I can see it coming when his body language changes. His brow starts to furrow, his shoulders shrug upwards, and then comes the growl of expressed air…”harumph!” Slowly, he begins to stomp his foot. I know what we’re in for. I feel frantic and confused. I’ve hit the trigger button and I don’t even know how.
The toddler? No, that was the five year old. The toddler, she’s different. Hers will come immediately, like a flood of fury, with no warning and a force so spectacular it makes my toes curl. It starts with a wail and ends with a meltdown on the floor. I want to hide. I know the trigger this time….I said “no.”
I’m facing every parent’s nightmare, the dreaded TANTRUM.
I’m wondering how I got here. I’m trying to count the failures I must have made in my head. In an instant I’ve gone from calm to frustrated, annoyed, insecure, and overwhelmed. Panic rises in my throat, and like a fascist dictator, I feel the urge to quell the rebellion. Not here! Not now! Can’t you just get it together??? What do you want from me??? What do I do???
Surviving the Tantrum
Tantrums often arise when there’s a conflict between a child’s wants and an adult’s wants. Sometimes that conflict is clear, but other times, it may not be. Children can react strongly to any number of things: being told “no,” having something taken away, being asked to wait, or possibly, some small change has occurred that does not even appear to be noticeable to the adult.
One old school of thought sees the tantrum as the result of a child trying to get what he/she wants, a kind of manipulation, if you will. People who take this view will often encourage ignoring or leaving the child. They might argue that, as the adult, you need to have control and that control must be maintained at all costs, even if the cost is the relationship with your child.
But today, as a result of research and developmental science, experts are able to better explain these behaviors. Rather than be the result of manipulation, tantrums result from being unable to regulate emotions. Rather than the child screaming in order to get what they want, the child is upset because he cannot regulate the emotions of not being able to have what he wants, nor does he have the conflict resolution, negotiation skills, or language to get what he wants. For children under the age of three, they might experience emotional upheaval when small changes are made. Children at that age have a strong need for order, and the adult may not even perceive of what change has confused the child’s expectations.
So, knowing that tantrums are often a normal part of emotional development and learning to regulate, how do we support our children through this very loud and often frightening experience?
Tips on how to survive a tantrum
Check your ego at the door
The tantrum is about my child’s emotions and learning to process them. This is not about rebellion, or my control, or even my own emotions. I quiet those voices that tell me my child is trying to manipulate me, my child needs to stop, people are looking at me, or wonder what are people are thinking. If I am in public and uncomfortable with my surroundings, I remove my child and myself to a private place (another room, the car, etc.) I say to myself, this is not about you and your emotions.
Learn to find your calm
For me, this is deep breaths and the image of my little one as a baby. Anger, frustration and annoyance are not my friends, they can only serve to fan the flame or scare my child. Only kindness, compassion, and understanding can help me now. If you struggle to find calm, practice can help. A few minutes of mindfulness and deep breathing each day, either when you wake or before you go off to bed, can build the skill to help you regain your calm quickly when you need it. If you start to feel that panic rise, begin taking deep breaths.
This very experience is what your child needs, and just like the oxygen mask on the airplane, you need to get yourself to the right place before you can help your child. Know your child feels this exact way, and only by modeling calm can you teach this emotional regulation skill to your children.
Support your child
We can support the tantrum with empathy but still say “no,” these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I tell my child that I know he’s upset, angry, frustrated, and disappointed. I talk my children through their emotions, using vocabulary to help give them words for their experiences.
I encourage my children to help me find a compromise (“I know you can’t have that, but perhaps we can…”). Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I have to ask if they need a hug and cuddle them through their cries. Sometimes, that’s the last thing my child wants, and so I remind him that I am here and ready for him if he needs me. Every tantrum is different and so, feel free to get creative: try humor, try hugs, try compromise or redirection, and, if that fails, try sitting nearby and waiting for a moment of calm to try again.
Most often, tantrums just need to run their course: these are big emotions trying to get out and that release is so important to the child. When you allow that release to happen in a safe place, you may find your child comes out the other end calmer and stronger.
Learn to prepare for next time
When things have calmed, we can assess the situation. Was my child hungry? Was my child tired? Could I have prepared him in advance? Did I listen or engage with my child before just saying “no?” Making sure that you are meeting the basics needs of your child (like hunger and sleep) will help them deal with their emotions. Prepare your children for changes or experiences (like making a list for the store and reminding them before entering that you will not be buying anything else). Think of compromises for whenever you need to say “no” that allow you to redirect your child to another idea or activity. Thinking ahead can allow you to support your child’s emotions before they melt down.
Reaffirmation when dealing with a tantrum:
The tantrum is here. I take a deep breath. No one is going to make it through this if I fall apart. It’s time to adult-up. Not only will we survive this tantrum, we are going to come out the other end stronger. I can do this.
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