Managing tantrums is probably one of the most challenging behaviors a parent has to learn to manage. Some days it doesn’t feel like you’re managing anything at all, let alone your child’s tantrum. The kicking, the screaming, the way they know to go completely limp so it’s nearly impossible to pick them up, it really is an incredible move when you think about it. Especially when at the grocery store in front of everyone. People staring and judging, waiting for you to “do something”, but you do not know what “to do” to “make it stop”. You know you’re not supposed to give in. You know you’re supposed to be calm and controlled, stand firm and hold your ground. But the fact is when it comes to a good tantrum, sometimes they win, sometimes you win. This is how I think about all the behaviors I help parents address. There is no 100% success rate no matter how well informed or experienced you are. However, there is always a next time to try and do it better, and my role is to help parents develop the tools to try better the next time. And when it comes to tantrums you can rest assure, there will be a next time.
I think it helps to remember that tantrums are not specific to children. I know a few full-grown adults who can throw a doosey of a tantrum better than any three-year-old. It just looks different… or sometimes not. The fact is that no one likes being told “No”. Our human brains are not designed to enjoy the word as we are ego-centric beings. It is just our design. This means no one enjoys not getting what they want when they want it. No one enjoys when things do not go the way they wanted them to. It is triggering, and certain behaviors follow. Some of us are just better at managing the disappointment, frustration, and anger that comes after being told “No”, and there is a very good reason why some of us are more equipped than others. We were taught to. The hard truth is that despite our best efforts, our children become adults. And it is our number one job as parents to raise our children to become adults who can function within society to the best of their ability. It is our job to prepare our kids for the very difficult task of navigating the world of “adulting”. So yes, the skill of learning how to respond when we do not get our way starts around 12 months old, and it is a never-ending lesson.
When y our child is throwing a tantrum and you begin feeling the “parent guilt”, remember what it is you are trying to teach them. Remember you are assisting them with developing a skill to help them be more successful in the long run. You are being a good parent and you are doing a good job (say it over and over in your head to help you stay strong). If its empathy you’re struggling with as your patience is running out, remember that if it is tough for grown-ups to regulate their emotions, then of course it is tough for your kids whose ability to rationalize is not yet developed. Fun fact: the rational part of the brain does not finish developing until age 25. It is why we tend to do things we later regret in our younger years. So, in that moment of kicking and screaming, remind yourself that your child is not “being bad”, they are learning. They are learning what boundaries are. They are figuring out how far they can push and what is acceptable and not acceptable as a response. It is our job to help to inform them of the limits, saying “No” and explaining the why. We then help them express and regulate their emotions by demonstrating the responses that are acceptable, being careful not to demonstrate responses that are unacceptable.
Managing your response is as important as managing their behavior
When we are born our brains are filled with what are called mirror neurons. These neurons “mirror” behavior and emotion. They are the reason you can stick your tongue out at newborn, and they will do it back. They are why we yawn when others yawn, and smile and laugh when we see others smiling and laughing. They are also why we empathize with other people’s experiences. Our brain mirrors the emotion we think the other is experiencing, and we feel what we think they are feeling. The younger we are, the more mirror neurons we have, which is why our kids often “monkey see, monkey do”. It is why as parents we need to be very mindful of our “doing”.
Let’s tie this back to tantrums. For most parent’s, the hardest part of managing a tantrum is managing our own responses to the tantrum. Its managing low patience, frustration, annoyance, and guilt. How the parent responds to their own internal emotions, teaches the child how to also respond to that emotion. If you get angry and yell, your child learns that the appropriate response to feeling angry is to yell. Therefore, it very important to make sure as parents, we are responding to behavior, not reacting. Easier said than done I know. I am going to give parents some tips to help with this, but first, lets talk intervention.
The answer it to “Actively Ignore” the tantrum behaviors
This is a skill that sounds so simple yet can be so difficult to implement. However, it is very effective once your child knows that attention/reward will not be attained by throwing a tantrum. If this is a new concept, then this will need to be practiced a few times consistently before your child catches on. Once they know the limit has been set, and they have realized there is no wavering, tantrums will become shorter and less intense. They may not fully go away (remember our brains will never enjoy being told “No”), but they get easier to manage and when we see the benefits, it is easier for parents to implement as well. You will become desensitized and will eventual de-personalize the behavior. This will make it easier to implement the tips mentioned below.
