By: Cristina Trette
My first child was an adorable and firey baby. One moment she would be happy and smiling. The next moment she would start crying because a loud truck drove by or we entered into a crowded area. Mostly, I felt competent and attuned to her. But her sensitivity kept me on my toes. When she entered into her preschool and kindergarten years, her meltdowns became harder for me to navigate. Maybe this is because I decided to have two more children! Or maybe it is because I just did not know how to handle her tantrums well.
Admittedly, when my daughter became overwhelmed, I became overwhelmed. I had been taught to eliminate tantrums through ignoring, time outs, or instilling consequences. My intentions were good but these discipline moves only served to escalate her more - and created many more problems.
What I did not know then, but I know now, is that ignoring children and punitive time outs are very painful for children. Forced separation and the silent treatment triggers a survival reaction in the brain and sends children into highly escalated fight or flight response. Positive learning cannot come from this experience.
My discipline style changed dramatically when I started counseling children, ages 5 - 18, in a school setting. I heard story after story about what was happening before, during and after a tantrum from the perspective of the children. I also witnessed the deep emotional pain and shutdown that occured in children that had been repeated ignored or punished by well meaning parents. This was eye opening and transformative for me. Their stories, combined with my training in The Joy of Parenting and Emotionally Focused Therapy, shifted how I interacted with my kids during their emotional storms.
What follows is a brief introduction on how to handle distress tantrums.
Tantrums are almost always typical
Most children between the ages of 18 months and 12 years have tantrums. Yet, they can continue into the teen years. Healthy and high functioning adults sometimes have meltdowns too - when they have too much stress piled on and they cannot cope with the circumstances they are in.
There are different kinds of tantrums
There are two different kinds of tantrums. Distress Tantrums, which is what I am writing about in this article, occur when a child is overwhelmed with emotion and cannot self sooth or regulate.
Children can also have Demand Tantrums. In these tantrums the child has learned that the only way he can get his needs met is to demand, whine, cry, scream, yell, fall to the floor, etc. I will write about how to approach these kinds of tantrums in a different post.
All sorts of situations can lead to tantrums for littles.
Children have more critical biological needs that adults do. This is because their brains and bodies are developing rapidly. It is very important that children's need for water, food, proper nutrition, sleep, rest, and elimination are consistently tended to. Children also need a lot of outdoor time, fresh air, and movement.
Lastly, children have an easier time managing emotions and stress when they have a solid and reliable base to count on. This mean that it is important to create a predictable and consistent routine and stable home and school life that also allows for small changes and flexibility.
Preschool and elementary ages children experience a lot on a typical school day. Much of their day they are expected to sit still, share, follow rules, do what they are told, and work hard. They can run into all sorts of relationship difficulties with their friends. When children don't have a safe space to talk about some of what happened, they tend to keep it all bottled up, until it all comes out in a tantrum. So be sure to give your child numerous opportunities to talk about their day and their feelings.
Boundaries, limit, and rules
Children need boundaries, limits, and rules. Many times tantrums will occur when a limit is set. For example, you say no snacking before dinner or you tell your child to wash hands before dinner. Hold your limit even if a meltdown occurs.
Transitions are another time that children commonly meltdown. For example, when you announce it is time to leave the park or when you say it is time for bed. This is normal and there are ways to help ease your child's difficulties with transitions. I will write more about this in a seperate blog post.
The purpose of tantrums
Most typical healthy kids have tantrums because tantrums are what happens during acute emotional dysregulation. And tantrums are the way the body releases pent up sadness, anger, hurt, and fear. When parents approach tantrums in a steady and grounded way, children slowly learn how to regulate themselves. We are wired for co-regulation. This means that humans regulate most efficiently by turning to other people for comfort. Your nervous system will influence your child's nervous system. So when parents are regulated this will help their child regulate.
