By Christine Rushford, Coastal Counseling
Last month we talked about how to prevent your child from throwing a tantrum. Some of you might have read that article and thought, “That’s great, but what do I do in the midst of a melt down?” (See March Destin Life at MyDestinLife.com.) You’ve already gone back to basics and made sure your child has been fed and had plenty of sleep. You provided your child with age appropriate control and decision-making power. You’ve even ensured daily one-on-one attention, yet he is still laying spread eagle on the kitchen floor in hysterics! Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered this month, too.
When your child is in the midst of a temper tantrum, the first person to focus on is you. That’s right—you. It can be very frustrating (annoying, embarrassing, etc.) when your child loses control of his emotions. In that moment it’s tempting to lose your cool as well. The last thing an out-of-control child needs, however, is an out-of-control parent. Before you react to your child, take a moment to gut check yourself. Take a few slow, deep breaths to ease your own angst. Count to 10 before responding. If neither of those tricks work, step away for a minute (provided your child cannot get hurt in the location she is having her tantrum).
The second step is to identify what kind of tantrum this really is. Sometimes children have realized that a tantrum is the perfect trick to get mom or dad to give in to whatever demand she presents. If this is a tantrum that would stop immediately if you give in, then you know you have a manipulative tantrum on your hands. In this case, it is important to provide clear, loving boundaries in a firm, but calm, tone. It might sound something like this, “I know you are angry that you can’t have that toy, but I don’t like the way you are behaving. If you don’t stop now, you won’t get that toy and you will not be able to play with Suzy tonight.” Here is the difficult part—you MUST follow through with the consequence you have stated will happen. When you provide that firm, consistent boundary during a manipulative tantrum, your child learns that it is ineffective and even detrimental to her wants (she didn’t get the toy AND she couldn’t play with her friend) to behave that way. It might take a few tries at these tantrums, but she will eventually cease using this tactic to get what he wants, as long as you remain consistent and do not give in.
If this is a tantrum where your child has genuinely lost the ability to regain control of his emotions (not a manipulative power play), then the next step is to meet your child with empathy. All behavior is communication, and when a child is having a tantrum, he is communicating that he is emotionally overloaded. Identify the emotion that your child is expressing and give him that feeling word that he is unable to verbalize. This step would sound something like this, “I know you are so angry that you can’t play with your friend right now. It’s really hard to not get to do what you want…” Providing empathy should be used low to the ground where your child is. Make eye contact if possible. Some children will allow you to touch them, while others will scream, “Stay away from me!” Whatever he needs in that moment (touch or no touch) is okay. The purpose of providing empathy is to begin to de-escalate the situation. A child who is understood and whose parents “get” him will be more likely to begin to calm down. If a child feels unheard or misunderstood in his time of difficulty, he will ratchet it up a notch until heard. In their book, “The Whole-Brain Child” by Dr.’s Siegel and Bryson, they call this the “Connect and Redirect Technique.” The goal is to connect with your child by using soothing tone and touch (the right side of your own brain) to help him begin to better regulate his emotions (his right side of his brain). Once your child has calmed down, you can begin to discuss his behavior and alternatives to that behavior or consequences if necessary.
Sometimes, you can catch a tantrum before it becomes a full-blown meltdown. In a situation where you feel your child is about to lose it, try implementing humor or physical movement. If you do something silly to catch your child’s attention, it might distract her from the meltdown. Or if you can get your child moving her body prior to tantrum, the movement can actually help relieve the pent-up emotion and reintegrate the body and brain for optimal functioning.
To learn more about tantrums, visit my website: www.christinerushfordcounseling.com
Christine Rushford, MS, LMHC, is passionate about working with children, parents and couples because she understands the demands on today’s families. She IS a parent who offers a safe place to discuss your fears and concerns with practical, relevant tools to improve relationships in your home.