Temper tantrums are a cry for help.
A child is totally overwhelmed and needs support. Unfortunately, few parents received support for their strong feelings as children or learned basic skills for working through a tantrum. The opportunity during a tantrum is to develop an understanding of what the child is experiencing. Children have their own perspective on any event. A parent’s job is to help them cope with the crushing frustration and disappointment inherent in life.
The life cycle of a tantrum:
The child is trying to say, hear, receive, give, or do a certain thing. If he is unable to complete the action he may get frustrated and start to show signs of distress. When a parent is in tune with their child they will pick up these early cues and help the child complete the action. If the parent misses these early cues, the child will amplify the frustration into crying, yelling, hitting or other obvious demonstrations in an attempt to get help.
In an infant, this might be a fussy baby. The mother notices her baby squirming and fussing and starts to nurse the baby. The tantrum is averted. For a toddler, there might be a staircase that is attracting his attention. The toddler can’t quite negotiate the stairs and starts to get frustrated. His dad stands behind him and directs his feet until his son is climbing safely. In a school age child, an older brother teases his younger sister, who can’t keep up with his verbal gymnastics. 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 and waits until everyone is calm. Then, she deals with the brother’s inappropriate behavior.
When the pre-tantrum cues are missed
The parent can still handle a tantrum with love and support. It can be a challenge to negotiate the strong feelings that come out in a tantrum. Tantrums can trigger the parent’s un-met childhood needs and can result in parents acting like children. When a parent is aware of this phenomenon, she can step back, center herself and resume the appropriate adult role.
Step by step, here are some things parents can try:
Stay calm, detached, and nearby--offering support as needed. (as well as protection from sharp edges, siblings, traffic, etc.) the parent may have to physically restrain or remove the child to prevent him from hurting himself and others. If the parent finds herself getting upset, it is better to make sure the child is safe, leave the room and calm down. If this is not possible, she should stop talking and breathe deeply. If this is not possible, she should try again next tantrum. She will handle tantrums better with each attempt.
The parent can reassure the child that she really wants to understand what is wrong. Help him to calm down. Only when he is reasonably calm should the parent continue. If he gets upset again, return to calming techniques.
Ask him what happened, and listen.
Listen for the facts (the situation) and listen for the feeling (the emotion.)
If he can't verbalize it, make suggestions and watch his body language for cues that you are on the right track. It may help for the parent to imagine herself in the child’s place. Once the parent has identified the trigger, she can help the child to understand it. Common triggers are the inability to do a task or loss of a favorite toy. Other triggers are fears, punishment and separation from the parent. Aggravating factors can be exhaustion, hunger, and loud public places.
Once it seems like the parent has figured out what caused the tantrum, she can help her child to say, hear, receive, give or do what he was unable to pre-tantrum or help him work through his 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 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 the parent’s job to put that suffering into a context the child can understand. Parents can help their children share a negative feeling before it turns into negative behavior.
It is important for children to learn that all feelings are appropriate and negative behaviors are not. Hitting and scratching are never acceptable and the limit must be set firmly by the parent. 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.
When a parent models great behavior, it is her opportunity to shine as a human being. Her child will learn how to behave like a better human being. Children watch their parents like hawks, mimicking their every action. A conscientious parent will attend first to her own actions and words when she witnesses her child doing something inappropriate. Her calmness will automatically help her child to behave appropriately without punishment or bad feelings.
Originally published in “Blender” La Leche League of New York-East