How to Survive Your Child’s Tantrum
In the previous blog, I wrote about how anger is an emotion that stems from our “judgmental thoughts”. Now that we can recognize which of our needs are really behind such thoughts, we can take the next step – learn some techniques that can help you respond properly to alleviate your child’s tantrum and calm him down.
Imagine the following situation. Sarah is a two-year-old girl who is on her way with her father to a store to buy some groceries. The store is packed with people and Sarah and her father have to wait in line. Then, Sarah spots a chocolate bar by a counter and asks her father to buy her one. The father refuses, and she starts yelling, screaming and rolling herself on the floor. The father starts offering a range of explanations why he cannot buy the chocolate; however, she wants the chocolate bar even more. The more the father explains, the more Sarah keeps insisting her wish to be fulfilled.
Have you ever been in a similar situation with your child? When that happened, did it seem as if all you did or said only fuelled your child’s anger? Do not worry, there are a few techniques that can help you calm your child down and teach them they could react differently in a similar situation in the future.
Refrain until the child’s tantrum is over
Make sure your child is safe and does not get hurt – if necessary, move them away or hug them tight so that they could not hurt themselves or any other person. But do not try to cease the tantrum, get into discussions or argue with your child. Your child’s stress siren is so loud that he or she is unable to think reasonably – you should help your child to first give vent to their feelings.
You must remain calm and speak in a calm voice. If your siren goes on during the tantrum, use some self-control strategies or leave the room to remain composed and prevent yourself from relenting. In these situations, you must remain the owner of your tone of voice. You may think that you are composed, but it is the tone of your voice that will reveal your anger. If you react with anger to the tantrum, the fat will be in the fire, as the saying goes. You should not give in because if you do so, you are teaching your child that they could get whatever they want by throwing a tantrum. The most important thing and the first step is to stay calm.
A child’s tantrum has nothing to do with you.
That’s just a child getting angry because they want something and they cannot get it. Likewise, when you get angry, your anger is not related to your child. It is related to something important to you, and the trigger for that is a certain behavior of your child that triggers a certain judgmental thought, hence the anger in your head. That is why you need to start pinpointing your judgemental thoughts, that is more efficient for you than trying to “catch a fish” using worms as bait. Still, do not try to cease the tantrum, get into discussions or argue with your child.
Apply the technique to calm down together
When the scariest part of the child’s tantrum is over, use some self-regulation techniques together with your child. Take a deep breath. It soothes the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions because you feed it with oxygen and allow the operation of the part of the brain that controls rational decision making, thinking, and learning. If possible, hit some pillows against a wall, while making sure it is safe. Go for a walk together or move around, jump or run. Hug one another. Do whatever it takes to completely turn off your stress sirens.
This is a good time to convince your child that you love them unconditionally, that you don’t support some of their behaviors, but that your love for them as a person is always present.
Discuss your feelings and needs
When both of you calm down:
- Help your child describe their feelings. You can use active listening or some creative way of expression. You may ask your child: It felt like you were very angry. Is that right? You can also let your child make a drawing of their anger (color, shape) or express it by body movement.
- Try to understand the source of the anger by making a connection to your child’s feelings with their needs. For example, ask them: Are you angry because you love eating chocolate and you would like to have the freedom to eat chocolate whenever you want that? When younger children are concerned, offer them possible reasons (e.g. you were angry because of this and that?). Ask older children some questions and let them explain on their own what was the source of their anger (e.g. what was the reason for that?). Once you’ve understood why your child wants something, it has a soothing effect, and the anger fades immediately. When you don’t condemn, criticize or analyze the anger that filled your child, it diminishes.
Understanding that this is an emotion that both children and we adults have a right to, is in itself therapeutic for every emotion, including this one.
- Using I-statements, explain to the child how you feel, what your needs are and why their behavior is unacceptable. For example: When you behave like that in a store, I get confused. It’s important to me that you understand what I’m saying. I see you want chocolate, and I would like to buy it for you. But I don’t have enough money for it now because we didn’t plan on buying one. Or: I want you to develop healthy eating habits and how to save money. Other people in the store have to run their errands in a quiet environment. The next time you want something, tell me so, and we’ll find a solution that works for both of us.
Raise your child’s spirits.
Take some activity that will cheer you both up (e.g. tell jokes, play a board game). After a difficult moment, having quality time together is a nice way to strengthen your relationship.
Apply prevention techniques
Children are particularly prone to tantrums when their basic needs are not met. Whenever possible, avoid imposing an activity or taking your child with you if they are sleepy, hungry or grumpy. Also, when you feel your child is getting anxious, you can help them constructively express their feelings and needs (active listening, I-statements), calm down (use some self-control strategies), and/or let them know they reached the limits of your endurance (e.g. using the word enough in a family means that someone is on the verge of going out of their mind). Parents participating in the Support, not perfection program also have the opportunity to learn other prevention techniques (e.g. positive attention, routines, choice offering, environment control, substitution principle).
If we apply the above techniques to the situation from the beginning of this story, Sarah’s father’s reaction would be as follows. The first thing Sarah’s father should consider is to wonder which of Sarah’s needs were not met at this time. Is she hungry or tired, perhaps she doesn’t know how to express her feelings or say what she wants in a given situation.
The next question is what the child can, and cannot, understand in that situation. For example, Sarah cannot understand that the parent doesn’t have the money to buy her something, she doesn’t understand that her father is embarrassed because she is having a fit in public. In these situations, parents most often explain to children that they don’t have enough money, that they want to buy only what they planned to, they threaten their child that they will give them a beating if they continue, offer them something else or use emotional conditioning.
When we asked what kind of consequences each of these reactions have, some parents said that, for example, beating the child or shouting at them may lead the child to listen, but it can also result in a retreat, embarrassment or sadness.
Finally, parents need to ask whether the actions they take in situations such as or similar to these help them accomplish long term goals for their child. If you want to achieve long term results as a parent, for example, to teach your child how to express itself and control its feelings of anger, and to teach it that it cannot get everything it wants, will the child learn this if you shout at, hit or threaten it?
That is why it is important for you to now re-read the recommendations on how to react when both you and your children are attacked by anger. But, keep in mind that it is perfectly okay if you also react when you are angry. No one is perfect!
About the author: Smiljana Grujic is a psychologist and psychotherapist dedicated to education and a program manager for the Novak Djokovic Foundation. The focus of her work is compassionate communication and emotional management. Smiljana is one of the authors and the coordinator of the “Support, not perfection” program that supports parents who have children 0-6 years old.