Tantrums: A Cry for CONNECTION

Parenting is tough as it is. Then suddenly as time trickles on, our little babies grow into independent explorers trying to make sense of the world they live in. When working with parents with toddlers or preschoolers, the biggest worry is how to handle their child’s tantrums.

Let’s understand tantrums first. What is a tantrum? It is a very physical expression of stress. Something has happened to cause a child to feel overwhelmed with feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment. Suddenly, the stress hormone, cortisol, floods a child’s brain and this state is unbearable for children. They will feel out of control and even as adults, we know how scary that feeling can be.

The first mistake that parents often make is to discipline a child when they are having a tantrum. When a child is experiencing all these feelings as well as an influx of cortisol, their cognitive ability is compromised. This means that a child is unable to reason during this time. Instead, what they are experiencing is that their feelings are dismissed and are intolerable to the parent as they cannot be held by the parent.

In many of the parenting talks I give about Positive Parenting, I start with discussing the ‘dance’ that a baby and mother have. This is a very important process for a child to feel contained and safe. When a mother holds a baby, she may gaze into her baby’s eyes. The baby may then respond with a sound or looking back. This is connection. When the baby cries, the mother picks up the baby and softly soothes the baby with her eyes, tone of her voice and the way she holds the baby. The baby’s anxiety has been held and the baby has now learned that they are safe. This very interaction matures with time as that baby grows. When the baby is now a toddler and having a tantrum, the mother needs to ‘hold’ the baby parts of their child for them to feel safe. This is not an easy task when your child is throwing a fit in the middle of the grocery store. For parents who have not been able to safely express their anger as children, this is a very scary interaction so naturally, parents try and discipline which is in fact dismissive of those angry feelings.

So what do you do? When your child is throwing a tantrum, you need to remember that this very moment is terribly overwhelming for them. You get down to their eye-level and just like how you would respond to them if they were hurt, you look at them with concern, have a gentle tone of voice and reflect the feelings behind the tantrum. Statements like this often work well:

  • “Oh Hannah, I can see just how cross you are right now. You are showing me and I can see it. It is making you so upset that Mom said no and won’t buy you that toy. It feels unfair”
  • “I can hear that you are so cross right now. Maybe even a little sad that this is what happened. Sad and cross feelings can feel very scary and mommy/daddy is right here. Why don’t we hug this out and then jump around to get the sad and cross feelings out?”

Reflecting the feelings is the act of connection. Your child feels understood, therefore they no longer need to ‘show’ you their feelings by having a tantrum. Moreover, it is important to reflect the feeling, and if they are not ready to be hugged, you get them to move around to help model healthy ways to deal with anger. If you are not home, star jumps, frog jumps or a quick little race can help. If you are home, jumping on a trampoline, swingball, throwing or kicking a ball with you are other activities you can do. You can see that ‘time-out’ is not a step as when a child is overwhelmed and having a tantrum, they NEED you and not to be cast aside to “think about what they have done” on their own. This exacerbates their feelings of being dismissed and now feeling abandoned.

Now is when parents ask me: “okay so then do we not discipline them?”. Boundaries are vital. Positive parenting is not about letting your child roam free and do what they want. It is about moving away from punishment and introducing responsibility. So, once your child has calmed down, you can then begin the reasoning process. Example: “Hannah, you have to brush your teeth every night so that we can make sure they are very healthy. I know that when it is teeth brushing time, it means that it is bed time and maybe you wanted to spend more time with me and dad/mom. So tomorrow night, if you decide to brush your teeth when we ask you too, you can choose two books for us to read together.” So, what you have done, is reflected why she may have felt the way she did and you have come up with a solution for next time by instituting a choice. Choices are very powerful parenting tools as they not only teach responsibility but they are empowering as they help your child to feel in control. Another example: “Hannah, I can see that when we go to the shops together that you want the toys we see. Sometimes, as your mommy/daddy I have to say no because the toy costs too much money. So next time I go to the shops, you get to decide that if you come with me to the shops, that we are not buying toys but we get to spend time together or you can stay at home and we will spend time together when I get back. What do you want to do? Now remember, if you choose to come with me and you get upset that I can’t buy you something, this means that next time I can’t bring you to the shops with me. Its up to you!”. So now you have put in a boundary and created a choice.

