By: Cristina Trette
My first child was an adorable and sensitive baby. One moment she would be happy and smiling. The next moment she would start crying because a loud truck drove by or we entered into a crowded area. Mostly, I felt competent and attuned to her. But when she entered into the preschool and kindergarten years, her sensitivity became harder for me to navigate. Maybe this is because I decided to have two more children! Or maybe it is because I did not know how to handle her tantrums well.
Admittedly, when my daughter became overwhelmed, I became overwhelmed. Her tantrums were very stressful for me. I had been taught to eliminate tantrums through ignoring, time outs, or instilling consequences. My intentions were good but these techniques led her to escalate her more and created more behavior difficulties.
What I did not know then is that ignoring and punitive time outs are psychologically distressing for children. Forced separation and a refusal to respond to them (even if only for a few minutes) can send children into a fight, flight, or freeze response.
My parenting approach changed dramatically when I started counseling children, ages 5 - 18. I heard story after story about what was happening before, during, and after a tantrum (and related behaviors) from the perspective of the children. I also witnessed the deep emotional pain that occurred in children who had been repeated ignored, shut out, separated from, punished, or forced into time outs.
The stories from these children, combined with training in attachment theory, shifted how I interacted with my own children during their emotional storms.
What follows is a brief introduction on how to handle distress tantrums.
Tantrums are normal
Most children between the ages of 18 months and 12 years have some tantrums. Yet, they can continue into the teen years. Healthy and high functioning adults sometimes have tantrums too they have too much stress piled on and they cannot cope with the circumstances they are in. Tantrums are not a signal that your child is spoiled, manipulative, or trying to get his way. Tantrums are a signal that your child is experiencing acute emotional dysregulation.
Food, Sleep, Water, Rest
Children need frequent stops for food, water, and rest. This is because their brains and bodies are developing rapidly. Do not underestimate what lack of food or rest will do to your kids mood. If you child is tantruming because these needs are not met - meet them! Also, if your child does not get adequate sleep this can set them up for massive meltdowns. Make sure you meet their physical and biological needs. Littles are still learning to read their body signals, they may not be able to article that they are hungry, tired, or thirsty.
Movement and Creativity
If your child tantrums a lot, and is on screens a lot, get them off screens and get them moving. Children are more likely to emotionally regulate when they have plenty of fresh air, running, biking, kicking, puzzles, board games, cards, climbing, digging, art, music, dance.
Structure and Routine
Children need a predictable and consistent routine. A stable home and school life, that allows for small changes and flexibility, is a great tantrum preventer. Kids have an easier time managing emotions and stress when they have a solid and reliable foundation to count on.
Boundaries, limit, and rules
Children need boundaries, limits, and rules. Many times tantrums will occur when a limit is set. For example, you say no snacking before dinner or you tell your child to wash hands before dinner. Hold your limit even if a tantrum occurs. A great rule of thumb in these moments is to be firm with your limit and gentle with your child.
Transitions are another time that children commonly meltdown. For example, when you announce it is time to leave the park or when you say it is time for bed. This is normal. Hang in there and ride it out. Again, hold true to any limit you have set yet give your child space to express their feelings. If you have to scoop your child up because they will not get up and leave, do so, in a gentle and confident manner.
The purpose of tantrums
Tantrums are what happens during acute emotional dysregulation. And tantrums are the way the body releases pent up sadness, anger, hurt, and fear. When parents approach tantrums in a steady and grounded way, children slowly learn how to regulate themselves. We are wired for co-regulation. This means that humans regulate most efficiently by turning to other people for comfort. The parent's regulated nervous system will influence your child's nervous system. So when parents are regulated this will help their child regulate.
What is happening during a tantrum
Have you ever been in a situation, maybe with your spouse, where you have become so upset that you cannot think straight or reason? Or maybe you yell or say things that you did not mean. Or maybe you become flooded with a mix of emotions so trying to have a reasonable conversation is very difficult. This is what is happening to your child during a tantrum, but times 100, because your child's brain is not fully developed.
