Written by: Cally Worden
Even the best-laid parenting plans in the world cannot always prevent temper tantrums. It’s a dead cert that at certain points in your child’s younger years, a few meltdowns will occur. And that’s just the parents. (I guarantee that most normal parents are tempted to throw a wobbly themselves on occasion. Or is that just me?!) Seriously, knowing how to respond if your child does kick-off can help you both to navigate these emotion-fuelled episodes with your sanity intact.
Gauge the Tantrum Type
The reasons your child gets angry are many and varied, including:
- Frustration – this is a major cause of toddler meltdowns, as they try to engage with the world in ways that neither their brains nor bodies are ready for. The simple act of trying to take off a jumper has seen many a little person flip.
- Attention-seeking – perhaps you’ve been busy on grown-up stuff, so your child acts-out as a means to getting some sort of a reaction from you, even if it’s a cross one.
- Not getting their way – I think this is the most common cause of tantrums, especially in very young children. As they slowly learn that the world does not, in fact, revolve around then they test their personal boundaries with demanding behaviour.
- ‘I’m-so-tired-anything-will-set-me-off’ – my three year old had a few of these yesterday after a disturbed night of sleep. Nothing I did with or for him was right. Cue multiple meltdowns of monstrous proportions.
There are many more subtle variations on these four primary causes of tantrums, but most can be traced back to these in some form.
If you catch a tantrum early it’s often possible to distract your child. If this isn’t possible, and once you’ve identified the motivation for your child’s meltdown, you have a few clues as to how to deal with it:
- Frustration – offer to help, but be prepared to be pushed away. If your child simply refuses to let you assist then remain available, but do your best to ignore the tantrum. If this doesn’t work you can try to jolly your child along, asserting brightly that it’s time to move off and do something fun together.
- Attention-seeking – give your child a chance to stop. If he continues the meltdown remove him from any danger and from an audience, and let him thrash it out. If you give too much attention before the tantrum is over, he will get the message that his actions work and you’ll see repeated episodes occurring.
- Not getting their way – calm explanations of the reasons behind your ‘No’ in any given circumstance will likely fall on deaf ears. Try it anyway and then respond as for an Attention-seeking episode. Give in on these ones and you make a rod for your own back!
- Tiredness – I find that loving my son through tiredness tantrums is the most effective approach. He doesn’t know what to do with himself sometimes. When he’s calm again it can help to instigate a nap, but if this doesn’t work then one-on-one attention or quiet time can be very effective. Snuggling up with a film together on the sofa, or playing a simple, undemanding game of something led by your child will help to prevent further episodes until he can get a decent period of sleep.
For Really MAJOR Tantrums
Ignoring it simply won’t cut it. If it’s clear your child has moved into a tantrum level that is extreme, he is probably out of control. In order to get his way back he will need your help. Abandoning him to sort it out himself at this stage is not helpful, potentially doing more harm than good.
In these instances you need to be present for your child. Make and hold eye contact if you can. Hold him tightly close to you, creating a secure space. If he resists this for longer than a minute or so then do release him, but give it a chance. Secure holding is one of the most effective ways to soothe a very distressed child. Speak calmly to him, letting him know you are there and will look after him. A short spell in ‘time out’ can be effective in the over 3’s, be sure to remain around your child as he calms down. He needs you right now.
It’s impossible not to get stressed when your child is having a tantrum. You can feel their distress, you want to help them, but feel powerless and out of control. The worst thing you can do is snap and shout. We’ve all been there and done that, I personally hate myself the instant it happens – I have seen the increased distress on my child’s face and instantly regret my outburst. During a tantrum your child is experiencing fierce and intense emotions, this can feel very scary. He needs you to be his rock – seeing you out of control makes him even more scared.
So if you feel your blood boiling or panic levels rising, it’s time to make sure your child is safe, which may need a short ‘time out’ to calm down. Make a conscious effort to relax. Take some deep breaths,¬† then return to your child, ready to help him calm down too.
When the Tantrum is Done
Talk with your child, briefly, and explore at an age appropriate level what just happened. If he behaved in unacceptable ways (hitting, kicking, biting) tell him that’s not okay. Acknowledge what you think was the problem and give him chance to agree or tell you different. Agree to help each other out next time he is feeling this way.
Then, occupy your child for a minute on his own, take a few sanity-saving moments for yourself. For your child, once the tantrum has passed he will recover from it quickly and move on. We grown-ups find that harder to do, if our overall mood has darkened as a result, our child will be confused. Taking time to release the tensions and stress you have experienced yourself will help you to move on too.
If all else fails I find chocolate or wine seem to help.