Tantrums are scary. I've known parents who avoided going out with their children simply because they didn't want to deal with a tantrum in public. I've also known people who, over time, learned how to help their children handle these strong emotions so there could be less discord, a closer parent-child relationship, and less emotional upset.
I don't know about you, but I want to be one of the second type of parents. And so I asked my friends who had successfully learned to deal with toddler tantrums how they did it. This is what they said.
Toddlers are still developing the ability to determine what is and is not the end of the world. Under certain circumstances, things feel, to them, like a catastrophe. But young children don't know how to process and manage their feelings, so they just lose it.
Honestly, this explains the majority of toddler tantrums. Something in their environment is causing them to be unable to bring their feelings under control (sometimes this is something you can change and sometimes it isn't). They don't know what to do with their strong emotions.
None of these are small tasks, and so it takes children a while to gain the experience and maturity to make strides in these areas. The good news is that we can help our children learn to manage their feelings well.
Before the Tantrum
1. Understand the Triggers
Different kids will have tantrums at different times. However, many children struggle when they are hungry, thirsty, or tired. Try and manage these basic triggers as much as possible.
Whatever your child's triggers, knowing them will help you when the tantrum comes in full force. If you know that simply removing a sibling to another room for a few minutes will help, you're in a much better position than if you're left wondering where in the world to start.
2. Know Your Reactions
As a parent, your child's cries are especially painful to you. Parents have a physiological response to their child's crying even when the kids are newborns, so it makes sense that your child's tantrum would be particularly upsetting to you.
Many parents respond to their own feelings of upset by trying to make the child be quiet as soon as possible. The parents need this for their own well-being, or at least it feels that way. Understanding that you are often pushed to an emotional outburst of your own because of your body's response to your child's crying can help you get the space you need to respond instead of react.
3. Ponder the Past
What is your history with tantrums, both as a child and as a parent? When you were upset, how did your parents respond to you? How did that feel? And how have you responded to your child in the past?
Answering these questions can help you gain understanding as to how you think about tantrums and why. It can also help you highlight areas where you want to change your responses, or where a change in response might produce a different outcome.
During the Tantrum
Between the time when your child starts yelling and the time when you respond, take a few deep breaths. This gives you a chance to separate yourself from your immediate feelings and remember the things you thought about before the tantrum. Sure, Johnny might gain quite an audience in those few seconds, but you will be better able to help him gain control of his feelings when you are in control of yours.
2. Focus on Your Child
When people are staring, it's easy to feel like you just have to get your child to be quiet. Even when you're at home, your physiological responses can cause the same sort of thing. However, you don't need to pay attention to people who are staring, whispering, offering advice, etc. You know your child best, and you have a better idea than anyone else about what he or she needs.
Sometimes, focusing on your child means doing things that won't make sense to onlookers. It may mean cuddling with your child in the supermarket aisle, physically restraining your child (so they don't injure themselves) in the waiting room, or offering compassion when others might offer reprimand or criticism. Have confidence in yourself and your relationship with your child, though, because you know best how to help them through these strong feelings.
3. Remove Irritants
Like I said above, different children tantrum for different reasons. If you can do something to help your child by removing something that is bothering him or her (removing hunger by offering a snack, removing a sibling from the picture for a few minutes, etc.), then you may be able to stem the tantrum tide before things get too far. Do this consistently, and you and your child may become a team against the tantrums, as your child learns what he or she needs and you learn how to provide it for him.
After the Tantrum
It can be helpful to review a tantrum once it's over, especially if you're looking for a better outcome than before or trying to change your own responses. Think about what happened, what caused the tantrum (if you know), how you responded, how your child reacted to your response, and how it all ended. Over time, this will allow you to pinpoint the crucial places and target your response to your child's needs. In the end, this should result in fewer tantrums and a closer parent-child relationship all the way around.