The temper tantrums of childhood are a lot of things.
They are noisy. They are unsightly. They take up a lot of time (usually when you’re already on a tight schedule). They can lead to injuries. They can be embarrassing. They can make you feel so many awful emotions, and think all sorts of terrible thoughts. They can even push a parent to the brink.
With three children, I’ve spent a lot of years watching tantrums, a lot of years listening to tantrums, and a lot of years trying to deal with tantrums.
I know first-hand that tantrums are all these things. But I also recognise that tantrums are very necessary.
Childhood is basically a series of milestones. Some kids plough through them in a row like jumping hopscotch, whereas others amble their way around them like an obstacle course. We cheer on their first steps. We film their first words. And we marvel at their clumsy first attempt at writing their name.
But when do we stop to consider their emotional milestones?
Learning to negotiate difficult feelings is a crucial aspect of a child’s socio-emotional development. And a tantrum is a outward display of them desperately trying to deal with their anger, frustration, stress, tiredness, hunger, or overstimulation.
Temper tantrums usually begin at around 18 months and generally ease off considerably by about 4 years of age. (But don’t bother reminding your 8-year-old of this when she’s having yet another meltdown. Just trust me on that one.)
I don’t know you, but if your child has ever had a tantrum, then I know that you’ve given in to them at least once. How do I know this? Because every parent has done so. And for any number of reasons.
We give in so our child is not deprived. We give in because we just need it to end. We give in because we’ve already tried every other idea. We give in because we don’t know of any other way. And we give in because we couldn’t bear the risk of losing our child’s love.
But unfortunately, whilst giving in to a child’s tantrum might put a stop to it at that moment, this positive reinforcement suggests to the child that having a meltdown is exactly the type of behaviour to get what they want next time.
Yes, there’s an ugly pattern here. And it can establish itself very quickly.
So what constructive techniques can you use to manage your child mid-meltdown?
1. Prevent triggers wherever possible. Avoid or appropriately manage situations which you know may overstimulate or cause your child stress. And remember that tired or hungry children are more prone to tantrums.
2. Your most important role as a parent, while your child is losing their grip on big emotions, is to keep hold of yours. Stay calm. Stay quiet. And stay reasonable. Our children learn from our example. So although you may not ever see it, your child will be looking to you to help ground them while they struggle with a very difficult feeling. Be their rock.
3. Wait it out. A child in the middle of a tantrum will not listen to reason, they will not listen to negotiations, and they will not listen to distractions. To a child, any interference from you is noted as attention, so they’ll simply continue their show.
4. Empathise with your child. Once they’ve calmed down enough, name their feeling for them. And then describe how that emotion feels so they know that you truly understand them. Quite often children just want to be heard and understood, and so having someone genuinely recognise their feelings is worth more than getting their way.
5. Do not give in to the tantrum, and do not reward your child with attention during the tantrum. There should be no pay-off for their behaviour. Aim for consistency with this and your child will soon come to realise that a meltdown is not a tool to be exploited.
6. And, when it all gets too much, remember that tantrums are just another wonderful stage of childhood. This, too, shall pass.
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