Before I had kids, I'd heard of the ‘terrible twos’ which I have since discovered is pretty misleading, since I’m now living with an almost 4 year old threenager and an 18 month old who has recently discovered foot stamping and has impressive whining stamina. While there is no way to eliminate tantrums (as they are developmentally normal) I’m going to elaborate on some strategies that may help you cope a little better and reduce the number/frequency of tantrums.
I don’t know about you, but when there is anything with salted caramel in front of me, impulse control is a challenge. If it's hard for us adults, imagine what it's like for a child?
We also throw our own adult tantrums too, we know what it feels like to lose control when things don’t go our way, so with a brain that is still developing, the challenge is even greater. I’ve often found myself ironically screaming at my child to be more patient. When you find yourself not modelling the behaviour you want them to have, say sorry. “I shouted at you, I shouldn’t have done that, my feelings got really big and I’m sorry.”
I want you to say this out loud. Your child's tantrums have nothing to do with you as a parent. It's actually part of their neurological and emotional development. Their brain has not yet developed full impulse control, the ability to properly communicate emotions and feelings, and in their short lives much of what they have known is based on instant gratification, so learning delayed gratification isn’t easy.
The reason tantrums often start emerging around the two mark is that for the first year or so of a child's life we have met their needs - feeding, diaper changing, helping them sleep. But now they are growing and they want stuff, they want it now and they want it all the time.
An important difference to understand is between when your child is having a tantrum and a meltdown, because we manage them totally differently. A tantrum is usually over the aforementioned wants, while a meltdown is when they can't control their emotions and they need your help to self-regulate. Handling meltdowns is something I will come back to in a future post, but for today I am going to focus on tantrums. Often tantrums are more of a performance, that tends to be short and sharp, i.e. you have made me angry by saying no to something I want. Think flailing limbs, throwing themselves on the ground and lots of high octane screams.
So here are some ways to tame the tantrums:
Give them a choice: So they want the chocolate, instead of just refusing try saying “you can’t have chocolate but you can have an orange.” This will not go down well of course, repeat it several times, and once they are in a safe place, walk away.
A lot of tantrums are over issues that our children know they have a degree of control over, like going to the bathroom or getting ready for bed. Giving choices in age appropriate ways, like letting them pick which pyjamas to wear, or letting them set a countdown timer for the end of playtime, makes them feel independent and in control.
Attention: Oftentimes the root cause of lots of tantrums is they want you, and they can't have you all of the time. Sometimes when our children need love the most, they ask for it in pretty unloving ways. But spending just 10 to 15 minutes of undivided attention a day (that means no phones and no other kids) with your child makes a huge difference, letting them know it's just special time for you and them where they can do whatever they want with you. In this time you give them lots of positive attention which should reduce some of the negative attention seeking tantrums.
Don’t give in: This I know is the hard part. After you have given your choice or decision your child will accept (yeah right!) or pester, getting louder and louder, before full blown tantrum mode. They get louder for longer and wear you down and suddenly you yell “ok 5 more minutes of TV and then that really is it''. But If you give into the behaviour, what you're saying is that screaming at the top of your lungs is an effective form of communication, and you've just given an invitation to their next tantrum. Before you beat yourself up on letting them put more sweets in the supermarket cart, don’t be hard on yourself. If you got this right all of the time you would be a Saint! It's about trying our best to get it right most of the time, and sometimes there are days where you just have to pick your battles.
Empathise: Even though we all have a long list of seemingly ridiculous reasons our kids have tantrums, like that you peeled their banana wrong or didn’t let them put a fork in the toaster, remember that it matters to them. So empathise - “I understand that you wanted to stay in the playground, it’s so fun here, but it's getting dark now.” Come down to their level and look them in the eyes, tell them we understand their big feelings and it's ok to want something, but you as the parent are the one who decides whether they get it or not.
Don’t try and do lessons or logic; In the heat of the tantrum it is pointless trying to give the lesson or the logical reasoning behind your decision, wait until a later moment of calm to teach.
Try some ‘Yes’: Parenting can be exhausting, but the endless no’s are just as exhausting for your child as they are for you, sometimes they have just heard the word too many times, or the word starts to lose its meaning to them, or when they hear it, it’s simply a trigger for entering tantrum mode.”You want to read a book together? Yes! I love reading with you, that will be great, when I’m finished folding these clothes we can read a book.”
Be confident with your boundaries: Boundaries are a really important part of parenting and not only do our children need them but they actually crave them. How we communicate them makes a big difference. Instead of saying “I’m sick of telling you not to throw your toys.” Try saying “I see that you're finding it hard not to throw your toys, I’m going to put them away for right now.”
Check in with yourself: Tantrums are hard, and some days are harder than others. When you feel overwhelmed, step out of the room (once your child is safe) and breathe, do a grounding exercise, name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can hear and one thing you can taste. Once you have calmed down, come back into the room.
Try the ‘If’ and ‘Then’ technique; Explain the why, “If you get into the car seat, then we get to drive to the playground.”
Distraction: So you gave a choice, you used your soft voice and yet their red face is getting redder. Break the tension with fun and play, break out the bubbles or start singing their favourite song.
HALT: Is there another need your child has that hasn’t been met that is causing the tantrum? Are they Hungry (or thirsty), Anxious, Lonely, or Tired. If you spot this need you can address it; “It seems you’re a little tired, will we go up and have some quiet time?”
So while there is no magic wand to wave that will give you a tantrum free life (sorry!) hopefully these tips will help you reduce the number, shorten them, and understand the reasons behind them.
Blog post written by Wendy Grace Broadcaster & Journalist & Presenter of 'The Morning Show' @spiritradioire CEO of Compass Communications