Thursday, October 21, 2010

The T-Bomb...dealing with tantrums

If you staggered upon this article in the Merc over the weekend, you may have identified a little with some of the parents with regard to tantrums.  The article had a lot of wisdom and practical advice (except throwing yourself on the floor and having your own tantrum!).

I'd like to give my two cents although I'm for the most part elaborating on what the article has already expressed.  When preschoolers (not just toddlers!) engage their power to scream, here are a few things I like to bear in mind.
  • Acknowledge their feelings, which often get overlooked in the shadow of the wailing.  They need a label for their feelings, and they also need to know that we know how they are feeling (and are still setting limits, despite their hurt feelings or disappointment).  This is different than reinforcing the screaming.  It's a statement of fact.  "You seem very angry about that."
  • Avoid blanket statements like "It's okay" or "You're okay".  These tend to be very empty and meaningless and don't really address the root of the issue.  It also overlooks what the child is feeling.  We know they are okay, but they have to experience the beginning, middle, and end of the process before they will understand that they are ultimately okay.  Becoming upset or angry is a natural human process that cannot be overridden with a simple "You're okay".
  • Set firm and clear limits and make consequences related to the situation.  If I know what the child's motivation is behind the tantrum (was it not getting something they wanted? they wanted to wear a certain thing but it was in the hamper? they want to go to the park but ran out of time? they wanted candy for breakfast?), then I make sure the child understands how to get that thing appropriately.  If there is no chance for them to get it (now or later), then I make sure they know that this behavior will not help, and also I let them know that screaming voids future possibilities of getting that thing.  ("If you choose to scream it, we won't be able to get it out for the rest of the night.").  This calls upon their ability to gauge time ("tomorrow" is very far away to a two-year-old, but they will understand it enough to get the point, and if not they will learn for next time).
  • Strategically ignoring the behavior can be effective.  Giving too much attention to a tantrum may send a message that the adult doesn't trust that the child will get through it on their own.  Assuring the child that you are available when they need you and then separating yourself physically offers support but gives the child space to process what they need to.  Sometimes adults maybe starting talking wildly or intruding on the child's space while the child is tantruming in order to help or stop the unstoppable.  When the whole world goes into a frenzy because of that child's tantrum, the world must be unstable (according to the child's perception).  What an unsafe feeling, to think that the whole world hinges on your behavior.  It's simply too much power for a child to handle.  However...I don't think we should absolutely ignore a child and let them cry it out for an hour.  This emotional event, stored in the brain, could lead to similar behavior later on.
  • Separate yourself or your tantruming child.  If the crying is too loud, as it usually is during a tantrum, address it.  "I'm going to be out here because it's too loud for my ears in here.  When you are ready to talk about it in a regular voice you can come out here with me."  I even differentiate between crying and having a tantrum so we have a common language ("can you be angry in a loud voice instead of having a tantrum?" This might seem ridiculous but the child will start to gauge what is appropriate and what is a tantrum).  The child can understand the difference between being reasonably upset and inappropriately loud. "Can you be upset in a way that isn't screaming?"  This gives them permission to feel their feelings, but sets a limit on what is appropriate.
  • Sometimes, everyone needs some space to process before having meaningful conversation.  Wait for the calm after the storm to get into the details.  Keep dialogues simple and to the point when the tantrum is in full swing.
  • Giving children choices puts the accountability back on them.  "You look like you are really frustrated.  When you are ready to use a quieter voice, you can come back and we'll talk about it".  Or "when you are done screaming, you can go back and play."  Their choice, not yours.  It takes the adult out of the power equation.
  • Coach children on appropriate ways to express emotions during a neutral time.  Stomping feet, frowning, expressing "I'm angry!", are all appropriate ways of expressing anger, which the brain can very literally need to do once the reptilian response in the brain has been activated.  Higher level processing is difficult when this need has not been given expression.
  • Be matter of fact and assertive while offering support.  (Read this article on being "too kind".)  Children tend to trust me more when I am firm and kind, rather than permissive and kind.

    Tantrums will happen.  Not every moment can be a zen moment.  Often there may be a pattern of behaviors leading up to the tantrum that can also be addressed, but that is for a different post. And usually it really is a phase, that in hindsight seems like any other challenge of raising children.   

    Please share your comments on what I've written or your personal experiences (and successes).



    1. Thanks for making the ' overwhelming chaotic moment' seem manageable for the often bewildered guardian by suggesting empirically tested strategies to corral and clarify misdirected anger, fear, and sadness.

    2. Another great post thanks. I am going to take a printout so that we can refer it later.

      How about distraction technique? Anticipating a tantrum and diverting the attention on something else.
      As parents we can sense when the child goes into tantrum mode way before it happens. It has worked with A few times, not sure how long it will work though :-)

    3. Thanks for the comment!

      I think distraction can be effective in some situations and ineffective in others, depending on how it is used. It's wise to try to stay ahead of a tantrum (unless you like screaming) but not if it means distracting the child so they don't have to deal with no getting what they want. Children do need to learn this lesson, because the reality is they are not always going to get their way. I think if tantrums are a constant struggle in the home, then looking at the child's environment (social, emotional, and physical environment) to make it more child-friendly will help.

      I have also seen parents use distraction as manipulation. When the child starts to protest about something they don't like, the parent jumps in with "oh, remember we are going to the park with so-and-so tomorrow!". This undermines the respectful dialogue that could have happened about the actual issue, rather than sweeping it under the rug. It's convenient for the parent because they don't have to "deal" with it, but it resolves nothing.

      Hope this helps : )

    4. Awesome post. I want to put in my 2 cents on the "You're OK" topic. I agree that we should not tell children "you're OK" when they're feeling upset, but I have to disagree with you when you say, "We know they are OK...". If a child is crying or screaming, it usually means they are not OK. I want children to recognize and be aware of their emotions and personal state of being, so telling them "You're OK" when they are obviously not OK does not support children in building self-awareness. That is the point you were making, but also I think caregivers need to be able to recognize and value when a child is not OK, however frivolous the reason for the upset. Thanks for a super post, Steph!

    5. Thanks for the two cents : ) I agree, and we can always acknowledge how they are feeling. Ultimately, they are "okay" in that when all is said and done we are safe and our needs are taken care of. I don't like when people say "Okay, okay" or "you're okay, you're okay" in a way that undermines the child's experience and just tries to put a bandaid on the matter. The goal is often to "fix" the child's experience rather than offering support through the experience. When we walk through problems with the children (rather than ahead of them so to speak), the child gets to see that they can come out on the other side without the adult having to rescue them from the feelings/emotions.


    Thank you for the comments! Always appreciated : )

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