The Washington Post

My 6-year-old is melting down

illustration by Hadley Hopper for the Washington Post

Question: Our son turned 6 a few months ago and is going through a growth spurt. He’s as well behaved with adults as ever. But with us? Not so much. He has been breaking down in tears for weeks and keeps arguing with us. He refuses to go on outings that he used to enjoy.

We try to respect his opinions and to discuss his feelings, but we can’t talk to him in any rational way when he’s melting down, so we simply urge him to go outside, get involved in some activity or focus on a task. At the same time, we ask him to respect us and to understand that he can’t always have his own way.

Are we asking too much of our son? Do we encourage this new behavior by talking to him like this when he is in the middle of a meltdown? My mother says we are giving in to his moods and that this is why he acts this way.

Because I never felt that I was listened to as a child, it’s important for me to listen to my son and to respect his opinions. It’s getting to the point where I don’t want to be around him, which is not a good feeling for a parent to have.

How long will these moods last? And why, oh why, does he act like this with us?

Answer: Assuming that your little boy doesn’t have a health issue that can cause major meltdowns, such as food allergies or even pinworms, you can probably expect him to act this way for four to six months.

And why does he do it? Because he knows that you love him more than anyone in the whole world and that you will keep on loving him no matter what he says or does. Unconditional love not only gives a child the trust he needs to fall apart in front of his parents but it also shows them that he trusts them enough to do that. If he didn’t, he would try to stifle his fears and his feelings and withdraw as much as he could.

But when your son is in the middle of a meltdown, he needs hugs and sympathy, not lectures, because he won’t hear a word you say until he has finished pouring out his many complaints.

He also needs a frank talk about puberty. Yes, puberty, because a child between 6 and 8 is getting the same hormones that he’ll get when he’s in his preteens or young teens. Although these puberal hormones are much weaker at this age, they will turn your child’s world upside down until he adjusts to them — or until you tell him in an age-appropriate way why he’s feeling so sorry for himself.

Just knowing that there is a reason for his meltdowns should ease your son’s fears immensely and stop him from thinking that his world is falling apart. Children are so self-focused at this age. The more your son knows about child development — and the more you know — the more content you both will be.

You and your son need to know that he is growing mentally, emotionally and morally, as well as physically, and that these four paths aren’t always in sync, particularly between ages 6 and 16. That’s why it’s so important to encourage your child and help him engage in activities, chores and good times in these changing years.

Without such encouragement, many grade-school children aren’t brave enough to defend the classmate who’s being teased in the lunchroom. Just as, without supervision, many seventh-graders can’t say no to their strong sexual urges. It takes a lot of courage to do the right thing in grade school and junior high.

If you continue to notice each change in your son, and if you adjust your reactions to suit these changes, your parenting skills will grow right along with your child. And that is how it should be.


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Chat Thursday at noon Join Kelly for a live Q&A about parenting and other family relationships at , where you can also read past columns.

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