Time to break it down. 1. Your child does ____ or asks to do ____, and you say “No”. 2. The next step is to try and explain why your answer is “No”. Our brains like to know the why, so it is important that you say “No, because…”. Do this even if your child is little and doesn’t grasp the what you are saying. It is good practice and they will eventually catch on. There might be cases where the tantrum comes before the explaining can happen. 3. In that case, state to them, “I will talk to you when you have calmed down” or “Let me know when you have calmed down so we can talk”. Again, do this even if they are little. 4. Then begin Actively Ignoring. We say “Active” because it is purposeful and with intention. Give no attention to the tantrum. None. You may need to remind your child in an even, but firm tone, “I will talk to you when you have calmed down, let me know when you are ready”, but nothing else. Trying to console them, comfort them, reason with them, argue with them, yell at them, these are all forms of attention and it will only reinforce the behavior you trying to “make stop”. Once you give attention to a tantrum, you are entertaining a power struggle. Negative attention is still attention, and your attention is what holds the power. The power to cave and say, “Yes. Fine. Here”. And then ha ha! They’ve won! And they have now figured out your limit, and how far they need to push. The way to stay out of a power struggle, is to not engage at all. As long as your child is not in any harm’s way, let them cry it out. Don’t try to control it. If they begin hitting or throwing things that can be dangerous, with no emotion and no words (flat affect), remove the item and put it in an unreachable location and move your child to a spot where they act out without harm. Even with all that, do not engage. You may need to repeat this several times if the tantrum escalates to this level. Once your child realizes there is no wavering and has calmed down, 6. you can then engage. The calm demeanor is the behavior that you want to reinforce. Giving the calm behavior attention is how we teach them what is acceptable verse what is not. You can say, “are you feeling more calm”? “Thank you for talking to me in a calm voice, I really appreciate that”. You can even give a high-five to this as they were able to successfully regulate and that is worth reinforcing. If you did not already, this is when you can explain the “why” in more depth. If the why was already explained before the tantrum then 7. Move on. It is best to not rehash the event as it will most likely trigger another tantrum. At this point, distract them with something else they can do rather than putting the focus back on what they cannot. If at any point another tantrum ensues, return to step 1.
Parent Tips to be able to successfully Actively Ignore
Ignoring the tantrum means figuring out how to regulate your own emotions. Tantrums are annoying, irritating, frustrating, and even maddening. They can test your patience to the max. You may even want to lay on the floor next to them and throw one yourself. Especially during COVID when we as adults, “just wanna go out and play” too. As parents we have a lot on our shoulders. We are typically already stressed out before the tantrum began. So how do you stop yourself from doing whatever it takes to get them to stop throwing the tantrum?
- Breathe. It sounds cliché I know, but it helps. Consciously slowing down your breath can send signals to the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can control the release and flow of stress hormones, then promoting calming sensations throughout the body. Breathe in through your nose as slowly as you can, until you can take in no more air. Hold this breath for 3-5 Mississippi’s. The very slowly begin to exhale through your mouth. Like a pinned sized whole in a balloon kind of slow. Exhale until you cannot exhale any more air. And repeat. Do this as many times as you need to. If you are having trouble, try humming or singing to yourself. Humming and singing forces us to breath.
- When deep breathing isn’t working, release what has been building. Before I give tips on distraction and self-soothing, I want to acknowledge the fact that parents may not be in the head space to utilize those tips. If all you want to do is yell and scream too, then telling you to self-sooth may not be practical. If you need to let it out, then let it out. Just make sure you are releasing your frustration away from the scene of the tantrum. Two tantrums happening at once, only leads to escalation. Go in another room, close the door, and scream into a pillow. If your feeling completely overwhelmed, go into the bathroom run the water, and cry. Let it all out (give yourself 5-10 min, then wash your face, breath, and apply other tactics mentioned below, don’t stay too long). Take the time to fall apart in privacy. If someone is in the house with you, “tag them in”. Listen to your body and do what it needs in that moment. Go for a walk or a run. Put in an exercise tape. As one of our therapists at The Centered Life says, “When in doubt squat it out”, or stretch it out with yoga. Release the tension from your muscles. Release the build up in a way that is healthy. In a way that helps you regulate your emotions, as your child is learning to regulate theirs.
