Children have tantrums. It’s practically inevitable. Even if you set out to parent in a kind and connected way, tantrums can happen. They happen because tantrums are a sign of emotional overload. Tantrums are a request for loving guidance.
Tantrums are emotional outbursts.
During a tantrum a child may meltdown, cry and scream. Sometimes children also hit, kick, bite and bang things during a tantrum. Tantrums happen when children are overwhelmed. Overwhelm can come from being scared, frustrated, tired, hungry, confused and uncomfortable.
Children of all ages can have tantrums, but toddlers in particular are more likely to have tantrums. This happens because the toddler brain is still very immature and impulsive. It is not a sign that they are naughty, bad or spoiled.
Tantrums don’t have to rule the early years and can be an opportunity for parents to offer unconditional love and guidance.
1. Less is more:
A lot of children get so worked up when they are in pain or frustrated and we forget that they really can’t tune in to what we are saying. It’s hard to cry, protest all while trying to absorb a teachable moment.
Say less. Listen more. Be present, and don’t worry about teaching during the tantrum.
One morning leaving toddler playgroup, my daughter wanted to bring home a Minnie mouse toy. It didn’t belong to her. Being just two years old at the time, that was just so incomprehensible to her. While I validated and acknowledged how wonderful the toy was, I also made it clear that the toy had to stay at playgroup. My daughter cried for about a minute. Then she whimpered a bit more. I offered her a smile mixed with empathy and open arms. She climbed into my lap and three minutes or so after the tantrum was done. All I had to do was listen. Then, she placed the toy on the shelf and we left hand in hand.
2. Make Peace with Tears
Tears are not the enemy or a sign of parental failure. It is a normal, physiological and emotional reaction for a young child to cry and express unhappiness. A lot of parenting advice talks about “how to stop tantrums” and to “ignore” tantrums. Letting your child feel her feelings and cry when they feel overwhelmed is so vital to their long term well-being.
If you find it hard to listen to your child’s tears, Aletha-Solter offers an important explanation:
It is difficult to allow children the freedom of tears because most of us were stopped from crying when we were young. Our well-meaning, but misinformed, parents may have distracted, scolded, punished, or ignored us when we attempted to heal our childhood hurts by crying.
The sooner we make peace with the idea that our child may at times have a tantrum, the easier it becomes to respond in a kind, calm and connected way. It also teaches children that they can get upset and then move forward.
3. Listening to a Tantrum is not the same as giving in:
You can listen to a tantrum and validate feelings and still keep your limit.
The safer a child feels the sooner their tantrum is likely to subside. A calm, confident presence gives your child a sense that they are OK, even if they didn’t get their way.
Listening and validating also gives your child words to fill up their emotional vocabulary, which is vital to developing emotional intelligence and self-regulation skills.
4. Make corrections in a connected and calm way:
“I will not let you kick me.” Is enough to make it clear that the tears can go on, but that hurting you is not acceptable. Lecturing on and on as the child cries and tried to hurt you will only escalate the tantrum.
Another calm correction is to carry or accompany your child out of a public area into a more private space. It might sound like: “Let’s find a better place to be right now. Follow me.” Or simply walking away together.
5. Negotiations and Redirection?
It can be tempting to redirect or bribe to stop tears. Under most circumstances, it’s best to avoid that. Instead, accept the real feelings and show faith in both your child and the limit that you have set. If you don’t believe in that limit, then your child has no reason to respect it either. This isn’t the same as being rigid or inflexible and more so about being calm and confident.
When we negotiate endlessly, we also send mix messages. “No you can’t…oh wait…yes you can…I don’t know…”
Distractions and redirections also negate our child’s real feelings and their right to discharge the emotional overload. Typically, this means you will see more frequent tantrums and not less.
6. Learning happens best after the storm and when children feel well.
Your message about sharing, not hitting, not buying sweets etc…will all sink it much better once your child is calm. Save the teachable moments for when your child is back to calm.
Self-regulation skills (i.e. not having a big tantrum) develops gradually. It will take a few trials and errors, much listening and patience. Children also learn a lot from observing their trusted adults self-regulate too. So, it’s ok if you need to walk away for a moment and calm yourself down as well.
Lastly, strive to keep appropriate expectations, meet your child’s needs and to use a connected approach to discipline. This way your child will continue to trust and seek out your guidance.
Peace & Be Well,