Care and Feeding

My Second Grader Still Has Colossal Temper Tantrums

What’s going on?

A girl having a temper tantrum.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My middle child is about to go into second grade. She’s an active, articulate, creative, and social child who does well in school both academically and socially. She also has massive, violent tantrums at home at least once a week. These fluctuate; sometimes they’re relatively mild and I can use calming and centering techniques to help her stay in control, but sometimes they are hours-long screaming tantrums complete with kicking and hitting and throwing things down the stairs. She has never fully toilet trained and frequently has accidents at home (though never at school) despite rewards systems, constant potty breaks and reminders, fiber supplements to make sure she’s not constipated, and my very best efforts to be supportive and not express anger or frustration or other negative emotions around toileting.

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Her dad is a special education professional and has a lot of experience writing and implementing behavior plans for kids with autism and ADHD and believes that her behaviors are consistent with ADHD. However, he doesn’t want to ask the school for an evaluation because he says that they’ll only take it seriously if she’s exhibiting behaviors at school, which she isn’t. I have talked about it with two different doctors and taken her to a therapist; all of them have said they don’t think an evaluation is necessary based on the behavior they have observed, but if we’re concerned we need to go through the school.

I’m not sure what to do at this point. My husband works long hours at multiple jobs while my job is flexible and from home, so it’s fallen to me to go to all the doctor and therapy appointments, and I’m the one dealing with the toileting and the tantrums (and their fallout for both her and her sisters). He still insists that another appointment with the pediatrician—where I’m somehow even clearer about what’s going on—will do the trick, but I just don’t think there is any help coming. I think we need to figure out how to handle these behavior problems by ourselves before she loses control and harms one of her sisters or herself. I just don’t know what else to do, and I feel wildly out of my depth.

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— Maybe It’s My Fault

Dear Maybe,

Eek. I am NOT a therapist, doctor, teacher, or any other experts at play here, but what I hear in this letter is a mom who is deeply struggling with both her daughter’s behavior and with no one taking her concerns seriously. Neither of those is a great place to be, and I’m sorry.

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I might be misunderstanding something, but I don’t understand why you are being told that you need to go through the school for an assessment. When I suspected ADHD in one of my kids, I spoke to my pediatrician first, and she had his teacher and me fill out questionnaires. The results did not indicate ADHD, so the pediatrician advised me to wait and see how he does in future years. However, because of specifics related to family history, I opted on my own to get him assessed independently by a neuropsychologist. No one at that office asked for any details from the school nor required a referral from them; my request was enough. Of course, I know it’s possible that your insurance may not cover this kind of thing, you might not be in an area where these professionals are available, and perhaps your state has a rule/process that mine does not. But I really appreciated being able to get a full picture of my son’s behaviors and abilities.

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Which leads me to a counter point to your letter: it might not be ADHD. Granted, your husband has some experience in this area, and I would take his gut instinct seriously. But is it possible your daughter is simply struggling with emotional regulation? A friend of mine has a daughter who used to behave impeccably at school but would unleash all her stress and pent-up emotion at home. She wasn’t able to modulate the two extremes until she was in junior high or so.

Either way, a neuropsychological evaluation can uncover which of these scenarios is or is not present for your daughter. Meanwhile, there is nothing stopping you from seeking resources for either ADHD or emotional regulation—or both! In my line of work, I deal with accessibility and inclusion, and it turns out that when you make accommodations available for people with disabilities (things like large-print maps, assistive listening devices, ramps, etc.), lots of other people who don’t identify as disabled also find them helpful! So, instead of waiting for a diagnosis to find some solutions, see what solutions are out there that might help. I’d lurk in some online support groups, dive into books and podcasts, and maybe even find a therapist for yourself who can give you some parenting strategies to try. This isn’t a silver bullet, but you might find something that works or get some ideas from other parents as to how to address your specific circumstance.

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Final thought: I understand the notion that unless your daughter is having problems in school, school isn’t going to find an assessment or IEP necessary. In the school environment, your daughter is thriving and, at least for now, does not need interventions. But at home, your daughter is not always able to thrive; something is preventing it. It is OK for you to advocate for both her and yourself in getting some answers, or at least different perspectives. Trust your gut and go outside the conventional processes if you have to.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

•  If you missed Sunday’s column, read it here.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are two full-time working parents, and we have two kids ages 4 and 1. We have a structured weekly routine that involves full-day daycare for kids and full-time work for parents. We get home by 6 p.m., and then have a structured nighttime routine (a TV show, dinner, bath, books, bed).

