How to Stop a Temper Tantrum

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When you have toddlers and preschoolers, people everywhere look longingly at your kids and beg you to enjoy every single second of it.  It goes so fast, they tell you.  Over and over again.  And it does.  One minute you have these helpless little beings attached to you at all times and the next you watch the kindergarten door close with tears streaming down your face because you finally had to let your baby find his own way in this world…something like that, anyway.

You know what doesn’t go fast?  Temper tantrums.

They all have them.  I don’t care how “mellow” or “easy going” a toddler or preschooler is.  I don’t care how much of an “old soul” you have on your hands.  Temper tantrums are part of child development.  They all have them.  Some more than others and some louder and longer than others…but they have them.

And they seem to last an eternity.

Here’s the good news:  Temper tantrums are time limited.  Yes, kids of all ages experience big emotions and big kids will cry and yell when upset, but the irrational tantrums of the early years do fade away as kids grow and learn to regulate their emotions.

Here’s the other good news:  YOU can help your little ones learn to regulate their emotions.  You don’t have to wait for a “phase to pass” or for them to “grow out of it”.  You can be proactive.  And probably save some of your sanity in the process.

Before the tantrum begins….

Play detective:

All kids have their breaking points.  If mine are hungry or tired, look out.  Emotions are high.

A few common triggers:

  • Hunger
  • Exhaustion
  • Thirst
  • Stress
  • Loud environments
  • Crowds
  • Illness
  • Sensory overload
  • Overstimulation
  • Frustration
  • Fear

Life is busy and sometimes we forget to look at the clock and think about things like hunger, thirst and/or fatigue, but all three of these things can cause a tantrum in a hot second.  We have to pay attention to the unique needs of each of our kids and plan accordingly.  To drag a child out for a late night is a setup for the child, especially a child who is used to an earlier bedtime.

Look for clues.  After a meltdown, take a moment to jot down time, place, circumstances, what was happening just prior to the meltdown and any other important information.  A pattern will emerge, and that will help you figure out where you can make changes to your habits and routines.  I once worked with a child that couldn’t stand bright lights – a fresh coat of paint (in a soothing color) in the bedroom and lamps with lowlights changed everything.

Watch your stress level:

If you are stressed, your child will pick up on it.

Take the time to take care of you so that you can remain calm when your child needs you.  Easier said than done, right?  It’s true.  It’s hard to find “me time” and cope with our own emotions when we are always helping our kids, but we need to hit the pause on being everything all of the time and dial back the busy schedules so that we have time to breathe.

Here’s what helps me:  We all have 45 minutes of quiet time every day.  No exceptions.  I try to pack lunches at night or before breakfast as much as possible to avoid the morning rush.  Shoes and socks are kept in individual bins by the front door to avoid searching for them on the way out the door.  No more than two after school activities per child (my son only likes one per week, anyway – he knows his limits) at a time.  When all else fails, pajama parties in the middle of the afternoon with tea and books galore.  It works for us.

Teach feelings identification:

Get or make a feelings faces chart and use it daily.  Use it to talk about your happy feelings (“I feel so happy because I ate a delicious apple and I love apples!”), use it to describe your worries (“I’m feeling worried because I can’t find my wallet and I think I lost it”) and use it to describe your frustration (“I feel angry because I can’t get this phone to work”).

Point to the feeling.  State the feeling.  Describe the feeling.  Identify one solution.  Have your child do the same.

Prepare:

Once you’ve established your child’s triggers, you can troubleshoot.  If your child tires easily (like my son), avoid late night gatherings or saving all of your errands for one day.  Break things up and prioritize sleep.  If hunger is an issue, don’t ever leave the house without a healthy protein packed snack and water.

Prep your kids for big outings by describing what’s happening.  If your child goes into sensory overload at parties, for example, describe what’s happening at the party before you get there.  Keep big parties short and stay near your child.

During the tantrum….

