The amount of tempter tantrums that can occur in one day at any preschool is unpredictable. As a mental health therapist, the questions that I sometimes am asked are:
“How do we deal with a tantrum?”
“What can we do to prevent a tantrum?”
“How can we stop the tantrum as quickly as possible?”
“How do we prevent the tantrums from occurring so frequently?”
The simple answer would be, “We don’t have any definite answers to any one of those questions.”
Every child is different, and every tantrum can be caused by an array of distress being experienced by the child at any given moment in time.
Temper tantrums are developmentally appropriate especially for children under the age of 3. As their language skills are still developing, children will utilize other forms of communication to express their needs. At this stage in life, a tantrum usually occurs because an immediate or urgent need is not being met such as hunger, fatigue, boredom, or desired connection or affection from the adult or caregiver.
When a child is over the age of 3, temper tantrums can still occur because their needs are not being met, but they can also occur because they are in a heighten level of distress, and tantrums are their only way to communicating that they are emotional overwhelmed. This can also be true of children under the age of 3 if they have experienced significant and chronic stress in their early development.
In the field of early childhood, we are taught that every behavior is communication, even a temper tantrum, or I should say, especially a temper tantrum. Children are communicating in the midst of their disarray. They are feeling overwhelmed in the moment and are in need of assistance from a calm and collected adult.
The problem with this is that temper tantrums seem to occur at the least favorable time, when we are in a rush to get to school or work, when we just need to be in-and-out of the store, or when we are about to start cooking for the family. The timing never seems optimal, but the adult’s level of stress directly impacts the child’s level of stress, so in the midst of the chaos and the crying and refusal of the child to comply with your request, the best and perhaps the only thing to do first is take a deep breath (that is if your child is not running into danger or being unsafe, in which case jump into action!).
I always tell parents, “You know your child best, and you are the expert of your child’s needs.” When a tantrum occurs or any “undesirable” behavior for that matter, ask yourself, “What is the skill that I am trying to teach my child in this moment? To lose their patience? To lose their temper? That yelling is an appropriate form of communication?”
Or, are you trying to teach your child to stay calm? That they are capable of regulating their emotions? That you are there to help them? That you can be kind even if your child is being unkind at the moment? Empathy? Compassion?
The adults and parents are the models for children on how to handle stress, so they look to us to keep our composure and help them in their distress. Which do you choose to teach them?
When I talk with caregivers or school staff about how to deal with a temper tantrum, I encourage them with these tips:
Just as we are instructed about the oxygen mask by the flight attendants on every single flight, “If you are travelling with a child, secure your mask on first, and then assist the child.” The same is true in the middle of a child’s temper tantrum. Dr. Becky Bailey, explains in her Conscious Discipline model, “Discipline yourself first and your child second.” Meaning develop the skills to remain calm, take a deep breath, and remember that this is developmentally appropriate for his/her age. They are trying to communicate something to you. And, they may have an immediate or urgent need that is not being met. For example, they’re tired, hungry, bored, or all of the above.
The child’s emotional state is often a direct reflection of the adult’s emotion state. The adult’s ability to stay calm is physiologically creating calmness in the child, what we would call co-regulation.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings
During a temper tantrum, it is a great opportunity to help you child learn how to identify and regulate their emotions. You can help the child identify the “big” feeling they are experiencing in the moment (i.e. anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment). Simply stating, “I know you are angry because we can’t go to the park right now” or “I know it is very disappointing when you can’t have the cookie before dinner,” helps put language to their emotions, and it lets them know you are present and understanding of their current emotional state.
Remind them you are there to help them and keep them safe
When a temper tantrum is caused by the “big” feelings like anger and disappointment, sometimes a child’s fear response can be activated. They may be in their “flight or fight” stage in which they cannot access their higher levels of brain functioning (i.e. reason and logic). Trying to help the child understand why their behavior is inappropriate in the middle of the tantrum is ineffective as they are quite literally unable to retain that information. You can make simple statements like, “You are safe, and I am here for you. I will help you.”
Stay in relationship
Practicing all of the tips listed above are examples of staying in relationship with your child even during the hard times. Letting your child know that you love them regardless of how they behave, reduces the child’s sense of shame and guilt. They are able to co-regulate with you and know that the behavior is inappropriate, but their existence is always accepted and you will always be there to help guide them. Saying, “I love you, and I want to help you” can be tremendously reassuring to a child especially during a time of distress.
Give your child simple choices to give them a sense of control
Once your child has calmed, you can provide your child with some simple choices that can help the child transition back into the appropriate/desired behavior you were seeking. For example, “We can play in the back yard or read a book” (instead of going to the park), or “you can have broccoli or carrots before dinner” (instead of the cookie). Choices should be simple and something you are okay with the child choosing.
Provide positive praise for their accomplishment(s)
When your child is able to be redirected and corrected for the inappropriate behavior, praise them for doing so. This will build up their self-confidence, that they are cable of accomplishing tasks even if it becomes challenging, and they know you are aware of their success. Noticing when they make appropriate and helpful choices, even when there is no tantrum, is significantly as important because it also shows the child you are noticing them even when there is no “struggle” or tantrum. Saying something like, “Thank you for picking up your toys without me asking. It was very helpful and I appreciate you,” can go a long way.
Be consistent with rules and routines
Routines and consistency are key to helping children understand rules and expectations. If the adult’s reaction to the child’s behavior is unpredictable, the child’s behavior becomes more unpredictable. Having consistent routines throughout the day reminds the child that they can expect the same things to happen the next day.
Always make time for fun! For yourself and your family
As much as children need fun and play, so do the healthy adults in the child’s life. What do you enjoy doing? Gardening, painting, drawing, having a cup of coffee with friends, or simply watching some uninterrupted TV? Whatever it is, make time for yourself so that you have the reboot and energy to enjoy play with your family (the oxygen mask analogy is applied again, take care of yourself first in order to care for your child). Incorporating fun into your daily life helps reduce stress in the long run!
When we take that deep breath, and allow ourselves to be calm, we are able to reflect before reacting, and it may have a significant impact on the response we chose to display. If we are calm, we are able to better assist the child and meet the child’s needs. If we remain in relationship with the child without losing our temper, it allows for connection during those challenging moments. We remind the child that no matter how their behavior presents, we will continue to be the caring and loving adult that will be able to help them in their disarray or distress.
Eric D. Greene also shares in his blog post on the importance of attachment and the parent-child bond during challenging behaviors and he writes, “So whenever you’re in a situation with your child and you don’t know what to do, or you don’t know how to handle, ask yourself what will create a strong attachment and bond?” [http://www.1awesomedad.com/attachment/] It goes on to say that your child always needs you, but especially during these challenging times, and these moments can gift us with the opportunity of true understanding and joining.
Priscilla Gomez, MSW is The Guidance Center’s Early Childhood and Trauma Care Clinician at Educare Los Angeles at Long Beach, where she provides outreach and education to parents reluctant to engage with teachers or mental health providers, direct mental health treatment to families and It’s About T.I.M.E. to support teachers and staff. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2016, Gomez worked closely with children, teens and parents, providing individual and family therapy in a variety of settings. She has also been a family advocate, and run parent educational classes on the importance of age appropriate behaviors, how to develop healthy communication and how to create safe spaces to foster healthy and hopeful family well-being. Gomez earned a Masters of Social Work degree in Community Mental Health at California State University, Fullerton and a Bachelors of Art in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.