If you haven’t read the previous blog post on tantrums, you can read it here!
How to Support Your Child Through Their Tantrum
In the previous tantrum blog post, I discussed the origins of aggression and tantrums, and how important it is to keep in mind that when your child begins telling you “No!” or “I do it myself!”, they are starting to develop a very healthy habit of asserting their wants and needs, and not just being outright defiant. Having this mindset is the very best first step a parent can take, because it shifts your thought process from “My child is out of control, behaving badly, and I cannot help them”, to “My child is practicing a skill that needs to be supported and shifted to help them better adapt to the world around them”. It is an internal practice which will change your observations of and interactions with your child. If you are viewing their behavior with understanding and compassion, they will also begin to view themselves, and others, this way. (As a side note: understanding and empathizing with your child through their tantrum is NOT the same as accepting or encouraging the maladaptive behavior.)
Do Not Internalize Your Child’s Anger as Your Own, Talk Your Child Through
Remaining calm when your child is not is a very difficult practice. Many children pull their parent into their angry acting-out by frustrating their parent with continuing the activity the parent has told them to stop, yelling, or even becoming physical with the parent. When you begin to notice yourself becoming frustrated, keep in mind that your child is also frustrated and that you have years of experience coping with frustration that your child does not. They are simply coping in the most effective way they can in their current developmental phase, and you can model better coping strategies for them. Empathize with how difficult it can be when one wants something they cannot have, and identify for your child, with a calm voice what they might be experiencing internally, by saying something like, “You must be very angry with me right now for not letting you have that kitchen knife you really wanted”. When someone identifies a feeling we are having verbally, it is often containing because we feel understood. Acknowledging that your child is angry with you is not the same as saying their outburst is appropriate, and it is not an admission of a mistake in your judgment.
When your child responds with eye contact or a verbalization, you can continue to talk about the feeling and how it arose. Even if your child is not yet talking, putting this kind of language into practice can only be helpful, and even very young children understand language before they can use it effectively themselves. If your child is giving you non-verbal cues that they are escalating again (in our office, we call this having a “busy body”), give them some time to continue to cool down before talking.
This intervention can only work if your child is not in the throes of a tantrum, but is effective at helping the child to contain the anger so that there is no tantrum. A tantrum is an acting out communication of anger and frustration, and if you recognize, verbally, to your child that you see they are angry and frustrated, the need for the tantrum typically disappears.
But I Still Have to Say “No” to My Child
If your child is trying to do a dangerous activity or play with a dangerous item, you should absolutely stop them. If what they want is not dangerous or a health concern, consider alternatives to the word “No”, such as highlighting what they can do or play with, or having a conversation about what they want rather than just refusing it. For example, your child would like to go ride their tricycle or bike before their homework is finished, but your house rule is to have all homework completed before leisure time. When your child asks if they can ride their bicycle, you ask if their homework is complete and they share that it is not. Instead of saying, “No you cannot”, consider saying “You can ride your bike as soon as your homework is finished. If you need some help getting through it, just let me know”. If they begin to push the boundary with behaviors and verbalizations you recognize as the road to a tantrum, explore with them why they have a need to ride their bike right this instant, without having homework finished. It is possible that your child could have had a full day of school and needs to give their brain a break from the frustration of doing many math problems. If they can verbalize something to this effect, considering some flexibility with the house rule can lead to a way to teach them time management, which is an important skill for adulthood, as well as making their need feel heard and understood by the most important person in their life.
If you choose to allow your child a break on their bicycle before their homework is completed, ask them (or assist them, if they are too young) to make a plan for how much time they will need on their bike to rest their brain, before they can get back to finishing their homework. This is a great way to guide them in creating realistic decisions about their time, such as taking a ten-minute break versus a two-hour break. Making a collaborative plan will help your child assert their need (a break) without your blocking it, allowing them to feel heard and their needs understood, and still accomplishes the goal which you have set for them (getting their homework finished). You can also prepare them for the natural consequences of not sticking to their plan - that in the event their homework is not completed - you will see that the original rule of homework before leisure time needs to be in place until they are ready to manage their time more effectively on their own.
Choices are Empowering
In the event that there has to be a hard boundary, and the thing your child wants to do or have is absolutely not available to them (for example, a toy your child sees and wants at the store does not fit in your weekly budget), consider giving them choices for what they can have. If there are other, cheaper toys that you are willing to allow your child, pose the choice to them by saying something like, “We can’t spend money on that toy this week, but you can choose this one or that one if you’d like to have something new. I will help you make a plan for the bigger toy you want when we get home”.
