Picture this: It’s another cold day and you are tired of being cooped up with your child at home. You decide to venture out to the mall so your child can stretch their legs and you can enjoy a little shopping. Things are going well. You enjoyed a nice lunch, browsed a couple stores, and have decided to take a stroll through one of your kid’s favorite spots. As a little treat for your well-behaved child, you tell them that they can pick one toy that is $10 or less. Your child has other ideas, however, and has found a toy that they desperately want that costs $40. At first it is a polite request—and then there is a little begging, then a little whining, and you begin to dread what comes next. The whining turns into a full-blown tantrum when you stand firm with the $10 limit. Now your heart is racing, you are flushed, and you suddenly feel as if there is a spotlight on you and everyone is watching. What do you do?
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience for many parents. Whether you are out or at home, you will inevitably deal with the dreaded tantrum. While not pleasant, it can be helpful to remember that tantrums are developmentally appropriate and are your child’s solution, although not a good one, to their perceived problem, which is typically that they are not getting something that they want. How you handle a tantrum is important and may impact the frequency and intensity of future tantrums.
So, let’s think about tantrums for a minute. As I mentioned above, tantrums are your child’s attempt at solving a perceived problem. Children often turn to this strategy because they have yet to develop the skills necessary to both communicate their feelings and manage their strong emotions. Tantrums often persist because a parent responds in a way that reinforces the behavior.
Here are eight parenting tips to help manage tantrums and help teach kids healthier coping and communication skills.
- Do label the feeling. Remember, kids do not have a large vocabulary yet and may not know how to identify or communicate what they are feeling. Take a moment to reflect the emotion you are seeing expressed so they can begin to identify their feelings. You can also reflect on their body language and how it is communicating their anger. Example: “You are feeling really mad right now that you can’t have the toy you want. I can see that you are mad because you are stomping and crossing your arms.”
- Do share your expectations. Think about the last time your child had a tantrum. Could they reason or even hear you when they were mid-tantrum? I bet not. Instead of trying to talk with them right then, let them know you can see that they are angry and that you cannot have a conversation with them until they calm down. Example: “I can see that you are very angry. It is really hard for me to understand you when you are this angry and yelling. When you calm down, we can talk about how you are feeling and what happened.”
Once your child has calmed down and you have met their emotional needs, don’t forget to talk about their behavior and help them to find better, more effective ways of communicating their needs and wants.
- Do redirect their energy. It can be helpful to redirect a child to another activity. Sometimes a tantrum can be averted simply by having your child help you with something or play with something else. You can also redirect them to another outlet or way of communicating their feelings. For example, you can have them draw their feelings, punch a pillow, or go outside and yell.
- Do meet your child’s emotional needs. Tantrums are exhausting for children. Have you ever really paid attention to your child after a tantrum? They are usually pretty worn out both physically and emotionally. You may have noticed that your children are more likely to discuss their behavior after their emotional needs are met. So, when your child calms down, give them a hug. Tell them that you love them. Reflect on how upset they were and how overwhelming that can feel.
- Do process their behavior. Once your child has calmed down and you have met their emotional needs, don’t forget to talk about their behavior and help them to find better, more effective ways of communicating their needs and wants.
- Don’t give in. This is so important! One of the most crucial strategies to combat unwanted behavior is consistency. Giving in may meet the short-term goal of stopping the tantrum, but it only creates long-term problems and reinforces unwanted behavior. My motto is “parent for the long term.”
- Don’t ignore it. As I mentioned above, tantrums can be both physically and emotionally exhausting for kids. Ignoring the behavior can make children feel less safe.
- Don’t reason or ask. Children in the midst of a tantrum are less capable of reasoning. Trying to engage a child’s rational brain during a tantrum is unlikely to do much other than ramp up the behavior. Continue to calmly label their emotions and request that they calm down so you can hear what they have to say.
Parenting for the long term can be hard and can sometimes lead to embarrassing public situations when you stand your ground instead of giving in to your child’s demands and escalating behavior. But just as inconsistency can reinforce unwanted behavior, consistency can reinforce desired behavior. As your child learns better coping and communication skills and learns that what you say goes no matter what they do, they will likely begin to use healthier ways of expressing their feelings and the tantrums will likely decrease and/or disappear.
If you want to learn healthier and more productive parenting skills, contact a licensed therapist who specializes in child and adolescent behavior.
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