- “David,” you call your two-year-old, “time to come inside.” Before you know it, David is lying in a vertical position, his little feet kicking up and down, and his body is convulsing from his hysterics. “Don’t wanna go inside,” he hollers…
- You’ve enjoyed a pleasant shopping trip with your seven-year-old. You’re just about ready to check out when your daughter notices a bar of chocolate, strategically placed at seven-year-old eye level. “I’ve already bought other sweets. We’re not buying this now,” you say. She tries cajoling, pleading, negotiating… You remain pleasant, but persistent. And then, her voice is escalating, the tears are cascading down her cheeks, bystanders’ heads are swiveling in your direction, you cheeks are burning, and you would give a million dollars to be anywhere, but here.
- Your fourth grader has spent the past two hours sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to complete the fifteen math word problems, due the next day. She’s grumbling throughout. Then, she erupts into tears and says, “I’m just not doing it. I’m dumb, and I can’t, and I don’t care.” You stand there, half-wishing that all your maternal sympathy could translate into some concrete assistance for your precious child, half-hoping that she will somehow grab hold of her control.
It is no secret that dealing with tantrums is one of the least beloved parenting responsibilities. On the one hand, we all know our call of duty in time of tantrum. Do not become enmeshed in a power struggle, and try not to teach your child that tantrums are an acceptable way of attaining his goals. Rather, keep to your stance and calmly enforce discipline. On the other hand, this duty is almost impossible, for it requires you to gain the cooperation of a thrashing, shrieking child.
If we understand the makeup of a tantrum, then we can understand why rationale does not prevail in time of tantrum. All humans react when they feel threatened with an intense emotion. When a person perceives a potentially frightening situation, it seems as if the emotion center has taken over the reasoning part of the brain, which makes it difficult to access the person’s sense of logic. During this “flight, fright or freeze phase,” meltdowns can occur, since the planning and reasoning part of the brain is “hijacked.” For the same reason, it is pointless to try to talk logically and reason with someone experiencing a meltdown… he is not acting rationally right now.
When these “out-of-control emotions” seize your child, and logic and punishments stop working, your best bet is to first deescalate the meltdown. Depending on the situation, you can try:
Distraction: Find something that interests your child to help him focus on something other than his extreme frustration.
WARNING! Do not use distraction for manipulative tantrums. If you child learns that he does not have to do his chores after a meltdown, he will continue to pull this trick on you.
Use distraction to calm your child and help him move on to the next step, NOT as a reward for the tantrum.
Eventually, you would like your child to learn how to self-soothe. Therefore, avoid over-using distraction.
Humor: Show him the absurdity of this situation to diffuse the tension.
Validation: Empathize with his feelings, so he feels understood. “I understand how much you wanted to win. I know it was a big letdown for you.” Or “I know how hard it is to wait patiently for something you really want.”
Security Boosting: Tightly wrap your two arms around your child to make him feel relaxed and secure in your embrace.
Secret Signals: Pre-plan a secret sign, so you can signal to your child when you see a tantrum brewing. This will enable him to catch himself before it erupts full-scale.
The Comfort Zone: Create a home base of a safe, comforting place where the child can unwind when upset.
While these techniques are wonderful lifesavers, they should be just that; lifesavers, used in time of emergency. Depend on them for the inevitable tantrum that you could not predict or prevent.
However, the very best method of dealing with tantrums is to avoid them. The million dollar question is: HOW?
Before we answer, let us explore three common tantrum variations, because each one calls for its own strategy.
Some tantrums are age-appropriate, juvenile emotional immaturity. Young children’s physical and intellectual capabilities do not match up with their emotional abilities. In addition, toddlers and preschoolers lack self-control. This results in the “terrible two’s” phase of frequent tantrums. The scenario of the two-year-old who does not want to come inside is a classic example of an age-appropriate tantrum. As a parent, realize that this phase will pass soon. Attempt to avoid boxing your child into tantrum-prone situations. And when they do erupt, take a deep breath, flex your muscles, and remember that you are dealing with a normal child who is not mature enough to know better ways of expressing frustration.
Other tantrums are manipulative tactics, such as the scenario of the seven-year-old demanding candy. Sometimes, these tantrums may even take on different forms, such as sulking, balking or giving the silent treatment. When these tantrums occur frequently, carefully analyze the procedures and discipline routines in your home. Make sure you are consistent in your demands and follow through with your words and actions. View these meltdowns as warning signals, indicating that discipline in your home may need some tweaking.
But other tantrums, such as the scenario depicting the child who is exasperated because of his math homework, are not premeditated, controlling ploys to subterfuge your parental authority. Rather, they are simply an expression of extreme frustration, an escalating negative emotional reaction. They stem from a deficiency in the child. As a parent, try to pinpoint where the weakness first occurred. Then, give your child the skills to compensate for his deficiency or teach him how to vent in a more acceptable manner.
How can we plan ahead to minimize tantrums?
- Accept your child for who he is with love. He is a unique individual with his own temperament, strengths, shortcomings and limitations. This will enable you to create realistic expectations for your child, Unrealistic expectations lead to excessive demands, in both performance and behavior, which the child cannot fulfill. This causes disappointment, frustration and negativity, which often culminates in a meltdown.
Accepting your child helps you control your own temper, because you realize that it’s okay for your child to have imperfect behaviors or limited capabilities. These inadequacies are not a reflection of your incompetence or a threat to your parenting abilities. They are attributes, given to your child by God. Once you learn to control your own frustration, you can help your child control his.
When you accept your child, you create an environment in which the child feels competent, not criticized. You make realistic demands. Thereby, you avoid ensnaring your child in the net of “learned helplessness.” When demands are constantly above the child’s limitations, the deep frustration stemming from repeated failure teaches the child that success is not within his control, so he “learns helplessness” and gives up quickly. This habit persists even when circumstances are within the child’s control. Repeated frustration and failure fuel tantrums.
Conversely, realistic demands create an environment in which the child feels confident that he can succeed. When you modify difficult tasks to a more manageable-size, you exercise your child’s muscles, without straining them to the point that your child explodes. For example, if your child has weak muscles, encourage him to dress himself, but agree to button his shirt to give him just the right amount of fine motor muscle strengthening or if you know your child’s equilibrium is threatened by the noise of too many guests, invite one friend at a time for a play date.
- Teach your child to self-soothe. Your child will inevitably bump into frustrating situations in life. You want him to be able to respond in a healthy way. This emotional maturity does not necessarily develop on its own. Teach your child how to respond properly. At a calm time, site down with your child and discuss what helps him calm down. Explore options such as deep breathing, drawing, walking, sucking on ice, etc. Practice these calming techniques, so that your child will be able to put them into action in times of stress. Try using visualization to help your child picture himself in tough situations and visualize himself responding calmly. Also, train your child to strategize and problem solve effectively. This will enable him to cope independently and positively.
- When meltdowns occur frequently, explore common threads. Assess if you can predict the challenging behavior, try to zoom in on the trigger, and analyze the patterns of the rest of the family’s reaction. Is a family member enabling the problem? Once you discover an emerging pattern, you can learn to predict meltdowns and even develop a plan to prevent tantrums.