Taming Tantrums, Part 1

The Most Surprising Secret
by Laura Elston

cartoon of girl throwing tantrum and dad

The closest most of us want to get to a tantrum is watching some other parent’s kid have a meltdown. When tantrums strike in our own homes, they’re shocking and seem difficult to solve. It’s happy news that these outbursts are curable, even when nothing you’ve tried so far has worked.

Some of the responses that today’s experts tell us to use to fix the situation actually deepen the root cause of tantrums. It’s no wonder, then, that the behavior often gets worse instead of better.

We’ve come a long way from the days when we just hauled off and clobbered the kid. That was very effective in stopping a screaming fit. We’ve discovered, though, that it’s not a good idea for the child’s longterm development.

Time-outs Need a Time-Out

More compassionate, we think, is ignoring the behavior until it stops of its own accord or using time-outs. Both tactics have worked to terminate tantrums. Time-outs, especially, are recommended over and over  by parents and psychologists.

However, for many children, even gentle-seeming time-outs add fuel to the fire. The kids’ flames of  temper get bigger and hotter, while their desperate parents get more desperate.

time-outs are not recommendedHere’s Why
The time-out chair isolates a child at the moment he most needs your help to manage the explosive emotions that grip him.

• His isolation increases his fear

• Fear is the root cause of tantrums

• Therefore, isolating a child tends increases his tendency to throw tantrums.

For every step forward you take with your child, you take half a step back, so it seems like the problem takes a long time to solve.

But the situation can resolve itself much faster.

The issue for the child is deeper than the unavailable toy, the unwanted routine or the unmet expectation. Those surface provocations are only the matches put to well-laid fires.

Common root fears that cause kids to wig out unexpectedly are (1) fear of losing control and (2) fear of losing connection. These both can feel so big in a small child that they appear to him to be a life-or-death struggle.

If all that doesn’t convince you that time-outs aren’t the best idea, imagine that you’re in a cave with your child when a monster comes in. To deal with it, you put your child in a corner and walk away. Even in your wildest dreams, you wouldn’t do it.

What Really Works To Tame Tantrums

What really works to calm tantrums and to prevent their reoccurrence is connecting with your child in the midst of the upset. If you’re shaking your head right now, I know what you mean. How do you connect with a girl who’s throwing a wild tantrum?

• If you can’t get physically close to her, make eye contact. Don’t stare her down, but be fully present. Your calmness is a model for her.

• Protecting everyone’s safety is your first concern. Sometimes, a child needs to be prevented from harming herself or others by force. Otherwise, don’t use force or anything that might feel like it to the child.

• Hold her if you can. If she doesn’t want you near her, give her a little space. Tell her that you won’t leave her alone while she’s struggling with her big feelings.

• Help your child to verbalize what he’s experiencing. “Wow, you’re so mad that you can’t have your toy right now.”  What’s identified is less scary; it’s like coming out of the dark or the fog.

• Don’t try to solve the problem. Reason is worse than useless with a child in an irrational state.

• Don’t try to mitigate what he feels, as in “C’mon now, it’s not that bad.” To him, it is.

• Teach your little one that screaming won’t produce his apparent objective, e.g., getting a toy, getting his way, and so on. Really communicate this message.

• Remind him of his other choices.

• Gently help him day-by-day to achieve his real objective, which is a robust sense of self-worth. Self-worth means a true belief that one can control oneself and be connected meaningfully with others.

• Be alert to rewarding the behaviour you do want so that it’ll be repeated.

The more ingrained your child’s tantrum habit is, the longer it will take to go away. Rest assured that it will. Be consistent, confident and calm, and expect the best possible outcome.

Handling tantrums in this way will cause them to shrink and to disappear. You’ll have a deeper, quieter relationship with your child.

Taming Tantrums, Part 2 – A Short Guide to Prevention and Cure

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