Dealing with Tantrums - a Literature review

A tantrum an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child. As parents we know this behavior well from our toddlers. So what can we do about it?

 

The best way to deal with a tantrum is to proactively try to avoid it.

We can do this day to day by:

  • Make sure that we fill our child’s attention and power buckets - consistently have scheduled time every day (even 10-15 minutes) to spend with her alone, and give her as much control over her life as is developmentally appropriate, as well as give her a sense of contribution.

  • Model regulating yourself. When you are upset or annoyed (even with your child’s behavior) - Breath, count to 10, or do drink a glass of water before re-engaging.

 

and at the moment:

  • We should try to make sure that our child is not HALT (hungry, angry, lonely or tired).

  • When we ask our child to do something she might not like:

    • Collect her, by looking in her eyes and smiling

    • Use gentle voice, low volume and a non-threatening posture (go to her level)

    • Use the word “please”

    • Explain what we want clearly and decisively.

    • Be specific and not

    • Allow simple choices when applicable (in the way it is done, in when or which item).

  • When we refuse a request from our children

    • Try to rephrase the “no” as a “yes” (instead of “no. you can’t have dessert before dinner”, say “yes. You can have the dessert after dinner”).

    • Explain - children understand your words - even before they are able to talk. They will also feel respected and in control when you provide an explanation and not say “because I said so”.

    • It might help to join to our child doing the thing, at least in the first few times,  in case she is avoiding it because she doesn’t know to handle the request.

 

Once the tantrum started, and after removing the child from the situation, there are a few main approaches:

  • Ignoring it - The idea behind this approach is that you do not want to reward the bad behavior with attention. This is the approach that animals use and is advised by many psychologists - as long as the child doesn’t hurt herself or others. I do feel that as research progresses - the recommendations seem to shift away from this approach.

  • Trying to distract the child from the tantrum, by telling a joke or letting them blow bubbles (they can’t yell or pout while blowing bubbles). This can work in the short term - just make sure not to do this too often as this may teach your children to be disconnected from their own feelings and shy away from expressing them to you.

  • Allowing the child to melt in your arms - This approach is rooted in the belief that children need to feel connected and be accepted for who they are, and that children can sometimes have big emotions and cannot yet regulate those feelings on their own.


 

In any case, during the tantrum it’s not the time to teach anything, and you should avoid yelling, lecturing or even respond with a threatening body language in order to avoid your child’s mammal brain to be triggered, which in turn will escalate the tantrum. Suggesting solutions is also not very helpful at this point as the child is not open for learning, and this may aggravate her tantrum if she feels less autonomous, lectured or that her feelings are ignored.

What can be said is general calming phrases (if they are well accepted) as well as naming the feelings, to let her know this is a normal behavior that other people feel as well, and to allow her prefrontal cortex to take charge of the situation.

 

You should also accept that crying is a normal reaction - especially for disappointment or coercion. Crying releases hormones that makes us feel better and as some believe crying also cleanses our deeper fears and unresolved issues. We should not be afraid of letting our children cry, and make sure they know we are there for them when they do.

 

Once the child is calm, you can discuss what happened. What should be learned, how to better handle the situation in the future and so on.

 

If tantrums occur very often or lasts for hours and your child cannot be calmed, it may be a sign for other behavioral issues (e.g. autistic melt down).