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When a 7-year-old explodes, what’s a parent to do?

(Illustration by María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
6 min

Q: I would appreciate guidance on how my 7-year-old son handles his anger and frustration. An example: When it’s time for school, he sometimes expresses his frustration about getting up by grumbling to himself (okay), but occasionally he will yell at me (not okay).

The other day at the grocery store, he saw a toy that sparked his fancy. He asked whether I could buy it for him. I told him that I wouldn’t get it for him today but that he could save up his allowance or complete extra chores around the house to earn it. He quietly cried to himself (okay) while processing his feelings. But when we got to the car, he yelled at me (not okay).

Whenever he yells at me, I tell him that I don’t deserve to be spoken to that way, then I walk away and allow him to cool off. When he’s ready to talk, we always talk about healthy ways to express your emotions.

My partner and I give him opportunities to have control over his day by making choices. I completely understand his frustration at things that are beyond his control, but I don’t like being yelled at. Any advice?

A: Thank you for writing in; as a professional and as a parent, I can assure you that no one enjoys being yelled at by their children. And with only a few rare exceptions, raising immature people means that explosions occur and that yelling happens. So, no matter what support you seek or parenting tips you try, zero yelling is not a reasonable goal.

As for your letter, we have a pretty good snapshot of what is not working when it comes to your son and his explosions. For instance, you responded with calm logic and a great idea (saving his allowance and completing extra chores for more money), which was met with tears and more frustration. We also know that you state what you won’t allow and that you walk away, then follow up with a chat about healthy ways to express emotions. Well, those techniques aren’t working, either. It is good to assess what doesn’t work, because you can see the patterns more clearly. What isn’t working: using logic, walking away and giving lectures.

What are the developmental norms of a 7-year-old? This is considered the age of reason, which means that a typical 7-year-old can be patient, empathic, compassionate and considerate of others, but not consistently. Seven-year-olds are more and more interested in friendships, have their feelings hurt easily and can easily become anxious and needy for their parents. They’re learning quickly, but don’t mistake emerging maturity as consistent maturity. Their brains are still very much developing, and there is a range of behaviors apparent in 7-year-olds. So, sometimes yelling at their parents? Not at all outside the typical behaviors for this age.

It is worth noting that almost all children do not react well when a parent walks away from them in anger or disappointment. Of course, all parents need to sometimes walk away so they don’t cause greater harm to the relationship, but lecturing, then walking away leaves most children feeling punished, ashamed and abandoned. I don’t think you are purposely doing this — I believe you are trying to stick up for yourself and “teach a lesson” — but I can guarantee that your son is not growing skills here.

Instead of walking away, try getting on his level and being near him. What would happen if you sat by him and put your arm around him? Or said, “I’m listening. Tell me more about your anger,” or, “I’m here. Tell me what’s going on.” Although some may say this is too permissive, this act of compassion shows your son that you are, in fact, the adult (and are not having your feelings hurt by a 7-year-old who is not your peer), and that you can handle whatever is happening. Far from being permissive, this is the strongest parenting move one can make. With compassion and active listening, you may be able to get to the root of your son’s big emotions.

To clarify his behavior even more, I would use the Mona Delahooke iceberg model. In her book “Beyond Behaviors,” Delahooke describes how the behavior (yelling at you) is the tip of the iceberg that we see, whereas the things under the water are the factors that could be contributing to his behavior — the true “why” of his yelling. If we only treat what we see (the yelling), we ignore the sensory and emotional needs driving your son’s behavior, and we won’t create a treatment plan that will work.

I would write down his patterns and triggers, as well as how severe they are, and call your pediatrician. The doctor should take bloodwork to assess your son’s physical needs, then I would ask for a referral to a specialist, such as a play therapist, an occupational therapist or a developmental pediatrician, to help with the explosiveness. Please avoid specialists who use strict rewards and punishments, because these are often not effective in cases of “overreacting” children. Other excellent resources are the books by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (“The Whole-Brain Child” and others), and although I don’t want to throw too much at you, Ross Greene’s “The Explosive Child” is a wonderful, kind and data-driven way to respectfully work with children who present with difficult behaviors.

Whatever you do, remember that your son is not trying to be difficult or disrespectful. As Greene says: “Children do well when they can.” So the focus now is to not take the yelling personally and to see your son as needing support and skills rather than punishment and control. This mind-set shift moves you from adversarial victim to loving co-regulator, and the commitment to seeing him as a full human (not just a child who behaves well) will help your son feel both safer and calmer. Good luck!