1. Prioritize Emotional Regulation
- 2. Create an Emotionally Intelligent Family Culture
- 3. Felt Safety
- 4. Co-Regulation
- 5. Collaboration
- 6. Be Curious & Reflect
- 7. Professional Support
- Recap: My 7-year-old is Throwing Tantrums
Why Do Kids Throw Tantrums?
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, throwing tantrums is a normal part of child development. In fact, they say that between the ages of 1-3 years old, you should expect toddler temper tantrums.
Young children do not have the language skills to articulate negative feelings in a healthy and effective way. Rather, before preschool age, kids often express those strong feelings in the form of frequent tantrums.
Now, fortunately for some, the good news is that many children outgrow temper tantrums by 4 years of age.
Unfortunately, as you and I both know, that’s not always the case.
What’s the Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown?
First things first.
What exactly do we mean by tantrum?
Are all behavioral problems considered tantrums?
And, what’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown? Is one better than the other?
Ok. Let’s clarify a bit here.
Control or Out of Control
According to Child Mind Institute, neither term (tantrum nor meltdown) is an official clinical term. However, they make the distinction between the two as follows.
- Milder outbursts, in which the child maintains some control over their behavior.
- A child loses control to the point that the behavior subsides after the child completely wears themselves out. Understood.org includes the role of sensory overwhelm in meltdowns. Further, they emphasize removing sensory input as an effective strategy to diffuse meltdowns.
Specifically, Understood.org, levels the playing field between children and adults by acknowledging that both children and adults have tantrums and meltdowns.
In the end, it’s important to clarify our language when it comes to children’s behavior. By doing so, we’re better able to equip our children with effective tools that will lead to better days.
Why Is My 7-Year-Old Throwing Tantrums?
Let’s face it.
We all want our children to develop good behavior habits. However, when your daily routine includes dodging an older child’s poor or aggressive behavior, you’ve got to do something.
Sadly, most of us have been conditioned to believe that all behavior is willful disobedience. However, it’s a good idea to examine that mindset because nothing could be further from the truth.
There are a number of reasons why older kids have emotional outbursts.
And that means with a little digging, we can help them get to the root issues behind hard behaviors. And then, we can help them.
The Power of Our Response
Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and mom of three, says this in her book, Good Inside,
“We all mess up… at every age we have difficult moments when we behave in ways that are less than ideal. But, our early years are especially powerful… Our bodies are beginning to wire how we think about and respond to difficult moments based on how our parents think about and respond to us in our difficult moments.”
What does this tell us as parents?
How we respond to our children’s behavioral issues become part of their internal dialogue in the long run.
Behaviorism Can Hurt Your Child
This fear-based approach to raising and educating children is rooted in the behaviorism theory of development by Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner.
According to Very Well Mind, the behaviorism approach,
“gives no consideration to internal thoughts or feelings.”
Behavioralism is based on a system of controlling outward behaviors of children means of rewards, punishments, consequences, and the like.
When outward compliance is prioritized over the internal experiences of the child, we set them up for a lifetime of mental health challenges.
Learn More in Behind the Behavior Book!
Mental Health in the US
According to the NIH, close to 20% of US adults have a mental health diagnosis. Those are just the people who sought support.
Just imagine the sheer number of people who are walking around undiagnosed! Think about the rates of the following.
- drug addiction,
The point is the traditional approach of behavior modification has not led to a mentally or emotionally healthy population.
According to the same NIH data, 49.5% of US adolescents have a diagnosable mental disorder!
If your 7-year-old is throwing tantrums, there’s so much you can do to change the narrative for your child.
Causes of Temper Tantrums
Children develop in different ways and at different times which means it’s important to understand the why behind your child’s tantrums.
Older kids react with explosive behaviors for some of the same reasons that preschoolers do. Some reasons older children have challenging behavior include the following.
- Lack of language skills
- Sensory processing issues
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- Lack of proper sleep and nutrition
- Inappropriate expectations of behavior by adults
While the above causes could be behind your child’s tantrums, it’s important to know that you have a lot of power. Specifically, you can support your child’s behavior in the long term in the following ways.
7 Self-Regulation Skills to End Tantrums
Self-regulation refers to the ability to monitor our internal state in order to control our reactions. In other words, strong self-regulation skills allow us to override big emotions in order to make an appropriate response.
