Let’s get real for a moment. Tantrums are the most stressful point of early childhood for most parents. Kids throw them at the worst possible times over the smallest things. They are embarrassing because we have all have this pressure to keep our kids quiet and calm in public, and a tantrum is the antithesis of that. To those still grasping to the archaic idea that parents should control their children’s actions, it’s quite a slap in the face.
How parents see, interpret, and react to tantrums deeply influences our relationships with our kids, their relationship with themselves and how they deal with others.
For example, a child who is told, “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” is learning that you don’t care for their emotions or hardships, they can’t turn to you for understanding or help (which is very isolating for a child), that emotions should be ignored, and ultimately a perfect teaching moment for emotional resilience is lost.
Tantrums, I believe, are an integral part of learning emotional resilience. Because of this, I am very steadfast in my views of tantrums and what they mean. The common thought that tantrums are a manipulation tactic is ridiculous. Manipulation requires strategy and prediction skills toddlers just don’t have.
Instead, remember that tantrums are a child’s reactions to emotions so big they are consumed by them. A child throwing a fit is a child at the end of their rope pleading for help and being ignored. When a child throws a tantrum, it is because that child is experiencing the hardest emotions, they have ever felt. Think back to the last time you were so angry that you were shaking or the last time you cried so hard you got a headache. That is what a child is feeling during a tantrum.
My favorite form of dealing with tantrums comes from the RIE method of parenting for toddlers and preschoolers. RIE teaches that kids are whole people and that our interactions with them should be grounded in respect for the as a person, not seeing them as a pet that we need to control.
If you are interested in learning more about RIE, I highly recommend Janet Lansbury. She runs an awesome blog (linked above).
Prevention is the most important tool for dealing with tantrums. This involves doing some things differently than most parents do.
First is sleep.
A well rested child has the emotional reserves to conquer churning emotions easier than a tired one. Plan your days to get naps in, even if the sleep happens in a car seat, stroller, carrier, or pallet on the floor. Even a 30 minute nap works wonders. For instance, if we are going on a long drive, we leave after lunch so the kids can sleep in the car.
Plan things that you know will be hard first thing in the morning. Our dentist and doctor appointments are at 8 o’clock. This way my kids have had breakfast, a short time to play, and are in the best mood they will be all day! They are cooperative.
Second is food.
A hangry toddler will break faster than wet tissue paper. Do important things as close to possible after a meal, bring snacks, and offer cranky kids high energy, nutritious foods like cheese, fruit, or whole grains.
On the subject of food, don’t let your kids replace food with their sippy cups. Most toddlers have one glued to their hip. If it’s filled with something that has calories, your toddler may drink all their calories and refuse food. This is a huge mistake. Not only is this bad for their teeth (besides cavities, sippys can push teeth out of their proper placement like pacifiers), but it’s bad for their bodies.
Drinks like juice and flavored milk are just as hard on your pancreas and blood sugar as soda because they don’t have the fiber needed to slow digestion. What this means is that a child will become very hungry, very suddenly- recipe for disaster! Stick to water in the sippy and one serving of milk a day (your wallet will thank you, too).
Last in prevention is awareness both yours and your child’s. Take notice of things or places that trigger a tantrum. Then warn your kids ahead of time so they are aware and know what is expected of them. For example, if a child is prone to throw a fit over candy, and you are going to the grocery store, start at home.
Being with talking about going to the grocery store, about getting food, then say, “We will be bring home lots of delicious food, but all the candy will stay at the store. When you see candy, keep your hands away from it. Leave it on the shelf, and wait quietly and patiently while I pay for our food, then we will go home and eat something delicious.”
Then remind them in the car, saying something like, “Today, we are going to the grocery store. There’s much delicious candy there, but we will not be getting any. We will get lots of delicious food and take it home. The candy will stay. I know you really want candy. It’s hard when we can’t have what we want. It’s upsetting. What should you do when you see candy?” Shortly go over what is expected when you pass candy. Remind them in the store when you know you be passing candy and before checking out.
Even with the best prevention, tantrums will happen so let’s move on the the second part: Facilitation.