So you did everything exactly right and were totally prepared with snacks and a well-slept toddler and he still had a huge meltdown?  Welcome to parenthood!  Kids are predictably unpredictable.  Try to keep that in mind while you do your best to keep calm through the low moments.  We’ve all been there and we all feel your pain.  Don’t spend a single second worrying about what other people think of your screaming, flailing toddler.  Chances are they are thinking, “Wow, that brings me back!”

Breathe:

The middle of the tantrum is not the time to start talking, lecturing, or asking questions.  Your child can’t hear you.  He’s too busy yelling out those very big feelings.  Kids need to learn how to calm down in the moment.

Deep breathing (in for four, hold for three, out for four) is the best way to calm the physical and emotional response that children experience during tantrums.  The trick is to stay calm (so maybe do it with them) and walk them through the process.  I always cue my kids to blow up imaginary balloons or breathe the colors of the rainbow.

Empathize:

Keep your voice calm and empathize with your child.  Your child is upset, overwhelmed, scared or any other number of emotions.  Attempting to correct the behavior in the moment won’t work; your child needs you to love him anyway until he calms down.  Then you can deal with the issue at hand.

Repeat calming phrases such as, “I know this is frustrating; I understand” or, “I’m here to help you.  Mommy can help.”  Try to use a gentle hug or back rub to provide calming touch.

Relaxation break:

Time outs leave kids feeling alone with their big emotions.  That can be scary and overwhelming and tends to exacerbate the problem.  Consider creating a relaxation corner somewhere in the house where you and your child can calm down together.

My kids each have a cozy chair with a favorite quilt near their books in their bedrooms.  We like to snuggle up and hug it out then follow that up with some reading.  We save the talking for later.

Stress balls, cozy blankets, soft pillowcases, and soothing music can all help cue relaxation.  Establish a calming place where you can take a relaxation break together and help your child calm down.

Out in public when the tantrum erupts?  Leave the situation and find a quiet place to sit and work through it together.

Over time, your kids will learn to regulate their own emotions and tantrums will decrease.  The more you help them now, the better prepared they will be in the future.

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On Coping with Anger and Sleeping Away from Home

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On Everyday Family this week…

Being away from home can be tough.  While a sleepover at a grandparent’s house can be a great way to increase that bond and ease the transition to sleepovers, it can also require some preparation for kids.  Tips for ensuring a great sleepover here.

Anger is a very normal emotion.  From toddler temper tantrums to, well, adult temper tantrums, people experience anger for a number of reasons.  Teaching our kids to cope with feelings of anger is essential.

Hope you are having a fun and relaxing weekend.

Until next time!

Moving On

Most of the time, he’s the easy one.

He loves his cars and trucks, his train table, his books, and math.  Oh, how he loves math.

8 plus 8 is 16…16 plus 16 is 32…32 plus 32 is 64…

He invites me to play but likes to lead the way.  Sometimes, he just likes to know that I’m nearby.

He loves his schedule and struggles with change.  As long as his schedule remains the same his days are full of wonder, adventure, and calm.

Most of the time, he’s the easy one.

But sometimes…he digs in his heels….

Please stop by moonfrye to continue reading this post.

 

Sometimes…he shows his age.

“I want it NOW!!!” (Tips for taming tantrums)

