One of the most common questions I get from parents of young children (age 1-5) is ‘what do I do about tantrums!?!” There isn’t one right answer, and anything I say never seems to be all that satisfying. The truth is, young kids tantrum. It’s a normal part of development. It can be attributed to a number of intrinsic, developmental, and external stimuli that create a perfect storm.
The short takeaway about managing tantrums is this: strategize for the long term, survive the short term.
For the long-term strategy: Set age appropriate expectations. Set firm, but loving limits, and be consistent. When in a meltdown moment, stay as calm as possible. Help the child soothe (rub her back, pick her up, or simply stay in her presence), eventually they will learn to do this for themselves. Once the child is calm then a short explanation (age appropriate) of how to handle her/himself next time is appropriate.
In the short run there are no quick fixes. Staying calm and making sure the child is safe to her/himself and others is sometimes the most you can do. However, you can plan ahead... be strategic about when you go somewhere more difficult, have some sort of distraction available. Most importantly, try to put yourself in their shoes... Ask yourself, what is triggering them? What do they want or need? Depending on the age and capacity of the child, you can tell them what you expect of them in any given situation, and offer reminders as needed.
No one thing is right all the time for every child. Sometimes you have to be creative.
Understanding the brain-in-tantrum:
Dan Siegel is a Neuro-psychiatrist. Below is a link to a video where he describes how the brain works when emotionally activated. Watch it. He does a great job of explaining the structure of the brain, and what happens when someone "flips their lid"... which is a term he uses to describe when someone is out of control. By out of control I mean the thinking and logical parts of themselves are disengaged. For young children “flipping their lids” are tantrums, at other ages it might look differently.
This is important to understand because when in a tantrum, the child doesn't have the capacity to listen to reason, understand explanations, or respond to attempts at discipline logically because that part of their brain (the cortex) is temporarily disengaged.
Types of Tantrums:
In general, tantrums usually fall into one of two categories.
1. The child is limited in their control over their emotions because of other factors that are beyond their ability to regulate and/or control. Ask yourself, is my child’s basic needs being stretched thin… did they miss a nap, are they hungry, have they been active…? Are they tantruming because they are frustrated by having to transition from one activity to another or without much warning? Have they lost control physically and emotionally? Are they feeling angry, sad, jealous, or frustrated because they need more attention? Are they in the midst of a developmental stage storm (for example, are they frustrated by their inability to express themselves accurately)?
2. The child is using the tantrum as a tool for manipulation. He/she really wants that candy bar at the checkout line, or wants to get out of taking her nap and screaming has worked before. Ask yourself, are they seeking attention to get something they want (rather than need)? Are they making demands? Are they trying to avoid something (like taking a bath or brushing their teeth)? Are they seeking limits (testing your boundaries, looking for rules and consistency)?
Responding to the TYPE of tantrum:
The difference between these two types of tantrums is that in the first type the child's logical part ofthe brain is disengaged. It won't be useful to reason with a child during the tantrum, and the best course of action to take is helping the child to soothe and calm down.
In the second type the child's logical brain is actually in use! This type of tantrum is the kind of tantrum that is usually learned, and can be unlearned. There are many things you can do in this situation.
• You can say something like "I’m going to count to 10. You can choose to stop ____ on your own while I'm counting, or when I get to 10 I'll help you stop ____", then you must follow through for it to be effective. After a few times of this being implemented the child usually understands the method.
• You can "connect and redirect" (a Dan Siegel phrase). That might sound like, "It's frustrating to not get what you want. Why don't we go outside for a few minutes and play in the sand box."
• Create a comfortable spot in the house where your child can have a "time in"... a place where he or she can go to relax. Then you might say something like "It seems like you need a few minutes to calm down. Go to your spot. When you are calm you can come back and ask politely." This helps the child to master emotional control down the line.
• Offer limited choices. This might sound like “You can brush your teeth right now, or in 5 minutes.” This gives your child some control over their situation, and you get what you need too.
• There are other things you can try, but these will be good starting off points.
Of course, you might run into a tantrum that starts as a type 2, that then evolves into a type 1! In that case, you'll want to help the child calm down. In both type 1 and type 2 tantrums you will want your child to be in a calm state of mind before you offer explanations or discipline, otherwise your words will fall on deaf ears.
I recommend the book "The Whole Brain Child" by Dan Siegel. It isn't about tantrums specifically or even toddlers, but it does offer parenting strategies to help you help your child integrate the different parts of their brain so that they have more emotional control and are more balanced throughout life.