So remember: stop, remember a tantrum means a cry for connection, reflect the feelings, give a hug, do an activity and then when your child is calm, explain the boundary.

Children who feel connected to their parents will want to please their parents and if you can find moments in your day to truly connect (play or talking), your children are less likely to act out.

7 Tips to Stay Cool when Your Child Acts Up

(Taken from ahaperenting.com)

 “Let it go. The moment you feel your hackles rising, let it go. If you let it upset you, what follows is anger, and to quote Yoda, that leads to the dark side…. Notice … and interrupt it. Find your own way of accepting things with grace.”  — Steve Errey 

All parents get angry at their children. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anger; anger is a message. The problem is that we can’t hear that message clearly while we’re angry. In the heat of the moment, we’re in fight, flight or freeze. And when we’re in “fight,” our child looks like the enemy. So we think the message is that we should vanquish the enemy — our own child!

In fact, the message when your child gets upset is that he needs your help, even if he’s being totally difficult. Maybe we need to put him to bed an hour earlier, or connect with him more, or simply make it safe enough for him to cry and show us all those tears and fears that are making him act out. But we can’t understand or act on that message when we’re triggered. Staying cool is essential to actually solving the problem, instead of making it worse.

So how can you stay cool when your kid acts up?

1. Notice that you’re getting annoyed. 

Sometimes, we don’t notice until we’re already on the dark side. But usually we can see our annoyance building, because we start gathering kindling. What do I mean? We start reviewing all the reasons we’re right and our child is an ungrateful brat. Once you start gathering kindling, it’s hard to avoid the firestorm. So as soon as you notice that your mind chatter about your child is negative, STOP. Drop your agenda (Just temporarily.) Take a deep breath to stop the runaway train of your anger.

2. Use your inner pause button. 

Even if you’re already well down the wrong path and you’re yelling, STOP. Take a deep breath and hit the pause button. Close your mouth, even in mid-sentence. Don’t be embarrassed; you’re modeling good anger management. Save your embarrassment for when you have a tantrum.

3. Take Five. 

Don’t try to address the issue with your child while you’re angry.  Calm down and get re-centered so you can actually hear the message behind your anger. Are you frightened about your child’s behavior?  Resentful toward your partner?  Exhausted and stressed out so you’re over-reacting to your child’s normal age appropriate behavior?

4. Feel the emotions in your body. 

I’m not suggesting that you swallow your anger, just that you resist acting on it. Instead, notice the anger in your body. Really feel the tightness in your belly, that suffocating feeling in your throat. Breathe into those tense places. As you simply open to the feelings in your body, you’ll feel them beginning to shift and melt. That’s the secret of mindfulness — once we sit with those emotions, just accepting them with compassion, they melt away.

5. Shift your state. 

Now, reframe your thoughts about the situation and you’ll find that you have different feelings. If you’re thinking that your child needs to be taught a big lesson right now, you won’t be able to calm down. If you remind yourself that she’s acting like a child because she IS a child, and that she needs your love most when she seems to deserve it least, you’ll be willing to shift out of anger.

6. Try a Do-Over. 

Tell your child that you’re sorry you got so upset, and the two of you are going to try a Do-over. This time, stay calm. Empathize. Listen to your child’s feelings and try to see things from her perspective. Resist the urge to blame, and instead look for solutions that work for both of you. If your child has damaged something — including a relationship — ask her what she might do to repair it. But always start by listening to her upset and empathizing.

7. Practice, Practice, Practice. 

I’m not going to lie to you. This is really hard work, one of the hardest things anyone can do. If you’re used to flying off the handle, you’ll be teaching your brain new patterns of self-discipline. That takes practice. Luckily, every time you resist acting when you’re angry, you’re rewiring your brain, so managing your anger gets easier every time you do it.

Sure, you’ll lose it sometimes. But if you just keep practicing, holding yourself with compassion and noticing the emotions, you’ll find that even when your child acts up, you’re more able to stay cool. At some point, you’ll realize that you rarely lose your temper any more. You’ll still have childish behavior as long as you live with children, but your reaction will be different. A lot less drama, and a lot more love.