Today, we’ll explore four self-regulation skills to help put an end to your child’s tantrums. This is in no way a quick fix, but, it’s a recipe for long-term success.
- Emotional Regulation,
- Create an Emotionally Intelligent Family Culture,
- Be Curious,
- Seek professional help
Regardless, the best strategy to navigate your child’s hard behaviors is to provide them with the tools they need to make a different choice next time.
Here are 5 simple self-regulation skills and tools for your child.
A Note on Social Norms
Within the norms of our culture, self-regulation may include the caveat that responses be in line with socially acceptable ways of behavior.
However, these social norms are not always appropriate for the individual child.
For example, within some classrooms, kids are often told to use their inside voice. This is code for quiet.
However, all kids are different and we need to caution against labeling behaviors as good and bad. Sadly, many neurodivergent children are shamed by use of behavioral charts based on such arbitrary norms.
I’m a louder person and in my classroom, a loud, excited voice can be a very good thing.
1. Prioritize Emotional Regulation
The first step for both you and your child is to prioritize emotional regulation. This means that you need to intentionally teach your child to tune into their internal world.
- physical bodily sensations associated with the two
As we’ve discussed previously, kids need language in order to express their internal worlds. Way too many adults have never learned this skill and are suffering from it.
Here’s the deal.
When we were younger and had a meltdown or tantrum, we were told to:
Use your words.
The problem is that we were NEVER given the emotional vocabulary to “use our words.”
It’s essential to give your child the self-regulation tool of language.
Let me give you a good example of this.
I’ll never forget the first time my 4-year-old son came to me with these exact words.
“I feel frustrated!”
From the age of 18 months, angry outbursts and destructive behavior were the norm. He hit, kicked, bit, scratched, and screamed for years.
Intense feelings crept up whenever he was denied what he wanted. And they were too powerful for him or me to control for years.
However, that day, was the first time he did the right thing. After introducing emotional vocabulary into our family culture, my boy finally “used his words.”
And that was a HUGE win!
Now, I’d like to tell you that one self-regulation tool was all he needed. That after that day, he graduated with a Ph.D. in Anger Management, and family life was peaceful from then on.
But, that’s not how it works. To serve my son and family well, I had to radically shift my perspective on the brain and behavior.
And that meant I had to have the long game in mind for my boy.
Positive Childhood Experiences & Adult Health
One way to shift your mindset around your child’s tantrums is to think about your long-term goal for that child.
Our kids will spend 75-80% of their lives as adults.
Research shows that Positive Childhood Experiences (PCE) greatly impact adult mental and relational health.
Such PCEs include:
- Nurturing family members
- Family cohesion & belonging
- Agency, mastery
- Collaborative problem solving
- Co-regulation, balancing family needs
- Self-efficacy (Belief in one’s ability to execute a task and succeed)
- Positive family outlook
- Routines & rituals
- Belief that life has meaning
These are the types of goals I keep in mind when navigating difficult behaviors in my children. Ultimately, this leads me to lead my interactions with “Relationship first.“
2. Create an Emotionally Intelligent Family Culture
Another key way for you to help your child develop their self-regulation skills is this. Create an emotionally intelligent family culture.
1. Read Social-Emotional Books
Social-Emotional books are books that teach children about their feelings, thoughts, and social interactions. They’re a great tool to help your child develop their emotional intelligence.
Check out this list of feelings books and choose one to start the conversation about feelings.
For example, the first feelings book I read to my son was Michael Gordon’s book, When I Am Angry.
The bright and engaging illustrations captured his attention. He could relate to the main character, a boy named Josh.
Like my son, Josh was a highly sensitive child who felt things deeply. He often had a tough time controlling his powerful emotions and struggled with tantrums.
This picture book was one social-emotional tool helped my son learn how to better identify and handle his own hard feelings.
2. Use a Visual Emotional Support Tool
I Know What to Do When I’m Feeling is a flip-chart type book that helps kids identify their feelings.
Further, it helps kids think through ideas of what to do when they’re experiencing different feelings.
3. Model Your Own Feelings and Mental Processes
One of the easiest things you can do to help your child overcome tantrums is to model your internal world.
For me, this meant that I intentionally model my own internal experiences.
For example, while in the kitchen making dinner, I may say something like this.
