How To deal With Temper Tantrums: A Positive Parenting Guide
Inspired by a thread that came up in a travelling parents forum the other day about how to deal with temper tantrums, I thought I’d let you know the 8 simple steps we take that takes us from tantrum to chilled-out in no time.
How to deal with temper tantrums: Thinking about ‘tantrums’
What is a tantrum?
As most parents use the word, a tantrum is a big expression of emotion that is inconvenient for the person looking after the child because of the volume, words or physical outworking of the expression. Examples include yelling, screaming, crying, throwing themselves on the floor and physically lashing out. Ways to identify parents of a tantrum-ing child include a hopeless expression, disheveled hair and the letters ‘S.O.S’ spelled out in Alphabetti on the supermarket floor.
Why do we call it a ‘tantrum’?
I find it helpful to think about the ways we describe our kids’ actions to see if they have an implicit tone of disrespect or de-valuing the motives behind the actions. If I was out with a friend and they got upset about something, and I described it to someone else and said they “threw a tantrum”, it would imply that they were overreacting.
Reasons behind tantrums
Taking the above point, when we try and communicate to a child that they ‘shouldn’t’ be having a tantrum we are making a judgement that their reaction is disproportionate to what has happened.
From an adult perspective it might be disproportionate, but that is because as adults we have the experience to see practical ways around our predicament and to deal with difficult emotions, as well as the freedom and autonomy to implement them.
Kids are at the complete mercy of adults, so a tantrum is often a valid panicking reaction that someone is going to prevent them from doing or getting what it is that they feel is important to them.
How to deal with temper tantrums: The most important question
Fundamentally, how should we treat children*?
There are lots of popular articles and memes talking about the situation of a child being given the ‘wrong colour cup’. The conventional advice is to be ‘firm’ (alternatively read: ‘stubborn’, ‘inflexible’) and refuse to change the colour cup, to ‘teach’ the child that they cannot have what they want and to condition them to accept parents’ decisions without an inconvenient emotional expression.
This sounds like rubbish to me.
Yes, maybe it ‘works’ to stop the kids communicating their preferences (although usually kids don’t give up, they just learn that they have to express things even more strongly to be listened to). But is that really what we want? Long term, is our aim to get a child who acts in a convenient way for us, or are we striving towards a relationship based on mutual respect and trust (leading, often, to calmer behaviour)?
A child who isn’t expressing their desires and emotions to their parents isn’t feeling them any less- they will just be hoarding them, or taking them out on something else.
Let’s take that ‘cup’ situation- the child has come home from nursery, is having their dinner and has been given water instead of juice and given it in a cup they don’t like.
How to deal with temper tantrums: Treat children as we would like to be treated
Rewind and zoom out. You’ve just got home from work – your colleague was a pain, you got interrupted a million times and your boss didn’t like the work you did.
Your partner asks if you want a drink; you say yes please.
You’re looking forward to unwinding with a cup of that special Chai tea that you got for Christmas, in your favourite mug. It’s the fine bone china, it’s the perfect size and it has the pretty pattern with the cherry blossom and hummingbirds on. It helps you relax.
Your partner comes in with a glass of water. You ask for the tea; he says no, you’ve had enough Chai for one day- water is better for you. And it’s a cup, what difference does it make whether it’s your favourite mug or a glass?
Of course it makes a difference. It’s emotional, it’s irrational, it doesn’t make sense and yet we all know it’s true.
Comfort is not tangible but it is something that we all need- which is why I will take the time to ask for my kids’ preferences, as trivial as they may seem, and strive to fulfil them. This is in the same way that I like to bring a little bit of joy to my husband’s life by bringing him breakfast in bed on a weekend (like, once every six months when I remember, but you get the gist).
Comfort often comes in the form of familiarity especially when travelling, so having that exact same cup/ chips and ketchup on separate plates/ hair bow fastened in THAT EXACT WAY is really much more than what it seems- it’s a child doing a great job of trying to keep themselves emotionally healthy, by seeking comfort among the unfamiliar.
Wouldn’t then, a more kind and appropriate response to a child who is having a meltdown over the wrong cup, be to get them a different cup?
No, they won’t ask for it in a ‘nice’ way- emotionally they are probably spent, and they are probably thinking of all the other times that they’ve been refused something they really wanted, just because an adult decided they couldn’t have it. All these emotions and thoughts together create a HUGE reaction, which looks disproportionate but is actually an accumulative reaction to a chain of events, taken out on this one ‘cup’ issue.
When thinking about how to deal with tantrums I find it helpful to remember that I
sometimes often behave in ways that aren’t ideal, or are downright rude (ask Patrick). In fact if my life consisted of being on someone else’s schedule, like most kids’ lives are, I think I would handle it with considerably less grace than they do. I’m not perfect, so why would I expect them to be?
So what’s the practical answer on ‘how to deal with temper tantrums’?
How to deal with temper tantrums: 8 steps that works for us
It’s much easier to deal with things before they happen than have them sneak up on you.
I don’t generally think about doing things “to avoid tantrums”, as I think this is a negative and fearful way to look at things (although if you’re in a lots-of-tantrums phase then flipping heck, I feel you, it’s like walking on egg shells with eggs made of crushed glass and pure fire).
