THE THREE STAGES OF A TANTRUM—AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
From ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change The Way You Raise Your Kids
Temper tantrums are the result of extreme feelings in an undeveloped brain and begin around the age two and a half. Underlying reasons for tantrums include hunger, fatigue, illness, and, of course, parent-imposed limits on their behavior. Some children may be especially susceptible to tantrums in response to seemingly mundane things.
In these situations, your job as a parent is quite simple: to remain calm and show compassion. Yes, these experiences can seem downright traumatic, but most of us have been there, and they are 100 percent normal. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Emotion, tantrums have predictable patterns and rhythms. Researchers James A. Green from the University of Connecticut, and Michael Potegal, of the University of Minnesota, used wireless microphones sewn into the clothing of toddlers to record more than a hundred tantrums. They analyzed the sounds made by the toddlers and were able to define three specific phases of a tantrum.
Phase 1: Yelling and Screaming During this phase, a child asserts her will mostly vocally. She will get more hysterical when a parent makes comments, gives explanations, uses logic, or asks questions. Even trying to talk through her feelings at this stage is ineffective.
What can you do? It is helpful for you to stay nearby in the room. The child needs the safety of knowing you are present. Leaving the room can rile her up even more. Remain calm, neutral, available, and loving. See yourself as a compassionate witness and do not talk. In other words: Stop, Drop, Zero Talk. Just sit tight, providing the most loving energy you can muster.
STOP, DROP, ZERO TALK
The very best “first” thing to do when your child is having a tantrum is to:
1. STOP whatever you are doing in that moment, especially if it may be contributing to the child’s stress.
2. DROP to, or below, the child’s level. It’s hard to be helped by someone who is looming over us, and this signals that you are not just present, but you are there for the child.
3. ZERO TALK —Talking to tantruming children does little or no good. In this state, our words, no matter how soothing we might think they are, are often just impediments.
Phase 2: Physical Action During this phase a child may hit, kick, push furniture, or throw toys. If a parent tries to soothe a child by talking to her or touching her, she will typically become more physically aggressive.
What can you do? Stay present! Your job is not to stop the tantrum, but to make sure the child does not feel abandoned and to ensure she does not harm anything or anyone. This may require changing locations or finding a safe location, somewhere neutral—such as a car or a bedroom—where your child can have the time she needs to self-regulate. (When you are in a public place, we suggest cutting your losses. Pay the check, leave the groceries, or politely excuse yourself from the party. Your child is your priority.) Whatever the case, you’ll want to say as little as possible and do as little as possible, while still making sure your child does not do anything to hurt herself, or a sibling, or you.
If the child tries to hurt you, you may need to take her in a bear hug, body facing out. But only do this if absolutely necessary. Stay calm; do not let the tantrum change your behavior. You may say, “I need to keep you safe, and I need to keep me safe.” As soon as the child’s limbs begin to slacken, release her. Always use the least restrictive way to keep your child and yourself safe. It can be painful to be hit by a child. The fight-or-flight part of our brains may want to flee the pain. This is a mistake for two reasons. One, the child may feel abandoned, which will make the situation worse. Two, the child may become scared of her own strength. She may begin to believe she is “bad” or “mean” or “out of control”—which can either be internalized or used against you.
(A child who believes she can scare you or intimidate you holds a powerful weapon. When in need of attention or power and unable to get those needs met, she may use this newfound power just to rile you up.) Better to brace yourself against the pain and stay calm. Some kids hit more than others. But unless we are dealing with more severe, diagnosable problems, the phase always passes. The question is whether your relationship will have been weakened or strengthened by the experience.
Phase 3: The Sadness After the physical stage plays itself out, the next phase begins. A child will feel sad or scared by what just happened. She may cry, whine, or fuss. She has lost her connection with her parent and now she wants to reconnect and be comforted. She is ready to return to the zone.
What can you do? Look for the child to take a few deep breaths between crying. This may be indication that the surge of cortisol is dissipating. Remain physically and emotionally available. Your child could soon use a sensory experience—she may want a hug, or she may want to climb on your lap to cuddle and cry.
EMBRACE THE TANTRUM
There is something to be said for embracing big shows of emotion; after all, sometimes kids just need to get that explosion of feeling out of their systems so everyone can move on. A child who is very tired, for example, will often appear to be on the cusp of a meltdown the closer you get to bedtime. If that’s the case, instead of jumping through hoops to prevent the meltdown, a parent might just allow it to happen. Take deep breaths. Stay in the zone. Treat the tantrum as a natural thing. When it passes, the child’s body will have released itself of its pent-up energy and will be ready to face bedtime in a peaceful way. And don’t worry. You aren’t encouraging or reinforcing tantrums by accepting them. Rather, you model for your child calm self-regulation in the face of stress and make tantrums easier for your child to handle and move past.