So often, it’s kids dramatic tantrums that get parents seeking advice and input from me on how to manage them. But first, off there are a couple of important things to note and consider about tantrums.
Firstly, tantrums are actually a sign that your child’s brain is developing the way it should. Parts of your child’s brain are still developing, especially the area that develops what is called executive functioning, which is our ability to reason, thinking with insight, forethought etc. It then makes sense that our kids struggle with these things because the part of their brain that controls this hasn’t been fully developed yet. This is why we really want to avoid using logic and reason during a tantrum. When your child is in a heightened emotional state or a state of dysregulation, I want you to view this part of the brain as a locked door. No matter what you do, you cannot access this part, so don’t even try. In those really dysregulated moments, young children are unable to tap into that part of the brain, and so using logic or reason actually adds fuel to the fire, and can often cause kids to become even more dysregulated than calm them down. This is why kids are unable to use their words and need behaviour to express how they are feeling. Now is not the time to reason, negotiate or use logic. They also have difficulty with impulse control, and so their bodies are used as a way to rid themselves of these overwhelming feelings. As parents, we should consider the only door in, is through the other side of logic and reason – that is through emotion. We use the emotional experience as the open doorway to get inside and connect with our kids, which in turn will allow them to regulate.
The aim of our parenting is not to take away tantrums completely. This is unlikely and probably just setting yourself up for failure. What we do want to see is a reduction in two areas. We want to see a reduction in the intensity of the tantrum and a reduction in the duration of the tantrum. What that looks like is your child is no longer screaming and kicking, but perhaps just crying, or a tantrum that has gone from 15 minutes long to just a few minutes short.
The way we respond to the tantrum is key – our response will either shorten the tantrum and decrease the intensity, or it can make it worse. It is important to try to identify some of the triggers of tantrums. When your child has a tantrum, try to backtrack a bit to see what things trigger him/her. When we know what these are, and see them consistently, we are able to intervene more quickly and even prevent the outburst from happening. One of the common triggers for tantrums is in ‘transitioning.’ Often when our kids have to transition from one thing to another, they struggle. For example, leaving the park, transitioning from playtime to bathtime, transitioning to bedtime, transitioning from watching TV to playtime, transitioning from home time to school time etc. In these moments, we want to have a generic script that we apply calmly, and confidently time again (we want to be consistent and predictable).
There are three key components:
- Validate or acknowledge the feeling
- Lay the boundary
- Redirect (often with a choice, this provides a sense of power and control)
This may look as follows: “I know you’re feeling really sad that park time is over, and it’s okay to be sad. But it’s time to go home. When we come back tomorrow, are you going to play on the swings or the slide first?”
In this example, you achieved a couple of things – you were first able to validate and connect with the feeling. By doing this, you eliminated the logical response and were likely able to contain and regulate your child. Often step one is enough to contain kids, especially when this is applied consistently in the home. Step two is being true to your word and sticking to your boundary. This teaches your child that they can trust you and that their world is safe and predictable. Things happen as you say they will, there is consistency and preparation.
Lastly, you have shifted the focus from what they’re missing or leaving, to the promise of the next time, and by giving them a choice they feel like they have some power/authority/ control over a small element of it. This empowering moment is likely to also help regulate the big emotional response, and help to ‘recover’ back to a regulated state in a quicker space of time.
A key aspect of dealing with a tantrum is about remaining calm in the moment (as tough as that is). If we join in the chaos, we communicate to our kids that their overwhelming states are so big, that they even throw us. We want to communicate to them that we are able to hold and contain their emotions, and it’s a safe space to express these with us.
In the long run, we are also helping a child to be able to identify and label their emotions, through us validating and hearing them. This contributes to greater emotional processing and ultimately helps develop problem-solving behaviour. When we don’t hold our boundaries, and we give in to their demands, we are teaching them that pushing us to our end ultimately gets them what they want. The next time, they’re going to tantrum bigger, harder and longer.
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