TANTRUMS: Torture Device or Teaching Opportunity?
Whatever we choose to call them – meltdowns, outbursts, explosions, fits – children’s tantrums are a form of exquisite torture that leave parents far and wide feeling depleted, overwhelmed and incompetent. Tantrums happen when a child (or adult, for that matter) becomes flooded with uncomfortable feelings (e.g., sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment) that are just too big and overwhelming for them to manage. If we believe that all behavior is a form of communication, this one is saying, “I can’t handle this, I need HELP!”
Traditionally, time outs have been the method of choice for responding to tantrums – admittedly, my own first instinct when my child is having a tantrum is to turn and walk away! But, while a time out may help curb the tantrum behavior itself, it doesn’t get at the underlying cause – an inability to understand and cope with difficult feelings. Another term for this important skill is emotion regulation.
Research demonstrates that emotion regulation is the underpinning of children’s social and academic success. So, what if rather than rejecting or feeling tortured by our children’s tantrums, we could welcome them as valuable opportunities to support their development of this essential capacity? Here are _ strategies for navigating tantrums that will help build your child’s emotional regulation skills:
BEFORE A TANTRUM OCCURS:
Create a “calming space” where your child can go when they are upset and dysregulated. Rather than a punishment, this should be seen as a supportive and helpful place to work out feelings. Consider items like cozy pillows or bean bag chairs, stuffed animals, blankets, squeeze balls, glitter jars, play doh or silly putty, art materials, a music player with calming songs or nature sounds – anything that your child finds soothing.
NOTE* It is important to create and introduce the calming space when your child is well-regulated (i.e., BEFORE a tantrum occurs). Solicit their input on what types of things they think might help them calm down when they are struggling with a difficult feeling. Practice using the calming space outside of tense moments (perhaps even model going there yourself when you’re feeling upset), so it becomes familiar, comfortable, and is associated with positive feelings.
WHEN A TANTRUM OCCURS:
Regulate YOURSELF first: In order to be available to support your child in the midst of a tantrum, you must first develop strategies to keep your own composure. Acknowledge your own triggers and develop strategies to pause and center yourself before approaching your child.
Connect to calm: Acknowledge your child’s experience in a quiet voice (“You’re having a BIG feeling right now!”) and go with them to the calming space, remaining relaxed and present with them. Keep talking to a minimum and focus on helping your child calm down using the materials available. If they refuse your support, remain patient and available nearby until they are ready.
Identify and validate feelings: Once your child has regained some composure, try to help them put words to the feelings behind their tantrum (“I wonder if you were feeling pretty mad when I said it was time to turn off the TV?”). Offer sincere EMPATHY and VALIDATION for how difficult that experience must have been.
Brainstorm alternatives: Only after empathizing and validating your child’s feelings can you begin to think together with your child about what else they can do to manage them in times of distress. See below for additional tools and books about feelings that you can use to spark conversation.
Surviving tantrums is all about acknowledging, accepting, and managing uncomfortable feelings as they arise, for children and parents alike. Progress may feel slow, but with consistent practice and support from the important adults in their lives, children begin to internalize this process, talking more readily about what they are feeling and utilizing effective calming strategies on their own.
Why Do Children Have Tantrums and Meltdowns? The Child Mind Institute
Dealing with Child Temper Tantrums from Toddler to Pre-Teen Empowering Parents
How To Handle Temper Tantrums: Coaching Kids to Calm Down Empowering Parents
Visual Tools for Calming Space:
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
A Little Spot of Emotion (8 Book Box Set) by Diane Alber
The Emotions Book: A Little Story About BIG Feelings by Liz Fletcher