Earlier today, I got my feelings hurt by a friend. Then I felt this heavy feeling in my chest and I wanted to cry. So I called Daddy for a few minutes and he let me cry.
Wow! That made me feel so much better.
By using these three strategies, you’ll begin to create an emotionally-intelligent culture in your home.
This can help your child feel safe to verbalize and address the feelings and thoughts that often lead to tantrums.
Further, as your child develops emotional awareness and language skills, you’re more likely to identify tantrum triggers.
Awareness of our habits and patterns is the first step to changing them.
3. Felt Safety
Felt safety is foundational to any relationship, but especially to the parent-child relationship.
Your relationship with your child is your number one parenting tool. Because of this, it’s critical to be your child’s safe place.
As the late Dr. Karyn Purvis writes in her book, The Connected Child,
Most of our own parents relied on fear-based discipline. As children, we feared punishment… Raised on fear, we now rely on fear with our own children.
A child’s primary need is to feel safe with their caregiver. Your child must believe that they’re deeply and unconditionally loved by you.
Specifically, your child must be confident that your love is not conditional based on their behavior.
A basic understanding of the 3 part-brain can help us better understand the need for felt safety.
Felt Safety in the Middle of a Tantrum
What does this all mean in the moment of the tantrum?
When your child is in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown, lower your body to your child’s level.
This lessens the fight-flight-freeze response in the amygdala. The amygdala is located in the area of the brain controlling your child’s volatile reaction at that moment.
Your goal is to help that part of your child’s brain calm down. Further, lowering yourself to your child’s level creates a space for connection and safety with your child.
This is part of the larger process of co-regulation.
Important Note About Eye Contact:
Do not force eye contact with a dysregulated child.
This will only lead to greater stimulation and increase the stress response.
When your older child is dysregulated or having an emotional outburst, it’s essential to co-regulate.
Co-regulation is the process where parents help children learn to self-regulate by connecting with and attuning to them in hard moments.
This stands in opposition to behavioralism based parenting strategies that send a child to their room until they can “learn to behave.”
There’s no healthy self-regulation without first experiencing co-regulation with a compassionate, attuned, caregiver. Be that for your child.
Let’s look at an example of how to offer co-regulation whan a 7 year old is throwing a tantrum.
7 Year Old Throwing a Tantrum
Seven-year-old Billy just walks into the house from playing outside with the neighborhood kids. His face looks distraught as he runs straight to his room and slams the door.
You’re about to go check in on him when your youngest distracts you with their needs.
About ten minutes later, you hear banging and yelling coming from Billy’s room.
1. You take a deep breath to activate the calming part of your nervous system and approach his room.
2. Slowly, you open the door and observe.
Billy’s screaming while he throws toys, books, etc across the room. He’s completely dysregulated and out of control.
(To the outside world, it looks like he’s in the middle of a tantrum, but you know better.)
3. You calmly enter the room and say,
Hey, Bud. Woah. You seem really angry right now.”
He chucks another book to the floor.
“I hate them so much!”
The lightbulb goes off in your head. You gently engage with curiousity.
Buddy, deep breaths. What’s going on?
In that moment, he realizes you’re safe and spills the beans about how the boys up the street ganged up on him.
4. You kneel to his level and attune to his possible thoughts and feelings.
That must have felt isolating to you. I can imagine I’d feel rejected and alone if my friends did that to me. That doesn’t feel good.
5. Once he’s calm, then you address the mess.
Well, that was tough. But now, look at this mess. Your poor toys didn’t do anything wrong. Let’s work together to clean this mess up.
Once you two work as a team to clean up, you can say something like,
Ok. We did it. Now, let’s try to come up with some ideas of what to do next time you get your feelings hurt.
Remember, this is one step towards the child learning appropriate self-regulation.
Layer Upon Layer
Each experiences is meant to lead to another.
When that next hard moment comes, he’ll have a new tool in his emotional regulation tool belt.
Specifically, he’ll have the memory of mom’s support the last time he was hurting inside. That will guide his internal experience in a positive direction.
But, what comes next?
When the time is right, collaborate with your child. Discuss emotional regulation activities that may help your child find calm before the explosion.
Make it a fun experience.
Print out the list of 47 emotional regulation activities and go through them with your older child. Using this list, brainstorm activities that your child can use to navigate hard times.
