If you have a toddler there is a good chance that you have witnessed the screaming, writhing, mind-numbing phenomenon known as a tantrum. While it can seem like tantrums happen for no reason at all, they usually come about as a result of very real feelings. Understanding and responding appropriately can make all the difference.
Little kids have almost no control over their own lives. Have you ever noticed that sleeping, eating, and toileting tend to be the things that cause the most power struggles? It’s no coincidence, since these bodily functions are the only thing that young children have complete agency over. Makes sense, right?
Many experts suggests that tantruming kids should be ignored. While this may work for testing behaviors, it pays to know what is really happening for a child in the throes of a tantrum and what you can do to shift from punishment that addresses the behavior, to supporting them in a way that addresses the underlying cause.
Below are five truths about tantrums. May they help make your home a more peaceful place.
1- YOUR TANTRUMING CHILD ISN’T CARRYING OUT SOME WELL-PLANNED PLOT TO DRIVE YOU NUTS.
We all know how disconcerting strong emotions like fear, anger, or a sense of being treated unjustly can be. Stress hormones literally shut down the prefrontal cortex (the thinking, planning, rational part of the brain) and the more primitive fight or flight area takes over.
If this happens to adults who have had years to practice keeping composure, imagine what it does to someone who has only been on this earth for a few years. Combine a limited vocabulary and an immature brain with a growing sense of autonomy and very little control over his daily experiences… it’s no wonder that tantrums arise.
As the saying goes, your child isn’t trying to give you a hard time… he is upset because he is having a hard time. Just realizing that can make all the difference.
2- DON’T TALK TO A CHILD IN A WAY THAT YOU WOULDN’T TALK TO AN ADULT THAT YOU CARE FOR AND RESPECT.
Yes, bratty behavior can make us angry, but shaming, blaming, and rejection only serve to further alienate a kid who needs nothing more acutely than to feel connected. If you feel like you are going to lose it, remove yourself from the situation as calmly as you can and call backup if you need support. But if you have it in you, stay. Being close sends the message that you will be there even when things get tough.
Holding and comforting a child who is upset is not rewarding the behavior, it is helping that child to feel less alone. If she is aggressive you can stay close while giving space until she is ready for closeness. Or restrain her gently and let her know that you will help keep herself and others safe until her body is feeling calmer.
3- EMPATHY IS A BALM FOR THE SOUL
Often we focus on children’s behaviors rather than the root cause. If a little boy has been working hard on a block tower and his sister knocks it down, his anger is justified. If he hits her his anger is still acceptable and warranted. However, his aggression was not an acceptable way to express it.
If he is put in time out or otherwise punished, he only learns that he is in trouble and is bad. If his caregiver can focus on connection before correction he will be in a better space to learn and to take responsibility for his actions. A parent who can say, “Oh! You were working so hard on that tower and your sister knocked it down! That must have made you so mad,” helps the child to make sense of what happened and reassures him that anger is a normal human response.
There is something incredibly calming about being understood, and a calm child is in a much better state to learn than one who is enduring a punishment that he doesn’t feel he deserves.
4- FOCUSING ON SOLUTIONS BUILDS SKILLS FOR LIFE
As a society we believe that it’s important to address the mistake and make amends. Yet, traditional punishment usually focuses on making kids suffer rather than teaching them what it means to take responsibility. Rather than sending a child away or forcing an insincere apology, try supporting him in taking responsibility.
The boy who hit his sister for knocking down his tower could be sent to a time out, or he could be supported in coming up with solutions that he can learn from. An adult could help him to get an ice pack for his sister, to find a safe place to build where she cannot wreck his next creation, and brainstorm ways that they might play together.
5- DO YOUR PART
Moving forward, do what you can to make the world a less tantrum-inducing place for your kid.
- Give her opportunities to make choices instead of always telling her what to do and how to do it.
- Let her know when a transition is coming.
- Learn a little bit about child development and make sure that your expectations are reasonable for a child of her age and abilities.
- Mostly, just love your kid for who she is, and help her when she’s having a hard time.
With these strategies you can begin to create a new way of dealing with tantrums – hopefully stopping them before they begin – and using big feelings as a tool for building connection and invaluable skills for life.