Understanding Temper Tantrums

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Understanding Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are a cry for help.

When having a meltdown, your child is totally overwhelmed and needs support. Unfortunately, few parents received support for their strong feelings as children, or learned even basic skills for working through a tantrum. And, as we have seen this past week, even the President of the United States can have a temper tantrum.

So, you are not alone in your feelings of overwhelm when your child pitches a fit!

The opportunity during a tantrum is to develop an understanding of what your child is experiencing. Children have their own perspective on any event. Your job as a parent, is to help them learn to cope with the crushing frustration and disappointment inherent in life.

The life cycle of a tantrum.

A tantrum starts with a child trying to say, hear, receive, give, or do a certain thing.  If they are unable to complete the action, they may get frustrated and start to show signs of distress. 

When you are paying attention to your child, you will pick up on these early cues and help your child successfully complete the action. If you miss these early cues, your child will amplify their frustration into crying, yelling, hitting and other obvious demonstrations.

This should be seen as an attempt to get help, rather than labeling your child as "a brat!"

How tantrums are averted at differing stages.

In an infant, a mother notices her baby squirming and fussing and nurses them. A tantrum is averted. 

A toddler sees a staircase that is just waiting to be explored. But, they can’t quite negotiate the stairs and start to get frustrated. Their dad stands behind them and directs their feet and hands until the child is climbing safely.

In school age children, an older brother teases his younger sister. She can’t keep up with his language skills, so she starts to yell. Their mother steps in between them and affirms that the sister is furious, because she is being teased. She holds a safe space between the children, and waits until everyone is calm.

When the sister is calmed, she deals with the brother’s inappropriate behavior with empathy, discussion, and enforced consequential actions.

What if the pre-tantrum cues are missed?

When you miss the early signs, you can still resolve a tantrum with love and support. It can be challenging to negotiate the strong feelings that come up in all parties during a tantrum. Tantrums can trigger your un-met childhood needs and can result in you acting like your children. When you are aware of this phenomenon, you can step back, center yourself, and when you are calm, resume your appropriate adult role. 

Step by step, here are some things you can try: 

1. Stay calm, detached, and nearby--offering support as needed, as well as appropriate physical protection from sharp edges, siblings, traffic, and other nearby hazards. You may have to physically restrain, or remove, the child from an area to prevent them from hurting themself and others.

2. If you find yourself getting upset, it is better to make sure your child is safe, leave the room and calm down. If this is not possible, you should stop talking and breathe deeply. If this is not possible, you should forgive yourself and try to better during the next tantrum. You will handle tantrums better with each attempt.

3. Reassure your child that you really want to understand what is wrong. Help them to calm down. Only when your child is reasonably calm should you continue. If they get upset again, return to calming techniques.

When they are calm, ask your child what happened, and listen carefully.

4. Listen for the facts of the situation--and listen for their feelings--the emotion.

Something happened, but what? If your child can't verbalize it, make one suggestion and watch their body language for a cue that you are on the right track. It may help for you to imagine yourself in your child’s place.

5. Once you have identified the triggering situation behind their strong feelings, you can help your child to understand it. Common triggers are an inability to do a task, or the loss of a favorite possession. Other triggers are your child's fears, perceived unfair punishment, and fear of separation from you. Aggravating factors can be overwhelm, exhaustion, hunger, and loud public spaces. 

Tantrums are a request for intervention.

6. Once it seems like you have figured out what caused the tantrum, you can help your child to say, hear, receive, give or do what they were unable to do pre-tantrum. If that isn't possible, then help them work through their disappointment at not being able to say, hear, give, receive, or do it.

Babies and children have the same feelings as adults.

They want things they can't have and they suffer disappointment. They are put in situations where they are scared and can't leave. Life is not perfect. Some things in life are necessary and painful. It is your job as a parent to put that suffering into a context your child can understand.

Parents can teach their children to express a negative feeling before it turns into negative behavior. 

It is important for children to learn that all feelings are appropriate but negative behaviors are not. Hitting, biting and scratching are never acceptable and the limit must be set firmly by parents, caregivers and teachers. While some kids take a lot longer to learn how to do this, they learn because the adults in their life remind them and model this behavior.

All eyes are on the parents, always.

When a parent models great behavior, it is their opportunity to shine as a human being. Your child will learn how to behave like a better human being because children watch you like a hawk, mimicking your every action.

A conscientious parent will attend first to their own actions and words when they witnesse their child doing something inappropriate. Their calmness will automatically help their child to behave appropriately without punishment or bad feelings.

Originally published in “Blender” La Leche League of New York Newsletter

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