What is happening during a tantrum
Have you ever been in a situation, maybe with your partner, where you have become so upset that you cannot think straight or reason? Maybe you yell or say things that you did not mean. Or maybe you become so flooded with a mix of emotions that trying to have a reasonable conversation is very difficult. This is what is happening to your child during a tantrum, but times 100, because your child's brain is not fully developed.
The prefrontal cortex area of the brain is the part of the brain that controls reasoning, impulse, aggression, planning, self regulation, emotion regulation, and social skills. This part of the brain has a blossoming period at the age of 12 and is not fully developed until age 25!
Young children simply do not have the brain capacity to handle all of the ups and downs of life without falling apart from time to time. During a tantrum, your child is totally overwhelmed and loses access to the logical part of his brain, and often loses control of his body. If you want to learn more about what is happening on a nervous system level during a tantrum, read Dr. Dan Siegel's book, No Drama Discipline.
What to do during the tantrum
Start by clearly and simply restating your limit, boundary, rule, or transition (if you have set one). Then make a statement or two that lets your child know that you genuinely understand where she is coming from by validating her emotions, wants, and needs. If you have to gently move with her into a private place, do so. From here, you want to stay tuned into her and her experience. The less reactive you are the better. There is no need to lecture, scold, argue, punish, ignore, ridicule, or yell. These moves will only make things worse. With simple and clear language let her know that you are there for her. Do what you need to do to tend to yourself. Don't let her hit you or anyone else. Don't let her break things. When she is done, she will probably want comfort. Allow her to receive the comfort.
Here is an example:
I am making dinner. There is a plate of homemade cookies on the counter. My kids all got one cookie after school. My three year old wants another. I tell her that she cannot have one. She whines, demands, yells, and falls to the floor. I can tell she is about to launch into full blown tantrum mode because nothing I say helps and she won't stop crying and demanding. I make the decision to pause briefly on dinner prep because it is practical for me to do so.
I move into the development of co-regulation.
I focus on my breath, the tension in my body, the thoughts swirling in my head, and the feelings I am having. I remind myself that I have skills, that I am the parent, and that it is my job to support my child in developing emotional regulation.
I state outloud what it is that I think she is experiencing. I exude a stable, grounded, strong, and loving presence.
"I get it. You probably feel so frustrated right now. You wanted another cookie and I won't let you have one. I am here for you and I want to help you."
You may want to ask if there is anything you can do to help, such as offer a hug, a glass of water, etc. This may make her scream more. Or it may bring her down.
Then you close, let her have her process, and when she is done she will likely come to you for comfort. It is OK to comfort her. Comfort after emotional upset is the equivalent of rewarding poor behavior. Remind her in a short and simple manner that when you say that she can only have one cookie before dinner that this is your rule that you expect her to follow. Let her know that it is always OK to be sad or angry but it is not OK to scream, demand, beg, yell, and fall to the floor.
Sometimes tantrums serve as a signal
As stated previously, most of the time tantrums are normal and most healthy children have some tantrums.
Yet, sometimes tantrums signal that there is something happening within the family system that needs to be addressed. In family therapy, we like to say that one child carries and express the symptoms of the entire family. Children are often the barometer, letting us know that something within the family needs tending to.
Parents fighting, marital problems, parent depression or anxiety, high stress, and constant conflict may result in numerous tantrums in your child. If parents are under high stress, the children are under high stress too.
Family therapists are trained to guide parents and children to create strong and connected relationships, emotional regulation within the family, and open up healthy communication and interaction patterns. Feel free to contact me for guidance or referrals in your area.
Other times tantrums may signal that your child has an underlying physical health, mental health, or behavior condition. If you have concerns about this, see your pediatrician who will likely refer you to a child psychologist. Early intervention is critical and can be very helpful.
What do you want to know about when it comes to peaceful parenting? As always I love to hear from my readers. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to me in the comments box below!
Hello there! My name is Cristina Trette. I am an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, Educator, and Coach. I am also a mother to three. I love to write about how to create empowered relationships and thriving wellbeing.
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