Does your child like to ride bikes? Play with kinetic sand?
A family therapist friend of mine suggests the following criteria to help kids come up with healthy coping strategies.
- Good for you
- Good for others
- Be easy to do
- Make you feel better
These questions are often associated with an emotional regulation activity called, “Making Cope Cakes.”
However, they can be helpful questions to ask as your child builds up an emotional regulation toolbox.
The colloboration alone can strengthen your relationship and increase your child’s sense of agency. Both of these are healthy Positive Childhood Experiences.
6. Be Curious & Reflect
After your older child throws a tantrum, have you every found yourself beating yourself up? Have you ever said something like this to yourself?
I’m the worst mother. Why can’t I control my kid? I suck.
This is a trap and a surefire way to mentally spin out of control.
Rather than beating yourself up about your child’s tantrums, be curious about them. Ask yourself the following questions.
- What was the need behind that behavior?
- If I behaved that way when I was young, what would I be thinking about myself?
- What happened before this emotional outburst?
- Did my child get enough sleep last night?
- What happened at school today? In church this morning?
By being curious, you’re better able to support your child. Dive deeper into this process in Barely Surviving to Outright Thriving.
Curiosity is a Job
Often parents and teachers will say something like,
He threw a fit in the middle of the grocery store for no apparent reason.
The problem is that there’s always a reason behind the behavior.
And if we train ourselves to spend time assessing our kids’ hard behaviors in the short term, we get closer to the real issue.
And over time, that can lead to fewer tantrums.
Further, curiosity gives us a job to do. More specifically, it gives us a place to focus our emotional energy in response to our child’s bad day.
7. Professional Support
I truly believe that mental health support is a worthwhile investment for everyone in the family. If your child’s tantrums, meltdowns, and hard behaviors become a safety issue, seek help.
That professional help can be specifically for your child. Is your child experiencing underlying anxiety or sensory issues that are at the root of their outbursts?
The following types of professionals can help you and your child.
- Occupational Therapist
- A private occupational therapist has a solid understanding of the brain and behavior. They can help you find root sensory issues that may be contributing to emotional regulation and challenging behavior.
- Speech Language Pathologist
- A private speech-language pathologist can help you get to root language processing issues.
- Untreated language issues can lead to frustration and behaviors that look like disobedience.
- Trauma-Informed Play Therapist
- A trauma-informed play therapist is a fantastic professional to help you and your child work through underlying emotional issues.
- The trauma-informed label indicates that the therapist is aware of the brain’s need for safety.
- Additionally, play therapy can be much more effective for children and adults because it doesn’t rely on talking.
- Kids can work through hard things through play in a very effective way.
- EMDR Therapy:
- Many therapists will be certified in EMDR therapy.
- EMDR therapy is one of the most effective trauma-informed therapy practices out there.
- Child Psychologist:
- A private child psychologist can evaluate and diagnose mental health conditions such as:
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (These behaviors are most often associated with an underlying root issue.)
- A private child psychologist can evaluate and diagnose mental health conditions such as:
- Child Psychiatrist or Developmental Pediatrician:
- These mental health professionals can prescribe much-needed medication as part of a holistic approach to underlying conditions.
Think of yourself as the number one expert of your child.
Don’t let anyone make you feel incapable of supporting your child. In the long run, you’re the leader of your child’s team.
Create a strengths-based neurodiversity-affirming team to support your child.
Get Support for You
Lastly, get help for yourself.
Working with a solid trauma-informed therapist is one of the best investments you can give your entire family.
When you’re healthy and cared for, you can better support those you love.
Recap: My 7-year-old is Throwing Tantrums
The best time to equip your child with tools to better handle big emotions that lead to tantrums is every day. Implementing some of these strategies will make that happen naturally.
- Prioritze Emotional Regulation
- Emotionally Intelligent Family Culture
- Professional Support
Expect them to mess up a lot. And when that happens, offer patience, love, and plenty of time to practice their emotional regulation skills.
In the end, if your 7 year old is throwing tantrums, take a deep breath and pause. Think about what’s behind the behavior.
Then offer compassion and support.
You’re doing a great job, Friend! So, what do you think? Do these ideas resonate for your child?
Learn More in Behind the Behavior Book!