Oh, the explosive outbursts that shatter the peace of our homes! For many parents, it’s the dreaded tantrum that keeps them walking on eggshells all day long. Or keeps them from having company or arranging playdates for their child. Sometimes your kid just goes off for no apparent reason. You made macaroni and he wanted a hot dog. You gave her the blue cup and she wanted the red one. You’d think you just cut her leg off! The child falls to the floor, wailing—or worse, lashes out violently, like a tornado of destruction. What do you do now? Nothing? Well, not quite.
Understanding the Problem
Statistics show that toddlers are the most violent humans on earth, with an act of aggression happening as frequently as every three minutes. Okay, that’s depressing news. The point is, there is a developmental piece at play here. Tantrums peak at around age three, partially because kids are still learning to emotionally regulate, still learning to communicate and still building coping strategies and problem-solving skills. At the same time, they are living large and pushing the boundaries on growing their autonomy and mastery, which, not surprisingly, are still fairly limited. All in all, it’s a time of high frustration.
When something doesn’t go the child’s way, she expresses her anger over the reality of the situation by exploding. “I don’t like it, I don’t want it! This is not how I wanted things to go! I want my way.”
Tantrums are an active, outward display of power in the form of protest.
Once a tantrum has started, the best strategy is to remain calm and let it run its course. Indeed, you’re best to concentrate on eliminating tantrum triggers, some of which you may not even be aware of— hence, the feeling that the tantrums happen out of the blue. Not so. Let’s look at some factors and be proactive.
I’ve broken the solutions down into four time frames:
1. About to blow
3. After blow
4. Preventative measures (between blowups)
1. About to Blow
Don’t cave! If you change the rules because of someone’s mood, he’ll use tantrums as a form of manipulation. Hold firm, but stay pleasant.
Practice active listening. Quickly, right when it looks like your child may wig out on you, drop to eye level, maybe touch him lovingly (if he doesn’t recoil) and verbalize what the child is feeling and experiencing: “You’re disappointed. You really wanted that tower of blocks to be much higher and it fell down on you. How frustrating!” “Ah, we are having such a good time at the park and it’s hard to stop having fun—that is so maddening!”
“Your ice cream fell off the cone! You were enjoying that cone so much, and looking forward to the next lick, and now it’s a mess on the ground. How disappointing!”
Active listening helps develop emotional intelligence by giving names to feelings. It also helps your child feel that you actually “get” what he is experiencing so he feels affirmed and emotionally supported.
This paves the way for being better able to calm himself down.
Move you, not them. There is no reasoning with a child in meltdown. Don’t be upset with him, and don’t try to hold and soothe him. Research proves that only increases the time it takes until he settles down.
Instead, move away from the storm. It’s always better to remove yourself from the situation than trying to move the child, which will only intensify the situation. Bring the child a stuffed animal or make some other gesture to show you are not angry and that you want him to be able to find a way to self-soothe and self-calm.
Maybe a quick rub on the back, with: “It’s okay to be upset, come see me when you’re calm.” Then get out of there.
But What If . . .
If I move, he follows me!
If the child follows you, try the bathroom technique, which goes like this: You move yourself to the bathroom (or your bedroom) and just before ducking in, say, “Can you calm yourself? Or do I need to go?” If the tantrum continues, simply enter the bathroom and close the door while saying, “When you’re calm, I’ll know it’s time to come out.”
The child will bang the door and call under the crack, but keep yourself safe in there, and don’t talk through the door. Wait until he tires and calms. Then open the door and say, “I see you’re ready!” If he starts up again upon your appearance, close the door and repeat. You may have to do this a few times, and for a few days, but not much beyond that. If this behavior continues beyond a few days, something isn’t working and you should stop the strategy.
If the child tears a room apart in the height of a tantrum, wait until he is calm again and some time has passed, then be sure he cleans up the mess he’s made. Be nice about this. A simple line like, “Looks like you have a job to do . . .” is enough of a prompt to remind him that this is his responsibility. Keep accountability by using a when/then statement: “When your job is done, then I’ll know you’re ready for supper.”
Kids are less likely to pull every book off the bookshelf if they know they’ll have to put them back. If the destruction is overwhelming, you might offer to get them started or keep them company, but don’t be doing their work.
4. Preventative Measures
Continue skill building. Continue to work on independence, self sufficiency, communication and problem-solving skills in an ongoing way.
Keep in mind that kids who feel good, do good. Watch for tiredness and hunger as triggers. It’s best not to plan a shopping trip if it’s going to run into nap or snack time.
Give a heads-up. Kids can have a hard time transitioning from one activity to the other.
You wouldn’t like your partner to grab you at a cocktail party and say, “Let’s go home” when you’re mid-story, mid merlot and having a good time. Your kids don’t like to be yanked from the park on your whim either. Instead, give them a heads-up:
“We’re leaving the park in five minutes” or “After we finish this puzzle, it’s time for PJs.” This gives kids time to get their heads around it all. Be sure to stick to the planned transition time so they come to understand that you mean what you say and you say what you mean.
If the tantrum succeeds in buying them more time, they’re more likely to repeat the tactic. Instead, remove your child from the park, for example, by carrying him gently and lovingly to the car (okay, you’ll be gentle but he’s flailing, so do your best!). Let the child know that if he can’t leave the park without getting upset, he’ll have to skip the next park visit. Discuss how to improve leaving the park at your next family meeting so you involve the child in finding a solution.
Establish rules and enforce them consistently. If the rule is no jumping on the couch, you need to enforce that rule. If you only sometimes feel up to enforcing the no-couch-jumping rule, it’s really not a rule at all. Since your kid won’t really think it’s a rule, the little kangaroo will likely melt down when you do occasionally remove her: to the child it’s an arbitrary and unfair act. She will experience this removal as a personal affront. You’re exerting your personal power over her in a “do what I say” way. However, if you remove her consistently from the couch and do so in a friendly manner, it’s no longer personal but about the rules of the house, and the upset will diminish with time as she comes to understand that this is a real rule.
“Excerpted from Ain’t Misbehavin’. Copyright (c) 2011 by Alyson Schafer. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.”