In the example of the bicycle scenario from the last section, let’s imagine that there is a function that you and your child will attend at 5:30 pm, making time in the evening tight. You can let your child know that typically you could talk about a plan for a break, but that their homework needs to be finished in order for you both to make it to this function on time. If it is a function your child would like to attend, you can let them know that they can choose to ride their bike before their homework is complete, but they will have to skip the function to finish their homework and leave the choice up to them (if the function is an organized sport, you can also include the consequences for their team if they do not attend). Leaving your child with a choice is very good practice for your child as they learn to prioritize both leisure activities and obligations.
But My Child is Screaming and Not in a Place to Hear Me at All
Sometimes tantrums are unavoidable, as children learn to operate in a world with boundaries that often frustrate their wishes. Even implementing some of the aforementioned measures will not curb all tantrums, because you are guiding your child as they practice their regulatory abilities, and integral to practice and subsequent mastery are missteps or steps back. Mistakes are a part of the learning process. In the event of a tantrum, especially in public, consider the following steps as a guideline for being the most helpful to your child’s regulatory process.
- Remain calm, and refrain from telling your child to calm down, threatening punishment, or attempting to bribe. They are not in a place to hear your words.
- If your child can walk on their own, have them walk to a private place where there are no onlookers. Your child may be old enough or perceptive enough of other people’s thoughts and feelings to be embarrassed by their outburst, even though they cannot regulate on their own at that moment. If your child cannot walk on their own due to the intensity of their upset, or because they are too young, assist them or carry them to a private place.
- Sit with them and in a calm voice reassure them that they are safe, and you are not leaving them. They will not be able to hear you, but as they begin to regulate themselves they will be interested in what your quiet, calm voice is saying, and why you are not angry with them (note: you are probably angry at your child and their behavior at this point, but you are choosing to express it in a different, and much more appropriate way, refusing their invitation to angrily act out alongside of them).
- If they verbalize needing space (i.e. GO AWAY!) and you are in a safe place to give them space for a few minutes, honor the expression of their need. You can address the inappropriateness of how they expressed it when they are calm and rational again, if necessary.
- When your child is calm, take a few minutes for both of you to gather your thoughts. Avoid processing or talking about the incident immediately, taking time to identify and understand your own feelings and your child’s before starting a conversation. When you feel sure you will not act out the anger you might be having about their behavior, you can point out how you think they were feeling, what you think caused it, and how difficult it must have felt to be so out of control. You can help them think of alternatives for what they can do if or when they experience that intensity of anger again and remind them that loving feelings remain even when big angry feelings happen.
- Point out to your child, in a calm manner, the natural consequences of their behavior, by saying something like, “When you scream the way you did in the store, other people might feel afraid or not want to be close to you because the screaming hurts their ears” or, “We did not have time to do the interesting thing you wanted, because your screaming let me know you needed to leave early. Next time, if you are angry, you can use talking words instead of screaming words and I will know you need help and we won’t have to leave early”.
- If necessary, impose consequences for your child in a calm way, and ensure those consequences are tied to their actions, and not arbitrary. For example, if your child was screaming in a store and you had to leave before your errand was finished, you can let them know that because you did not get your errand finished, there will be less or no time for them to do an activity they wanted because your errand will now take longer.
A note on consequences:
The goal of imposing a consequence is to help your child reflect on their behavior and increase motivation toward regulatory, adaptive behaviors in the future. When you impose a consequence, using language like, “I’m taking your iPad when we get home” will put yourself in the position of withholding something they enjoy, rather than their behavior being responsible for the consequence. Tying the consequence to their behavior, rather than saying you will take a thing they enjoy from them, will reinforce the idea that actions have consequences much more effectively, as opposed to the idea that “I was bad and my parent does not want me to have (or thinks I don’t deserve) a thing that I enjoy”. If losing screen time is the consequence you wish to impose, consider communicating this consequence by saying something like, “Your body was really out of control in the store, and I was worried about your safety. You will need to show you can be more in control of your body and can keep yourself safe so that you and I both are sure you will also keep the iPad safe”.
If your child struggles with frequent and intense tantrums or meltdowns that are very disruptive to their lives and the lives of other family members, it could be helpful to seek out professional support for your child and for yourself in order to shift these maladaptive behaviors. If you are in the Houston, Texas area, you can contact The Journey School of Houston’s clinical services for referrals and other resources at firstname.lastname@example.org. Outside of the Houston area, you can find helping professionals and resources in many communities throughout the United States at www.psychologytoday.com.