Let me reiterate: tantrums are not manipulation. Tantrums are your child’s reaction to the strongest emotions they have ever felt. Tantrums are a starting point for learning emotional resilience. As a parent, you must realize that you have absolutely no control over your child or their emotions. It is not for you to dictate their emotions or reactions. It is your job to teach them to recognize and control their reaction. How on earth can you do that?
Well, that’s divided into during tantrums and during calm times. I will focus on what to do during a tantrum, but if you want to hear about what I do during calm times, leave me a comment!
So, during a tantrum, recognize what is happening, their feelings, assure them their feelings are normal, and ride it out. So if your child is crying because you aren’t buying the candy during checkout, say something like, “You really want the candy, and I am not buying it. That is making you upset. You seem mad, you seem sad, and it’s making it hard for you. I am sorry it’s hard. I wish I could make it easy. I can’t. It’s normal for you be mad and sad. Everyone feels mad and sad sometimes, but it can be so hard. I know it’s hard.”
Now in the middle of a crowded grocery store with the weight of a thousand eyes on you, all you really want is your kid to be quiet. That’s normal, and it’s very hard to keep your calm. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, makes you angry and anxious. (See what I did there?) It’s mortifying, but your loyalty is to your child.
Adults understand what’s going on, how kids act, and can adjust. Your child can’t. That’s why they are throwing a tantrum. Let’s shift the burden of action from kids to adults because adults are mature. Sometimes, I am able to remove my child to a quieter, secluded place which always helps, but I have also been that mom checking out with a screaming toddler, too.
So ride out the tantrum with as much disconnection from that feeling of embarrassment as possible. Take deep breaths and remember that the calm in this situation must come from you. Repeat the reassuring words that recognize and validate your child’s frustrations without demanding anything. Sometimes touch can help, like a pat on the back or a hug, but only offer, never force. As a child starts to calm, offer a snack or water/milk, hugs/kisses, or anything else that comforts your child because strong emotions are very isolating, and you are wanting to teach your child that you are with them.
Sometimes touch can help, like a pat on the back or a hug, but only offer, never force. As a child starts to calm, offer a snack or water/milk, hugs/kisses, or anything else that comforts your child because strong emotions are very isolating, and you are wanting to teach your child that you are with them.
Last, I want to reiterate that tantrums are not manipulation. A toddler simply doesn’t have the ability to predict and strategize in order to manipulate. Kids are the sum of their impulses. Period. We must use the opportunities to teach our kids.
Teach them what? First, that big emotions are normal, inevitable, manageable, and that you are accepting of their feelings and reactions while waiting to guide them to more appropriate ways of dealing with undulating emotions.
How do we teach them this? First, never criticize or belittle their emotions. This means refraining from comparing their reactions with anyone else’s or from trying to dictate them. Many parents, in well meaning moments, often say things like, “Why is the candy such a big deal now? You had x earlier?”
Well, that doesn’t matter because kids have the memory that makes a goldfish’s look like an elephant’s. They will also say things like, “You aren’t really mad. You’re just tired.” No, your kid is mad and tired. Both are true.
Second, we teach by example. Don’t be afraid to show anger, sadness, jealousy, or any other emotion. Just be aware that however you react is going to be the way they react. If you want them to calm themselves, you must do the same. If you want me to write about how I keep myself calm during stressful situations with my kids, please leave me a comment.
Last, we need to be very vocal and present in their tantrums. Again, we shouldn’t dictate anything. So if you offer a hug, and they vehemently refuse, then let it go. So during the storm, reassure them constantly like stated above. Reassure them that you love them, that its ok for them to feel that way, that you know it’s hard, that you will help them, name the emotions you suspect they feel and why they feel that way, and talk about it being hard to feel that way.
This is how you give your kids names for the emotions they feel. This is how you teach children that emotions are fleeting. This is how you show your children that you are their guide to emotional turmoil and will help them even in their hardest times. This is the moment when parenting is its hardest yet most rewarding.
In conclusion, a tantrum is a learning opportunity; don’t let it pass by in your pursuit of calm and control. Let yourself be well of calm your child can sink into. My own personal experiences show that this approach, while it doesn’t eliminate tantrums (that is an unreasonable expectation), it does lessen their intensity and shorten them immensely.