A 6-Year-Old Throws Tantrums Each Night At Bedtime. Her Parents Think She Is Acting Out. What Must They Bear In Mind?

Question: A 6-year-old throws temper tantrums each night at bedtime (8 p.m.). Her parents, who regularly get home at 6:30 p.m., think she is simply being adversarial. What might the parents need to consider in this case? (What they do not realize is that they both get home at 6:30 and by the time dinner is finished, they don't spend time with the child. What she really wants is some play time.)

Answer: Temper tantrums are really difficult. They're difficult for the child and they're difficult for the parent. They're incredibly annoying and they tend to evoke negative responses.

So a common response to a temper tantrum is for parents to be thinking that the child is attention seeking, is defiant, is oppositional, is doing something bad, and have a negative response.

And that's really not the right approach. It means the child is melting down for some reason and we need to figure out what's going on. So, one thing to do is remember: Don't try to reason with the child when the child is in a melted-down state. It will not work and may even exacerbate the problem.

I would step back and look at the pattern. What triggers these meltdowns? How often do they occur? What makes them stop? What else is going on that might account for this?

And in this situation, the parents might notice that they're happening at bedtime. So, at a calm moment, maybe over milk and cookies or at the bedside, ask the child: "You seem to be so angry and upset at bedtime. What's the problem? Are you scared? Are you scared of monsters? Are you afraid of the dark? Are you afraid of being alone?"

And the child might say: "I just want to play with you."

Bingo. You get an answer.

So, it may not happen the first time, but the rule of thumb is to keep at it. And often it's useful to ask somebody else who's around: your partner, a grandparent, an older sibling. It's very important in a hot situation like a temper tantrum to back away, gain some perspective and try to see the forest for the trees.