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 when she entered into the 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 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 more behavior difficulties.
What I did not know then is that ignoring children and punitive time outs are psychologically distressing for children. Forced separation and the silent treatment triggers can sends children into highly escalated fight, flight, or freeze response.
My parenting approach 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 that occurred in children who had been repeated ignored, shut out, separated from, or forced into time outs.
The stories from these children, combined with my training in attachment theory, shifted how I interacted with my own children during their emotional storms.
What follows is a brief introduction on how to handle distress tantrums.
Tantrums are normal
Most children between the ages of 18 months and 12 years have some tantrums. Yet, they can continue into the teen years. Healthy and high functioning adults sometimes have tantrums too they have too much stress piled on and they cannot cope with the circumstances they are in.
Food, Sleep, Water, Rest
Children need more frequent stops for food, water, and rest more than adults do. This is because their brains and bodies are developing rapidly. Do not underestimate what lack of food or rest will do to your kids mood. If you child is tantruming because these needs are not met, meet them! Also, if your child does not get adequate sleep this can set them up for massive meltdowns. Make sure you meet their physical and biological needs.
Movement and Creativity
If your child tantrums a lot, and is on screens a lot, get them off screens and get them moving. Children are more likely to emotionally regulate when they have plenty of fresh air, running, biking, kicking, puzzles, board games, cards, climbing, digging, art, music, dance.
Structure and Routine
Children need a predictable and consistent routine. A stable home and school life, that allows for small changes and flexibility, is the greatest tantrum preventer we have. Kids have an easier time managing emotions and stress when they have a solid and reliable foundation to count on.
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 tantrum 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. Hang in there and ride it out.
The purpose of tantrums
Most kids have tantrums on occasion. 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 regulated 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 spouse, 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 flooded with a mix of emotions so 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 logic and reasoning, 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
Make a statement or two that lets your child know that you 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. It is OK to provide comfort and this will not be reinforcing "bad behavior".
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 four year old wants another. I tell her that she cannot have one. She screams, whines, demands, yells, and falls to the floor. She is launching into full blown tantrum mode and nothing I say helps and she won't stop crying. 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 adult, that I am a strong and loving parent. It is my job to support my child in developing emotional regulation.
I lead with a stable and grounded presence.
"You really want another cookie and I won't let you have one. You are probably really frustrated right now."
She continues to scream, demand, beg, yell, and fall to the floor. She may say yes, she may say no.
I hold my boundary firm (no more cookies) while staying regulated and present.
Fewer words are generally better. The focus is now nervous system regulation. Soft voice, warm facial expressions, and safe body language. This soothes my child's limbic system.
Then I stay close. I let her know I am there. I may offer touch but if that is more dysregulating than I don't.
When she finishes crying. She comes to me for a hug. She may open up about other stressors in her life.
I resume cooking, probably keeping her close to me, asking if she wants to help set the table. I save the teaching moment for later.
Later, when appropriate, I teach her that it is always OK to feel sad or angry but it is not OK to scream, demand, beg, yell, and fall to the floor. We talk some. We snuggle. The message she gets is that all her feelings are OK and we teach pro-social behavior.
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 that needs to be addressed. Children are often the barometer, letting us know that something within the family needs tending to.
Parents fighting, marital problems, parent depression, parent anxiety, high stress, and family conflict may result in numerous tantrums in your child. If parents are under high stress, the children are under high stress too.
Other times tantrums may signal that your child has an underlying physical health, mental health, or behavior condition. They may also indicate your child is having problems at school or with peers. If you have concerns about this, see your pediatrician who can assess for underlying medical concerns. Or see a child and family therapist.
Child and 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.
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! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couples Therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified in Perinatal Mental Health. I write on all things related to relationships, parenthood, and connection.