Q: It’s pretty rare when I don’t hear my son screaming for my attention, if I try to take a shower, talk on the phone, attend to the needs of one of my other children. It’s especially bad when we need to get ready for school (somewhat of a relief during summer), but now it’s camp. My husband and I work, so my children have places they need to be during the day. There’s no end to the arguments, the struggles, the anger, sibling squabbles. I’m really sick of this and am forever frustrated with how little peace I can get in the morning before the workday starts. He’s my youngest (6) and is loud, intense, and whining about his older siblings’ treatment of him. I think they just get impatient and mad at how slow and irritating his behavior is. None of us agrees with his view of whatever the problem is. Please help with how I might change things to gain some calm and cooperation.

A: The dilemma seems to be your son is easily frustrated, possibly by many different things. As the youngest, he may believe he must be loud to assert himself. If you assume responsibility for his intensity, taking his behavior personally, you may believe it’s your job to solve his problem. You can easily be pulled into his struggles, making it impossible to understand what’s really going on with him. Your most important work is to disengage, while identifying what part of this belongs to you and what belongs to your son. By feeling helpless to change this, you are likely judging yourself negatively. When your son feels accepted for exactly the way he is, a shift can happen. It will require viewing his behavior through a different lens. It seems he’s struggling, looking for a different kind of attention than what he’s currently receiving, with everyone upset and frustrated with him.

I can appreciate his “screaming” is especially hard when you’re trying to get your children out the door and get to work. Connecting to the emotional root, could you possibly uncover feelings of rejection, lack of acceptance, powerlessness? He may simply need to express his frustration, looking for someone to listen and understand. If he struggles with transitioning from home to camp or school, the morning chaotic activity and expectations may overwhelm him. Some children are flooded with emotion, unable to articulate their feelings about what is hard for them, thus they often “melt down.” Are you able to allow him to have these emotions without judgment or blame? When a child is either punished for being angry, too intense, or is criticized for it, he won’t feel safe in expressing his feelings.

If he feels heard, unconditionally accepted and loved, he can then work with you on how he might express himself more appropriately. Validating his range of emotions will help him consider other options for releasing them. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, temperament plays a big part in “how” he expresses his frustration. Let him know it’s hard for you to give him attention when he’s screaming, that when he’s able to tell you what he needs in a way you can hear, you can then come up with a solution together. Acknowledging how he feels shifts the focus from blaming and judging to connection. In doing so, you will find he’ll be more willing to cooperate. Children need the same respect and kindness that adults do.

Some children have a harder time letting go of anger or hurt (think temperament). Perhaps there was a time in your own childhood when a parent or teacher discounted your feelings. Parents can be triggered by their own experiences. For example, if you had a parent who never validated your feelings or promoted your self-worth, it could be part of why you have a strong reaction to your son’s screaming. If you grew up feeling you were “never good enough,” your child will trigger those emotions every time he seems demanding, wanting your attention when you have nothing left to give.

Morning transitions are particularly challenging, compromising any possibility of connection. Try another time of day when you feel calmer, perhaps during car time, when your son seems to be more open to addressing this; bedtime is often when children will bring up difficulties, anxious to be heard and understood. This is when the benefits of connection are well worth your time and effort.

Tantrums/meltdowns can occur at any age. Temperament plays a significant role, as well as the child’s primary environments (family, school, camp, etc.). The more you’re able to disengage, connecting to his feelings without blaming or lecturing, the more your relationship will improve, reducing the frequency and intensity of his frustrating behaviors. He needs to know that “the mad he feels” is completely acceptable, without judgment, while you help him learn other ways to tell you when he is having a problem. Whatever the difficulty, children need to feel loved just the way they are. What do you do with the mad you feel?

For those who might not have seen the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” recently shown at the Strand, it is a must see! Fred Rogers was my inspiration, my hero, also the one human being who truly accepted every child unconditionally. Children were mesmerized by his soft, gentle approach. He captured our attention with his kindness and compassion. Mr. Rogers’ message strongly resonates during these unsettled times, as families have less availability, with financial challenges, stress, electronic distractions.

“When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.” — Fred Rogers