I just try and think ahead as to what might be a cause of misery for them (four hours in a visa office with no WiFi – check) and try to put as many things in place to make the experience better for them. (Dolls, check, pick up sticks, check, sweets, check, promise of the beach after, check). It doesn’t always work but I find the kids are much happier to listen to me and are much more able to deal with crappy situations when they know I’ve done everything I can to avoid it.
Create a safe environment for them to express their emotions.
If you haven’t been able to meet the child’s needs and you can see that a meltdown is unavoidable, move somewhere where you as a parent are going to feel more comfortable dealing with it, and to give your child some privacy- kids need dignity just as we do.
When considering ‘how to deal with temper tantrums’, the lobby of a five-star hotel, visa office or a fine-dining restaurant are probably not ideal places that come to mind. A quiet corner of a park, or a bathroom, or an empty aisle in the supermarket are better. Try to eliminate any extra stimulus for both yourself and the child- people coming up and cooing is well-intentioned but unhelpful, and people staring disapprovingly isn’t going to help anyone either.
Take a moment.
Cool, so tantrums a-go. Repeat after me. THIS IS NOT A FAILURE. THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM. It’s an expression. It’s communication. It’s freaking annoying. It will pass. Get your own head right before dealing with your child.
Listen to the child.
I don’t mean just let them finish their sentence so we can respond, I mean really listen. When we know what someone else is thinking and feeling, we are in a much better place to help them.
Think about causes
Has their day/week/month/year been tough to deal with? Have there been small disagreements or changes that go unnoticed by us as adults but could be a big deal to kids? I’ve seen parents, mid-September, post about how they can’t possibly understand why their previously-angelic child who has just started school is having meltdowns, because ‘nothing else has changed, they like school, etc’. Good grief.
Change, in itself, is stressful. On the Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale, getting married is up there along with ‘death of a spouse’ and ‘divorce’ (and more stressful than ‘being fired at work’!). Any change is stressful, even if it is ‘good’ change. If there’s been a ‘good’ change recently, try not to get into a ‘you-should’ mentality (you ‘should’ be happy, we’re on holiday; you ‘should’ want to play with your friends, you ‘should’ be enjoying yourself).
Empathise and validate.
Let them know that you are there for them, and that their feelings are OK. I find phrases like “man this IS difficult isn’t it”, or “that really is frustrating” or “I’d be so mad too if that happened to me!’ helpful.
Depending on how your child processes (physically, verbally aurally or visually) something like “I see/hear/feel you, this is a tough time huh?” might help too.
Often parents are worried that empathising and validating the child’s emotions will somehow make the feelings stronger- but think about this. When you’re upset- say you lost your phone- isn’t it so much better if your partner says “oh that sucks, I’m sorry! Do you want a hug? I’ll help you look for it” than “why are you acting like that? It will turn up or you can get another one”. Having someone empathise with you doesn’t make the worse, it helps you process more effectively.
I love the tunnel analogy– the reaction train is headed through the difficult-feelings tunnel, and you can get on board and help steer it safely, or you can block it, or you can pretend there’s a quick emergency-exit when there really isn’t. Either way, the train’s going.
This is sometimes the very opposite of what we want to do; sitting with a screaming child is unpleasant, and we are hard-wired to want to do whatever it takes to stop the tantrum. We are also taught to punish children (argh, no, don’t, I’ll do a post on this soon). Comforting the child with cuddles, reassurance or however they receive love (check out my post on how I’ve found Love Languages super-helpful) helps to bring things back to calm. If you’re overwhelmed yourself, doing nothing is sometimes our best option- which brings us to…
Although there’s no real ‘correct’ behaviour for a toddler, sometimes it is helpful to redirect their behaviour to most positive action. Once they are totally calm (and preferably a bit later, when they’re not emotional), try to suggest what they can do next time to communicate without losing control. Have a code word, which your child can use when they feel like they’re about to lose it or when they feel something is very important to them, and have this as your cue to listen and respond (it may take a while for them to get how to use it!)
How to deal with temper tantrums: A last resor
Oh, sheesh, I’ve been here before. Completely overwhelmed physically and emotionally and cursing the free-loving hippies who bleat about peaceful parenting. Time to cry and swig from a hip flask? Get your kid to swig from a hip flask? (NO, DON’T, obviously I was joking).
Seriously though, sometimes the best we can do is stare into the middle distance as we hug our kids and bite our tongue and not shame them for their meltdowns. Saying nothing is better than saying something you’ll regret- sometimes that is the ‘win’. If you can possibly get some space, get your partner or friend to give you time to yourself, you’ll be in a much better place to deal with things the next time you can’t find the lid to the coveted orange sippy cup.
I really hope this post on ‘how to deal with tantrums’ was helpful to you. I don’t pretend to be a perfect parent for a second; I fail and need grace daily. We find being gentle and kind with our kids leads to a better life for everyone and we try to treat them as we like to be treated. Except Spongebob, I don’t ever want to watch Spongebob.
If you liked ‘how to deal with tantrums’ you might also like my other gentle parenting blog posts.
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