Is A Temper Monster Ruling Your Home?

by Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

The single most prevalent referral problem in my work with children has been overly frequent, troubling displays of temper in children who are old enough to have developed other means to manage frustration.

During the second and third years of life, the child's mental capacity can create much more beautiful sequences of behavior in their "mind's eye" than their undeveloped motor skills and dexterity level will allow them. The result is the very frequent encounter with a strong sense of internal frustration. Without going into a great deal of psycho-babble about the voluminous literature on the "frustration-aggression hypothesis," a predictable bio-psychological response to frustration is aggression. The result is the emergence of temper behavior in toddlers somewhere between the age of 14 and 20 months (AKA: "The Terrible Two's").

We expect temper behavior of two- and three-year-olds and almost instinctively apply methods to help the child get through this most discomforting age. However, when these behaviors persist through the ages of 5-10 years, the costs become much higher. The untamed Temper Monster rules many a household, to the chagrin of parents. He is often tolerated, even by otherwise reasonable and intelligent adults because "it's easier not to rattle his cage."

Over the years, I've spoken to many audiences about my discovery of the Temper Monster. Actually, I had a co-explorer in making this discovery - a five-year-old boy named Rafael whose family I was seeing for counseling over 20 years ago in San Francisco. Rafael had been brought in because he was "out of control," had broken things around the house, had explosive outbursts toward other children, and talked meanly to his parents. When he brought these behaviors to Kindergarten, he was referred to me for psychological counseling.

Rafael was a nice boy. He described feeling remorseful after his outbursts and seemd to feel guilty when his mother cried. But Dad's admonitions that "you are a very naughty boy" were angrily rejected by Rafael, and often prolonged the struggle with another temper display.

As I questioned Rafael about his feelings during and after his temper outbursts, it became clear that he was frightened by his behavior. I asked him where the behavior came from, to which he replied, "I don't know . . . it's not me, but it is something inside of me!"

"Oh! There's something inside of you that acts very scary, and you can never tell when it's going to come out?"

"That's right!"

We decided that it was like a monster. Big and scary, hidden most of the time, and ferocious when it was around. Rafael wanted relief from his fear of the monster, his parents wanted relief from the moster's behavior, and the school wanted to educate a child, so I wanted to form a partnership with Rafael. I told him that I knew something about monsters, and that I could help him find ways to tame this beast inside of him. He was excited!

We then did an inventory of the monster's environment. Rafael let me know that he could tell when the monster was coming because it usually started after Mom or Dad or Teacher took something from him, said no to a request, or told him to do something he didn't want to do. Shortly, he could tell me that the first thing he noticed in himself when the monster was coming, was "squeezing my teeth together real tight, like this" (he demonstrated a monster-ugly, awful, I'm-gonna-hit-you-in-your-face kind of scowl).

His parents told me all of the things they had tried, to get rid of the monster, and which only made the monster stronger. (From that discussion, I prepared my notes on "The Care and Feeding of the Temper Monster.") As I explained the treatment plan to his parents, I told Rafael that the taming process would make him unhappy, and would make the monster seem even more ferocious at first. I assured him, though, that this wouldn't last long, and that he'd be feeling safer soon.

Then, through a process of supporting the parents in removing themselves from the presence of the monster, Rafael was able to figure out ways to control it. He found that being alone in his room at the first sign of the monster gradually reduced the time that it stayed around. He also learned some words that alerted adults to the proximity of the monster. He began to say things like, "I feel frustrated when recess is over," "It hurts my feelings when you call me that name," and "I'm so angry I'm going to my room." With a few weeks of hard work by Rafael and his parents, the monster was tamed.