15 March 2013

How to Handle Tantrums

Childhood tantrums.  Every parent has had to deal with them.  They can be brief, last hours, happen every day or maybe just once in a while.  Two things are certain: they are never fun, and they almost always trigger feelings of frustration, anger, embarrassment or shame, especially in public.  In my last blog post, I suggested ways to help parents regain their composure so that they can make a choice about how they want to respond to their children.  Some may be thinking, “Okay, now that I’ve reclaimed reason, what’s the next step?  What option do I choose to best deal with this situation?”
The answer will vary depending on your child’s behavior.  In this post, I discuss ways to handle tantrums, and the method you use will depend on the source of the tantrum.  Generally tantrums are caused by one of three things: unmet basic needs, power struggles and emotional issues.
Take a quick look at the chart below (click for printable version) and then continue reading the breakdown of how to handle each type of tantrum.
Unmet basic need= your child is hungry, tired, uncomfortable or feeling unsafe.
Now, it’s important to distinguish the difference between a need and a want.  When it comes to being hungry, for example, it’s not about wanting McDonald’s, it’s about a real need for food.  The same goes for being tired.  You can tell it’s a real need when your child is overtired.  In the case of safety, sometimes children just aren’t feeling secure in the world and need some comfort.  Maybe you’re at a new place or maybe it’s crowded or very noisy.  Whichever need is being unmet, we all know what these tantrums look like: a crying meltdown.  The best way to respond to these kinds of tantrums is by offering comfort and reassurance, and by meeting the need as soon as possible.  For example, hold your child and say, “I’m here for you and I know you’re hungry.  We’ll get some food as soon as we can.”  Dismissing or ignoring a need based tantrum will not fix it.  Even if the child eventually stops crying without being comforted, the message he gets is that his needs aren’t important.
Power struggle = your child wants something and you don’t want to (or can’t) give it to him/her.
This is generally about a want, not a need.  The want could be a thing such treats, a new toy, more dessert, or that cool bike she saw on TV.  It could also be permission to go somewhere or do something, and maybe you just can’t give it right then.  All of these can potentially lead to a tantrum, and what do they look like?  Foot stomping, yelling or crying.  Overall…stubbornness.  The best way to deal with this kind of tantrum is to disengage from the power struggle.  In other words, stop reacting.
  • If you can manage it, ignore the tantrum.  This is the quickest way to cure your child of power struggle tantrums.  Once she sees that it gets absolutely zero results, no reaction from you and no candy, she will stop trying to use it to get what she wants.  She will test you on several occasions, but if you consistently ignore the tantrums, they’ll stop.  Ignoring doesn’t mean being emotionally distant, however.  You can have an attitude of empathy while still ignoring the behavior.  For example, you can say, “I know you’re angry and you wish you could have what you want.  It’s okay to be angry.  I love you and I’ll still be here when you’re done being mad.”  Then stop talking and wait until it’s over.  And I can’t stress this enough: stop talking.  The longer you talk/engage, the longer the tantrum will last.  So deliver a loving message, zip your lips, and wait.  This is the perfect way to execute the major theme of Positive Discipline: Firm and Loving.
  • If waiting out the tantrum in public isn’t an option for you, take the child and leave.  Try offering choices first.  Example: “I can carry you out or you can walk by yourself.”  If that doesn’t work, pick her up screaming and kicking if you have to and walk out.  Abandon your cart, go outside and get into the car.  Regroup and utilize your cool down skills, then try again.  If nothing is working, just go home.  Everything in the cart can be picked up again, and none of it is worth the stress.  If going home isn’t an option, stay in the car and wait it out.
  • Try not to give in to the tantrum.  It’s okay to set limits and say no to your children.  When you say no, you give them an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson: how to handle negative emotions.  I think we can all agree that everyone needs to know how to do this in order to be successful in life.  If you rescue and give in all the time, they won’t learn this skill.  Instead they will learn that complaining and manipulation will get them what they want in life.  Children who grow up thinking this become adults who don’t know how to manage disappointment and expect the world to cater to them.
Emotional issues = your child is acting out due to emotional or psychological issues.
This may look similar to a power struggle, but the cause generally goes much deeper than just wanting a cookie.  Something is truly troubling your child and he or she is acting out as a result.  There’s a long list of things that could be going on, from being bullied at school to divorce to home environment to a history of abuse or trauma.  Again, acting out can sometimes look like a simple power struggle, but here are a few signs that something else might be going on:
  • It happens often, perhaps even daily
  • It escalates to physical violence, self-harm or property damage
  • It’s accompanied by a decline in functioning at home, at school, in social abilities or in other areas such as extra-curricular activities.
How to help:
  • If your child is acting out in a way that isn’t threatening or harming anyone (including himself), then you can use the tools in the power struggle section.
  • If your child is escalating and becoming aggressive, then your first priority is to establish safety.  Do NOT ignore violent behavior.  And do NOT respond with violence.  Both of these will only make the situation worse and could lead to serious consequences.
  • Deliver a firm but loving message.  Example: “I see that you’re upset.  It’s okay to be upset, but it’s not okay to be unsafe.”
  1. If you know what triggered your child, then remove the trigger.  Example: If loud noises are stressful for your child, then do what you can to stop the noise or distance your child from the noise.  If this doesn’t stop the escalation, move on to step 2.

  2. Attempt to divert or distract your child.  Example: “How about we get out of here and go visit the pet store?”  NOTE: This is not the same as giving in to a demand.  Offer a completely unrelated diversion.  If this doesn’t stop the escalation, move on to step

  3. Offering limited choices, attempt to remove the child from the situation.  Example: “We need to leave the store now.  You can walk by yourself or I can carry you or I can hold your hand.  Which one do you choose?”  Then give him a chance to make a choice.  You can also use this at home to have the child move to a different room or outside.  If he refuses to leave the situation but is starting to calm down, then deliver a reassuring message and wait it out.  Example: “I’ll give you some space to cool off.  Let me know when you’re ready to leave.”  If he refuses to leave and is in danger of seriously hurting someone, move on to step 4.

  4. Do not attempt to restrain your child unless you have been trained by a professional.  Call your local crisis number.  If you don’t know the number, call 911 for assistance.

  5. If you’ve reached step 5, you may want to consider seeking professional help such as therapy for your child.  There is no shame in this.  Like most people in this world, you’re doing the best that you can.  Asking for help just means that you don’t have to do it alone.

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