A 7-Year-Old Throws the "Fit of All Fits"
Recently, my 7-year-old threw the fit of all fits, throwing and breaking things in our home. My son has always suffered with anger outbursts, something we have recently begun addressing in counseling. My sister insists that it would be best to put a lock on his bedroom door and lock him in his room when he acts out like this. I feel this would send a terrible message to him.
When he gets out of control and begins hitting me, I hold him down or put him in a cold shower until he calms down. The shower usually works pretty quickly. I would appreciate your feedback.
It sounds like you are desperate for strategies to help contain your son during his “fits.” But to help him learn to prevent these outbursts or to determine the best way to contain him when he's in the midst of one, you'll need to understand what is driving them.
Temper tantrums are certainly normal in younger children, but by age 7, falling-on-the- floor meltdowns have usually stopped or occur only infrequently and with clear provocation.
Occasional screaming and stomping will persist, of course, but should resolve quickly without locked doors or cold showers. We can't offer a diagnosis or treatment suggestions from this distance, but your son's outbursts sound severe enough to deserve the careful attention of a child mental health specialist.
There are many possible causes for repeated, severe angry outbursts in a child. Like a fever, they are a common symptom for a wider range of possible problems. You will want professional help to sort through these to identify the cause in your child, since different problems will often have different solutions. Possibilities include
- Regulatory Disorders. Some children are born with great difficulty calming themselves when they are distressed, and quickly build up to frantic crying or rage that they can't get under control until parents learn their unique ways of being soothed and help them learn to soothe themselves.
- Sensory Processing Disorders. Children who experience touch, sound, or sight differently (for example, with great intensity) are quickly overwhelmed in settings that others would be untroubled by. A bright fluorescent light, a buzzing refrigerator motor, or a label inside a shirt collar might lead a hypersensitive child to fall to pieces—to the amazement of unsuspecting bystanders. (See Christopher R. Auer, Susan L. Blumberg, and Lucy Jane Miller's Parenting a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder, New Harbinger 2006, and Carol Stock Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller's The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Penguin 2005.)
- Bipolar Disorder. Once thought only to occur in adults and adolescents, bipolar disorder is increasingly being recognized in younger children. Although controversies over when to diagnose and the risk of over-diagnosis continue, unusually intense, prolonged, and frequent tantrums characterized by complete loss of control are sometimes clues.
- Depression. Also once thought not to affect children, depression too is now recognized to occur at early ages. Often a depressed child seems more angry and irritable than sad and easily flies off the handle at the least little thing.
- Post-traumatic Disorder. Children who have been traumatized may also be irritable and explosive and are especially likely to blow up when they are afraid, when something reminds them of terrifying past experiences.
- Language-based Learning Disability. A child's inability to express himself verbally often goes unrecognized as a cause of angry outbursts. When a child must struggle to say what he needs or feels, frustration mounts and explosive behavior becomes his only way of making his point.
- Anxieties, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. Surprisingly, seemingly docile, anxious children pushed to face their worst fears, and children with obsessive-compulsive disorder (this too can occur in young children) who are not allowed to carry out their compulsions, are likely to explode. (See Andrew R. Eisen and Linda B. Engler's Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal, New Harbinger 2006.)
With more information—for example, about family history, recent stresses, the timing and unique features of the angry outbursts, and other symptoms—it is often possible to distinguish between the different conditions that can lead to severe meltdowns.
What seems to set off your son's angry outbursts—or do they sometimes seem to occur “out of the blue”? Can you tell when they are coming on? Can he? Is there a window of opportunity during which they can be averted, and how long does this last? Is there something that he's angry about?
Often we'd like to think that children are barely aware, hardly affected by crises and tragedies around them. But of course they are. Children who are overwhelmed by their experiences often can't understand what is happening around them, nor can they understand what is going on inside themselves. Fear, anger, self-blame, and despair can leave a child in an explosive state of confusion.
Locking him in his room and cold showers are temporary measures. The choice of strategies like these must take into account not only the child's diagnosis but also his individual personality and temperament, his stage of development, and whatever frightening experiences he may already have been through.
For some children, being locked in their rooms might help them reorganize with less stimulation. Their rooms would need to be clear of anything they could hurt themselves with, and parents would need to stay quietly nearby in the event of a fire or other emergency.
For other children, being locked up might make them feel abandoned and hopeless. Some children are able to regain control more rapidly when held by their parents, though by 7 some children are already too big to contain safely.
To help a child begin to regain hope that he will eventually learn to get himself under control, it can help to pick a quiet time when he is not upset to talk over these outbursts. Together, you can identify the predictable triggers and ways that he can calm himself before it's too late. He can also share his views on how best to contain him once he does lose control. It might even help to write these down and to refer to them from time to time without making too big a deal about them.
Most children are terrified and humiliated by their own loss of control. They may be too embarrassed to admit it, but they want help to get themselves under control again as much their parents do!
Although they may not acknowledge it, even young children often know when something is wrong, and they need clear, simple, and hopeful ways of understanding themselves. While a diagnosis will help point to the right treatments, it will be critical for you and your child to keep from letting the label define him and limit his vision of who he is and who he can become.
The age of 7 is an important time for him to begin to understand his anger and his inability to control himself. You certainly are right to seek professional help: he needs it, and you need it so you can help him develop self-control and identify whatever stressors may be pushing him over the edge.