The prefrontal cortex area of the brain is the part of the brain that controls reasoning, impulse, aggression, planning, self regulation, emotion regulation, and social skills. This part of the brain has a blossoming period at the age of 12 and is not fully developed until age 25.
Young children simply do not have the brain capacity to handle all of the ups and downs of life without falling apart from time to time. During a tantrum, your child is totally overwhelmed and loses access to logic and reasoning, and often loses control of his body. If you want to learn more about what is happening on a nervous system level during a tantrum, read Dr. Dan Siegel's book, No Drama Discipline.
What to do during the tantrum
Make a statement or two that lets your child know that you understand where she is coming from by validating her emotions, wants, and needs. If you have to gently move with her into a private place, do so. From here, you want to stay tuned into her and her experience. The less reactive you are the better. There is no need to lecture, scold, argue, punish, ignore, ridicule, or yell. These behaviors will only make things worse. With simple and clear language let her know that you are there for her. Do what you need to do to tend to yourself. Don't let her hit you or anyone else. Don't let her break things. When she is done, she will probably want comfort. Give comfort if your child wants this. I assure you that comfort will not be reinforcing "bad behavior".
Here is an example:
My four year old is watching a show after dinner. I have told her that she gets one show and then we are getting ready for bed. The show ends, I turn off the TV. She asks for another show. I say, no more show, it is bedtime. She asks again, this time while whining. I take a moment to breath and focus on my own regulation.
I move into the development of co-regulation.
I notice my breath, the tension in my body, the thoughts swirling in my head, and the feelings I am having. Note that some of this is quite negative and not very affirming of me or my child. Yet, I remind myself that I am the adult and that I am a strong and loving parent. It is my job to support my child in developing emotional regulation.
I lead with a confident and attuned presence.
"You really want to watch another show. I get it. You must be very frustrated that I am saying no".
Her whine escalated into crying demand and and fall to the floor. She does not take in my attempt to reflect and validate.
I hold my boundary firm (no more show and we are going to bed) while staying regulated, caring, and present.
Fewer words are generally better. The focus is now nervous system regulation. Soft voice, warm facial expressions, and safe body language. This soothes my child's limbic system.
The TV is off. I do not rush her into bed because I know that the most immediate need is her nervous system regulation. I also know that forcing and rushing the bedtime routine will make everything worse. She spends around 5 minutes crying while still asking for the show and no bed.
I stay close. I let her know I am there. I remain firm with my limit but gentle with her. I may offer touch but if that is more dysregulating than I don't.
Eventually she stops crying.
When she finishes crying. She comes to me for a hug.
I say are you ready for bed now? She says yes, she takes my hand, and off we go to start the bedtime routine.
The next day when she is alert and regulated, I teach her that it is always OK to feel sad, frustrated, or angry but it is not OK to scream, demand, yell, and fall to the floor when I turn off the TV for bedtime. The message she gets is that all her feelings are OK but some behaviors are not OK. I trust that in time with repetition, guidance, and co-regulation she will learn how to feel her feelings without the tantrum behavior. Keep in mind, we are teaching at the nervous system level, not at the cognitive level.
Sometimes tantrums serve as a signal
As stated previously, most of the time tantrums are normal and most healthy children have some tantrums.
Yet, sometimes tantrums signal that there is something happening that needs to be addressed. Children are often the barometer, letting us know that something within the family needs tending to.
Parents fighting, marital problems, parent depression, parent anxiety, high stress, and family conflict may result in numerous tantrums in your child. If parents are under high stress, the children are under high stress too.
Other times tantrums may signal that your child has an underlying mental health or behavior condition. They may also indicate your child is having problems at school or with peers. If you have concerns about this, see your pediatrician who can assess for underlying medical concerns. Or see a child and family therapist or psychologist. If the content of this article resonates with you, and you are looking for a therapist, look for one that is trained in attachment theory, interpersonal neurobiology, or emotionally focused family therapy. These therapists are trained to guide parents and children to create strong and connected relationships, emotional regulation within the family, and open up healthy communication and interaction patterns.
Hi, I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Founder of Integrative Family Therapy. I help others improve their most important relationships. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comments box below.
Hello. I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I help others create thriving relationships, joyful families, and vibrant wellbeing.