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Here is my struggle: my daughter isn’t a great listener when we ask or tell her to do things. We try to keep the routine really consistent because that’s what seems to work best in preventing meltdowns. But we’re often coaxing her from one transition to the next.

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While that is itself tiring, I also want my daughter to start learning to do chores regularly. Everything I’ve read indicates it’s best to teach kids early to help with household responsibilities. I realize she is 4 years old, and I need to set realistic expectations. However, I also feel like I should be able to ask her to clean up her toys without her constantly pouting and whining. The trouble is, after a long day at daycare, I sometimes feel it is unfair of me to ask much of her. Sometimes when it hits 7:30, she is already so tired that asking anything of her seems so futile. And sometimes at that time, we’re still trying to get her to finish dinner so that she has a full enough belly for bed.

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I want my kids to learn responsibility early and help around the house so that they don’t grow into lazy, unhelpful adolescents.  Any tips on how to manage this without meltdowns?

— Frustrated and Confused

Dear Frustrated,

Bravo on finding a daily routine that works and that you can stick to. Regarding the coaxing: to some extent I think that’s just a part of this age. I know it can really make you feel like your brain is melting out your ears. I often use a kitchen timer to manage the different steps of the daily routine, so that it is the bad guy instead of me. When someone is acting obstinate—either on the verge of a tantrum, saying a lot of no’s, or ignoring me for their own amusement—I use the 1-2-3 Magic system. It only took getting to a time-out a couple of times for each of my kids to know I mean business (though of course, your mileage may vary).

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For your everyday “farting around” that young kids are good at (fiddling with something, doing random yoga poses on the way to the stairs, rinsing the bubbles off the hands slooooooowly), I find that spontaneously counting down from five or 10 makes them leap into action. I have NO idea why it works; I have never associated it with a punishment or reward, other than displeasure or praise. But somehow it activates some racing instinct in them. I’d recommend giving that a try that next time you’re frustrated.

As for chores, I agree with you that throwing tasks onto your weekdays is only going to exhaust your kids, and thus punish you. It is perfectly reasonable to leave the “chores” for the weekends. On the weekdays, why not focus on the basics of daily life—clearing the table with you, hanging up the backpack, feeding the dog, etc. If you make these little things part of the normal routine on weekdays, then chores on weekends will seem much less out of the ordinary.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

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When I visit my family I often find myself cooking basic meals of breakfast and lunch for my overworked mother and cognitively disabled brother. (In her home, my mom is in charge of dinners and prefers it that way.) It’s a long story, but my father doesn’t contribute to the household whatsoever. My brother is a handful, and my mother is watching him around the clock. When I make my mother and brother breakfast or lunch, my mom wants me to make food for my father, too. But I refuse, because I make my mom meals for the sole reason that she is too busy to feed herself and won’t eat . However, she often caters to him by making him meals etc. Even when she gives him half of the food I make, he says he doesn’t like my cooking. Is it wrong to refuse to be a chef for the whole house for every meal when he has time to make his own meals?

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— Cranky Cook

Dear Cranky,

If your father won’t eat what you make, and your mom deals with that by making him his own food, you haven’t really helped her—she’s still on her feet in her kitchen looking out for others instead of herself.

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You and I might not agree with your father’s behavior, but if your mom is satisfied with it or has made peace with it, then I think you need to do favors for her within the paradigm she has set for herself. That means, yes, making food for the whole family that your dad will eat. Standing on your principles does nothing except give your mom a different amount of work to do, and possibly sow seeds of discord between her and your father or you and him.

Maybe, if you can find something your father loves to eat, you might one day convince him to let you teach him how to make it. That is probably far-fetched, judging by your letter, but a girl can dream; it would be the ultimate triumph in all this. But short of that fantasy, keep your eye on the prize of helping mom. In this case, feeding your dad helps her. So no, it’s not wrong to refuse to cook for him, but it is ultimately ineffective.

—Allison

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