3 Steps to Reducing Temper Tantrums
When children frequently throw intense tantrums, parents start to wonder why. Why are they so out of control? Why are they being so difficult? Why can’t they just behave? Why are they giving me such a hard time?
This is where we make our mistake. Children don’t throw fits to give us a hard time. They throw fits because their emotions are overwhelming and they don’t know what to do. They feel out of control. Children have powerful emotions but have not yet developed the skills to manage them. Kids aren’t giving us a hard time; they are having a hard time.
I had a parent once ask me why his 6 month old colicky baby was punishing him. Whoa! The baby’s screams had nothing to do with punishing the dad, but the dad was frazzled after so much crying and fussing that he wasn’t thinking straight. He thought his baby was purposely annoying him. This is faulty thinking. Too much crying and screaming can do that to parents and it impairs our ability to effectively engage with our children.
In fact, all of us are guilty of faulty thinking at times. Research has shown that when people are sleep deprived, hungry, or overwhelmed, our thinking can become inaccurate quickly. When we misjudge the actions of others and believe it is a personal affront, we often react with anger. Think of a worker whose boss asks him to work late rather than asking a co-worker. If we think the boss is picking on us, our behavior can become passive-aggressive or angry. In contrast, if we think the boss selected us for extra work because she knew we could manage it better than our co-worker, our response will be quite different.
Because of the daily and intimate nature of parenting, parents can easily misread their children’s behavior as a personal insult and over-react. For example, a child complains about rules at home, wears sloppy clothing and makes bad grades at school all to make parents look bad. Right? No, it’s not. There are multiple reasons for these behaviors and it says more about the child than the parent. Yet, it’s so easy to take it personally.
What’s a parent to do when their child is having a loud and unpleasant hard time?
1. Recognize your own emotions when your child is misbehaving. The important role of parents in the lives of their children makes it critical for us to recognize our faulty thinking so we don’t blame our children for our own negative feelings. Yet, even the most self-controlled parent has feelings towards a screaming child. Identify your emotions and take steps to calm yourself so that your feelings don’t interfere with your judgment and behavior towards your child. Be a role model of emotional self-management.
2. Psychologists agree, don’t give your child what he is screaming for. That will seem like a reward for bad behavior and make it more likely to happen again. But, it is up to parents to figure out what their child needs versus what they want when they are carrying on. Do they need a hug, or time outside to calm themselves, more attention from you, good food, or a quiet voice and your presence, or ??? (Hint – a piece of candy in the checkout line at the store to stop the screaming is not it!) Our goal is to teach our children self-management tools, not to provide them with their passing fancy.
3. Help the child calm down by staying calm yourself. Use a quiet voice so the child has to lower the volume to hear what you are saying. Sometimes removing the child from the current situation can be helpful so that bystanders don’t stare and comment. A change of venue may attract the child’s attention and interrupt their crying. Show your love and concern for the child while refusing to give in to their demands. Keeping the child safe is always important.
Once the child has calmed down enough to talk, discuss the event using non-judgmental age-appropriate language. Express your support even while making it clear that you don’t appreciate the tantrum. Discuss the emotions that led to the outburst, give your child labels for his feelings, and let him or her know that you care how they feel. Try to understand the feelings being expressed and don’t argue about them. The goal here is to connect with your child and help them feel loved and understood, even in the wake of their out of control behavior.