I believe that the secret to dealing with tantrums is to try and look at them differently.
Natasha and Dean Jones live in Rhyl with their three children, Sebastian (6), Imogen (4) and Eliza (9 months). A bilingual home with a Welsh-speaking mum and an English-speaking Dad, the Jones family live in a “parenting whirlwind”, trying to pull off the ultimate balancing act to ensure all the kids get enough attention, cuddles, playtime and chats.
Sebastian has mobility problems, while Imogen has a rare type of lung disease, which makes it challenging to balance health needs and hospital appointments with having a fun family life. As parents they have always felt it important to give praise and attention for good behaviour, rather than thinking up punishments, as a way to build up confidence and prepare their children for the future.
“It’s all just a phase” says full-time mum Natasha. “Whenever we’re going through challenging times, whether it be disturbed sleep, feeding problems or hitting, I remind myself that it’s just a phase and before long we’ll be on to the next one.”
When a child erupts in a screaming ‘hissy fit’ it evokes a primal reaction in us (crying is meant to get our attention), which means we want to help them and to make it stop. So, we might fuss, distract, bribe, or threaten them with a punishment.
Instead of doing these things, I try seeing it from their point of view. At the same time I remind myself that a little one’s brain is still developing and all the connections are not yet in place, meaning of course they’re not capable of rational thought like an adult. If my child is having a tantrum there could be a number of causes – tiredness, hunger or another incident resulting in a huge outpouring of emotion. If possible, I plan activities around meals and nap times to try to avoid over tiredness and always have a snack to avoid a hunger meltdown.
I don’t ask “what’s the matter?” or “why are you crying?” as often they don’t know and they’re just feeling an overwhelming emotion and need to get it out. I will kneel or crouch to their level, maintain eye contact if possible and let them have their rant, then I may say something like “you’re very upset aren’t you? I understand that you’re upset”. If I think I know why they’re crying, then I’ll repeat what happened back to them, so “you want those sweeties and Mummy won’t let you. I think that’s why you’re upset”.
Although it’s good to sympathise with their feelings, it’s also important not to give in to those demands for sweeties. My experience with our kids is that they normally calm down fairly quickly and soon clamber on my lap for a cuddle as they feel heard. If you can get yourself feeling more positive about tantrums then you’re in a better mindset to deal with them. They’re not doing it to delay you, embarrass you or otherwise ruin your day, they’re doing it because they genuinely don’t know what else to do with the huge emotions they’re experiencing.
My top tips for avoiding tantrums are:
- Talk to your child – even if they’re not speaking yet. Babies can understand a lot of what we say and it makes transitions much easier. “It’s nearly time to tidy the toys and then we can have our snack, do you want to put the toys in the basket or shall I help?”
- Offer choices – with older toddlers, give them some limited choices and let them exert some control. But don’t offer too many choices as that can be overwhelming, especially if they’re tired. “Do you want to put your shoes on or shall I help you with them?” “Which jumper do you want to wear, the blue or the red?”
- Be consistent – most children like routine and order, so if the toys are always tidied before snacktime, it’s not a huge surprise when it happens again the next day. They learn to anticipate the activity before you say it and may even decide to help you.
- Plan ahead – try to avoid them becoming overtired and always have a healthy snack on hand, as even adults get “hangry” (hungry and angry!)
- Don’t give in – when a tantrum is over, however well you’ve handled it, then it is important not to give in to the original demand. Perhaps there’s a compromise to be had, but giving in to the original demand, whatever it was, will encourage them to repeat the behaviour in order to get what they want.
- Stay calm – your attitude can make a huge difference and if you can be calm and listen to them, hopefully the tantrum won’t last so long. Repeating anything they say back to them to show you’ve heard and understand is a useful tactic and then you can give them a reassuring hug and get on with your day together.
Originally hosted at Give it Time, Welsh Government.