4 Steps to Tame Tantrums
I created this template for parenting toddlers and children through tantrums. Each step lists what to do, how to do it, why do it, and a bonus fact. This list can be used for any age of child, just adjust the steps to fit the verbal skills and maturity level of each individual child.
What to do: Give words to your child's feelings. Toddlers feelings come online in a big way but they don't have any insight into what is going on yet. It is developmentally appropriate for young kids to have tantrums. Adults can see the big picture, but tots and children can't. This makes tantrums difficult to understand from the adult perspective.
How to do it: Simply name what the child is feeling and why you think they are feeling that way. "You got really mad when Sophie took that toy from your hands" or "Sam hit you and that made you very sad". If you don't know why your child is upset you can simply say, "I see that you are really upset right now".
Why do this: The simple act of naming your child's emotions validates their experience and makes them feel understood, but it also helps them understand their own emotions. They start to develop the link between events occurring around them, their own inner experience, and the words to describe what is happening.
Bonus point: The point is not to stop the feeling of behavior at this time, the point is to give words to it.
What to do: Save the situation from getting worse, and save your words for the appropriate time. First, save your words. This is not the time for a lecture or explanation to your child that their behavior wasn't appropriate, that will come once the child is calm. Also, remove your child from the situation if needed and bring them to a safe, quiet space. Protect your child or other children around if your child is hitting, throwing toys, or thrashing themselves around.
How to do it: If your child is a risk for harming themselves or another child nearby, or if they are disruptive to their surroundings, immediately bring them to a calm space. This can be your car, their room, outside, or any other space that works for your location. You can simply say to your child, "hitting is not ok, we are going to your room to settle down" while leading your child by the hand to their room. If necessary, you can carry your child out of a situation if they are too upset to go willingly.
Why do this:
You are saving the situation from going further down the tantrum spiral. A new space can help their brain reset or distract their attention. It also protects toys or people from getting hurt. Some tots will act aggressively during a tantrum and it is best to just avoid that altogether if possible.
Bonus point: Sometimes parents worry that bringing their child to their room will reward the tantrum. This is not necessarily true. It is more of a distraction than a reward, and it is ok if a child starts to play with their toys, this may be an attempt to start the calming process.
What to do: This can be a hard step for parents. We are so emotionally in-tune with our children we can become easily agitated when they become upset. When your child throws a tantrum you likely feel your own heartbeat increase, feel anxious, or become angry. Your ability to calm and self-soothe will help them learn to do the same.
How to do it: Use verbal and non-verbal empathy to let your child know that you understand them. Read their cues to determine what is appropriate between calming words, soothing touch, and comfort. Your presence near them is a comfort when they are still highly emotional. Once they become a little bit more calm you can help further relax by saying things like "I see you're mad and I want to help you calm down" or "lets take some deep breaths together", and offering hugs or soft touch if they seem receptive. Notice and name any attempt that your child makes to calm down. If you see them relax at all try talking them through it "I see that you are starting to feel more calm" or "hugging your blanket is making you feel more comfortable". This provides positive praise to their own natural coping strategies.
Why do this: By taking time to calm your child, you get them to a place where they can hear what you say. Nobody is a good listener when they are flooded with emotions. Over time your child will learn emotional regulation skills that will take them through their entire life. Your child will begin to learn coping skills that work for them.
Bonus point: Imagine a wild animal going crazy in your house. To stop the animal you would want to first get a cage to put around the animal to contain it, then wait for it to calm down. If your child is the wild animal, you are the cage. You want to create a safe barrier around the child and wait for them to calm down before taking another step.
What to do: This is parent's favorite step! Use simple, short, direct sentences to explain your version of what happened. Also, get your child's version of the events so that you can understand their perspective. Listen, and ask questions for clarification. Help your child apologize if needed to anyone involved.
How to do it: Use phrases such as: "I asked you to put on your shoes and you got really mad. What happened?". Ask your child how they can communicate differently next time, giving them options if they are unable to name some on their own.
Why do this: You are building up your child's toolbox with alternative solutions, which over time will give them more opportunity to communicate more effectively. Your child we get mad again, but they don't yet know how to deal productively with being mad, so teach them.
Bonus point: Some children will start to get upset again when rehashing the events that upset them in the first place. If they do, use your calming techniques and help them relax before moving on. Children can't take in new information while they are upset.
That's all! I'd love to read any comments or answer any questions below.
Rebecca Newton, MFTI