Children have lots of ways they express their emotions, wants, and needs that can be taxing for parents. There’s the standard whining (“buuut I waaant one!”) and the incessant question-asking (“can I have ice cream? How about now? Now?”). But in this post, we’ll be talking about the big ones: the ‘level 10,’ ‘code red,’ ‘all hands-on deck,’ big ones.
Maybe your tantruming child looks something like this:
Johnny is watching his favorite show on TV. His mom comes in and reminds him, “after this episode, it’s time to turn off the TV.” Johnny mumbles, “mmhmm” seeming to acknowledge his mom’s statement, but somehow she knows even with the reminder, it won’t be so easy. Sure enough, five minutes later Johnny’s mom comes back and says “turn off the TV please.” Johnny becomes agitated, “NO! One more show!” His mom reminds him they already talked about this, grabs the remote, and turns it off. She braces herself.
“You’re so mean!” Johnny yells. “I’m not mean,” his mom starts explaining. Before she can finish explaining that he did get to watch for an hour already, Johnny continues, “I hate you! All you ever do is be mean to me!” “You cannot talk to me like that!” “Yes I can! You’re not my boss!” as he throws his cup toward his mother. “No more TV this week!” his mom declares. Johnny falls to the floor and cries. “You did that to yourself, Johnny. If you just turned off the TV like you said we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Keep it up and you’ll lose your iPad too.” He starts screaming. Over the next 15 minutes, it’s a mix of screaming, crying, and slamming doors. His mom thinks, ‘how can this be so hard?’
Tantrums. Meltdowns. Blowups. Outbursts. They go by many names, but as a parent, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Tantrums can involve yelling, screaming, crying, physical aggression, throwing things, etc. In the next few posts, we will be discussing common triggers for tantrums such as homework, bedtime, etc. Before we get into details of how to manage these specific situations, we will spend some time thinking about tantrums in general, understanding what is happening for your child, and ways to connect emotionally with your child even during these episodes.
Seeing your child go through a tantrum can be overwhelming. It may leave you questioning yourself and affect your own confidence as a parent. Frequent tantrums may have you “walking on eggshells” to avoid yet another episode for your child. They may have you asking yourself, “Is my child just being a brat?” or “How can this little thing be such a big deal for him?” You may find yourself losing your own cool and yelling back, or maybe going through a list of punishments, none of which seems to be helpful. So what can you do? Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to help meet your child’s needs, even in the face of a tantrum.
Dr. Danial’s 4 essentials to better deal with your tantruming child
Essential One: Understand what’s happening for your child.
Almost by definition, tantrums are not a logical process. Instead, they are a symptom of the emotional centers of the brain being overwhelmed. What your child is feeling in the midst of a true tantrum likely does not match the size of whatever problem triggered it, but it is important to remember the feeling is real for your child.
When our emotional centers are overwhelmed, our ability to access our solution-focused centers of our brain becomes nearly impossible. This is especially true for children, whose prefrontal cortex, that all-important problem-solving center of our brains, is far from fully developed. Basically, during a tantrum, you can think of your child as having “left the building,” and all those big emotions are now in control. With this in mind, the most important thing you can do is connect with your child’s feelings, as unreasonable as it may seem, as a means of calming those emotions.
Essential Two: Inspect your perspective.
Before we get to defining what it means to connect during a tantrum, let’s think about what message you want to give to your child during these episodes.
What’s your goal in the moment of a tantrum? Often times we want to ‘turn it off’ right away, but given what we talked about in “Step 1,” this is usually just not possible. Other times we want to be the ‘judge’ of what is an acceptable reason to have such strong emotions. When we don’t feel such a big reaction or big emotion is justified, we may find ourselves more frustrated than empathetic.
For example, my daughter recently dislocated her elbow and of course, was screaming and crying. I found myself much more empathetic than a couple days earlier when she was doing very similar screaming and crying when she couldn’t eat blueberries for dinner. The truth is she needed me to connect with her in both moments, I was just more ready to do so when I felt her emotions were ‘justified.’
If you can shift your perspective to accepting that your child needs support dealing with an overwhelming feeling, even if it doesn’t quite make sense, you will be more able to connect and improve your child’s confidence at being able to cope with these feelings.
Essential Three: Connect to the feeling.
Help your child feel you understand what he/she is going through. The tricky part is that this is best done while using very little language. The truth is when our emotional centers are overwhelmed, little language is getting in anyway. So what’s most important is that you model the calm you want your child to return to feeling. Take deep, slow breaths. If your child is not being aggressive, you can take these breaths while massaging his/her arms or rubbing their back. You can label their feeling (e.g. “It’s so frustrating when ____”).
Remind them that you are there. If they are not being aggressive, you can do this by just sitting next to them while modeling the slow breaths. If they are not letting you do that, you can just periodically remind them in a soothing tone, “I’m here when you’re ready.” As their emotions start to calm, help them to move on. This can be done by giving them a hug and redirecting them to whatever is next. You can let them know that you understand that was hard for them and are glad they’re feeling better.
Full disclosure: this process rarely goes perfectly, especially not at first. But by working on connecting with your child’s feelings, over time, you are consistently giving them the message that they can cope with these emotions, and that you are there to help them do so.
Essential Four: Be preemptive.
I’m suddenly aware while writing this post that I saved the preemptive step for last. That’s because working on the first 3 steps are the most important. However, often times, what situations trigger a tantrum for your child can be predictable. Maybe it’s when a younger sibling grabs their toy, or if kids at the park aren’t playing what your child wants to play. Entering these situations, you may find yourself crossing your fingers things go smoothly. In addition to the crossing fingers approach, it can be helpful to preemptively work through these situations with your child beforehand.
For example, before play time with their sibling, you can pull your child aside and prepare them for the frustrations that may emerge (e.g. “Sometimes your little brother knocks over your Legos. That’s so frustrating. What can we do if that happens?”). Talking through a plan can help your child feel more empowered if a situation does emerge, and make it more likely they are able to employ a problem-solving strategy before those big emotions take over.
With this foundation in mind, STAY TUNED to my next post where I will be discussing emotional struggles related to homework.
Hope you found this helpful!
John Danial, Ph.D.
I’m a licensed psychologist who encourages children, teens, and families to take the steps and make the changes they need to see real, lasting change in their lives.
I specialize in working with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anxiety, Defiant behaviors, and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and in helping children and adolescents build confidence and strength to live their lives to their true potential. I believe that each child is unique and has the inner strength to fight through their obstacles with the support of their loved ones. So they never have to experience feeling “less than” or being labeled as “different” or “difficult.” Learn more