- Distract yourself. Go in another room or outside if possible (and safe to do so). Change your environment. Do something with your hands. Clean, organize, DIY something, knit, color (yes adults do this, and it can be very calming). Do a crossword, search word, or sudoku puzzle. Engage in an art project, play an instrument, watch tv (if your able). Cook, bake, or order some food because you now don’t feel like cooking (no judgments).
- Self-sooth. Whatever works for you. Light some candles, play some calming music, make some tea, throw a soft blanket around you. Sit in a room with soft lighting, or on the front steps to get some air (if it is safe to do so). Anything that will activate your senses in a calming way. If another adult is in the house, “tag” them in and for a walk. Whatever helps keep you calm.
- Release self-judgement and criticism. Let it go. You are a parent. You are human. And you are doing your best. There is no such thing as perfect parenting. And this too shall pass. Your child’s tantrum is not about you. It is about them learning to navigate the world. They are just testing boundaries. It is what they are designed to do.
“For me I think the hardest part about tantrums is trying to just stay calm. Once I start feeding into the madness it just creates more madness. I don’t think COVID has really changed the kid’s behaviors with tantrums. I think it is more me changing my attitude about the tantrums. My ability to stay calm with them hasn’t been great as it has needed to be. I have given-in more times than I would like to admit, because it is just easier to just allow him to have a sucker at 10am then to start the day off on the wrong foot”.
Mom of 2, one boy and one girl. Ages 4 and 9.
“We just had a tantrum after she looked at me and purposefully crushed a cracker in her hand. She threw the tantrum because I couldn’t put it back together after she smooshed it. For me its hard to remember that her frustration is coming from a place of not being able to fully communicate. Finding patience to investigate what it is she is really upset about and reminding myself she is not just being a “a brat”. I don’t think COVID has really impacted her since she is too young to get it, but it has definitely impacted me as a parent being unable to get out of the house and socialize. It affects my patience threshold for sure”.
Single mom of an 18th month old girl
“It’s hard because kids are not on the same level of understanding. We are the parents and know better, but they don’t know what we know. So, the tantrums come from a place of frustration. As an adult you don’t want to see them sad or upset etc. … so it’s just trying to break through to them on a level that makes sense to them. COVID has probably impacted the parents more. For many it has exasperated their stress, which has made managing tantrums harder”.
Single dad of 2, One boy and one girl. Ages a 4 and 14.
Mom: “The hardest thing hardest thing about dealing with a tantrum is having the patience. As the adult, you have to remind yourself that your child in an unregulated emotional state. There is no rationalizing with them at that moment and the best thing you can do is let them work through it. Strategies that work in our family are giving them alone time and walking away or giving them a hug or taking a deep breath. In regard to COVID, I have noticed more sibling disagreements”.
Dad: “The hardest part about tantrums is when they are all having them at once. I just have to walk away at that point.
Mom and dad of 3 girls. Ages 7, 5, and 3
“For me the hardest part is not allowing my personal frustrations to take over trying to help my child through their own frustrations they may be experiencing. Taking the focus off my own desire to throw in the towel and get worked -up.
Mom of 2. One boy and one girl. Ages 3 and 9
“I think the hardest thing about tantrums is you want to explain to the child the “why” as to whatever is happening. For example, “You can’t wear shorts today because it’s 32 degrees out!”. No matter how logical it is to the parent, it’s not to the child and it’s hard to remember that. Tantrums are also hard because sometimes I lose my patience and take it out on the boys and that makes everything worse. Then mom guilt sets in. It’s hard to listen to them kick and scream, but I try to just leave them. I try to talk them off the ledge for a but then they need to work the rest out themselves. When a hug and a kiss doesn’t soothe your baby, it’s hard to deal with”.
Mom of 2 boys. Ages 2 and 3.
“I’d say the hardest thing is not giving into them. As parents I feel like we sometimes don’t want to deal with the extra stress on top of the regular stresses. So, we might be more willing to just let them have their way to avoid having to deal. I definitely think COVID has made things worse because there are less things for them to do. So often the tantrums are regarding taking away screen time, but then they can’t hang out with their friends or and finding something else to do has been hard.
Mom of 3. 1 boy and 2 girls. Ages 7, 4, and 2.
“I know she’s little, but that’s what makes it harder. I can’t figure out the “why” to make it stop, and because I don’t know how to make it better, I get annoyed”.
Dad of 1 girl. Age 15 months