Temper tantrums. They all have them. We all dread them. We dread them when we are out in public and, if we’re being honest, we dread them at home. I got lucky with Riley. She was never one for public displays of emotion (PDE, because when you have kids PDA is no longer on your radar…until they’re teens, but let’s pretend that’s not ever happening). Although in small groups of familiar people she is always the life of the party, she actually doesn’t like to be the center of attention. She does not want strangers looking at for her any reason. She never did. So public temper tantrums didn’t really happen. But boy could she blow at home. Liam arrived on the scene when Riley was just 21 months old. A few short months later she learned to throw a tantrum. There were some very long days during Liam’s first 9 months. Poor guy. In hindsight, this stage was actually fairly short-lived and we got through it. Liam presented with a much different personality from the start. He’s mellow, like his daddy, and enjoys his quiet time. Don’t get me wrong, he talks just as much as his big sister, if not more, and refuses to be left out. But he just has a mellow soul. Until he gets mad. That’s another story entirely. He cares very little about what other people think of him, so a huge temper tantrum in public is no problem! It’s always the most minor issues that seem to cause him the most strife. Just after Christmas we were playing at our local Pottery Barn Kids (bless those people who put up with a steady stream of toddlers on a rainy day and don’t require a purchase) when Liam decided that he wanted to sit in the blue chair that Riley was already in (we have these same chairs at home, and he is nothing if not a stickler for routine). I quickly found another blue chair and brought it over to the table. I was too late. He was already screaming, “I want that chair YaYa!” at the top of his lungs. I spent about 15 seconds assessing the scene unfolding before my eyes before coming to the realization that distraction wouldn’t work this time and I removed him from the store. Having gone boneless on me, this required carrying him at a bizarre and uncomfortable angle (I know you know what I’m talking about) to the nearest empty bench. I held him close, reassured him that I loved him and understood his frustration, and waited out the storm. It was probably only three minutes (three minutes of non-stop yelling, that is), but it felt like an hour. Three older women walked past us, glaring disapprovingly. I wanted to snap, “I’m sorry, we don’t hit kids and lock them away anymore…today that’s called ‘abuse’”, but decided that wouldn’t help Liam. So I did what we all do: I smiled and laughed it off while trying to soothe Liam. When he regrouped and we went back to the store Sean told me that he heard the whole thing…he can certainly be loud! Most of the time I try to hold him, but sometimes he just gets down on the floor and kicks his feet while screaming…just like a cartoon! It can be trying. Children between the ages of 1-3 are prone to temper tantrums, often in response to frustration and due to limited verbal abilities. They can usually understand a lot more than they can actually communicate at this age. Liam has exceptional verbal skills for 2 (I think due to trying to keep up with Riley more than anything else), but frustration will get him every time. We wouldn’t call him “patient” when it comes to waiting for help. Some kids will become physical (kicking, hitting, or biting) during a tantrum, and some will even hold their breath until they turn blue (I’m grateful that I haven’t experienced this one first hand). Here’s what we know for certain: They won’t listen to reason under these circumstances, and yelling at them will only make the situation worse. They are not doing it to be manipulative, they just haven’t quite figured out a better way to handle this flood of emotions. All of this can be exhausting (and frustrating) for the parent, but there are ways we can try to help. Below are some tips to help you tame the temper tantrums.

1. Stay calm: As difficult as this sounds, especially when people are staring at you and sometimes even dispensing useless advice and stories, the most important thing you can do is stay calm. Yelling, throwing a bunch of stuff at your child (not literally throwing, but handing out snacks, water, toys, etc.), or muttering negative thoughts won’t help your child calm down. They pick up on stress quickly, and your stress increases theirs. Try to find a way to check out. When they’re in it, they’re in it. Try to acknowledge their feelings. During the Pottery Barn incident I quietly whispered to Liam, “did it frustrate you that you couldn’t have the exact chair that looked like ours at home?” to which he screamed, “YES! I WANT THAT ONE!” I continued to repeat his feelings in a quiet voice until he started to calm down and we could make a plan.
2. Stay close: Believe me when I say that I understand, sometimes you just want to walk away (especially when it’s happening at home!). But they aren’t doing this to be manipulative. They truly don’t know what else to do. Walking away can cause feelings of abandonment and leave your child feeling scared and lonely. While you are likely to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the situation, children often feel scared by this sudden rush of emotions. They don’t understand it and they don’t know how to cope. Try to hold your child gently or rub his/her back until it passes.
3. Find a safe place: If you have a child who lashes out at others during a tantrum (this is still normal, but it can become dangerous for other kids) by hitting, kicking (others, not the floor), or biting, take him/her to a safe place (like a bedroom). The last thing you want is for your child to get hurt, or for him/her to accidentally hurt someone else. If you are on the go, get your child to the car or somewhere less populated as soon as possible. Your first priority should be safety.
4. Ignore onlookers: They are everywhere. Those people who stare and judge, sometimes in silence but often out loud. Either they don’t know or they choose to forget what you’re going through. Feeling judged can cause you to feel more stressed about diffusing the situation quickly. It won’t end until your child ends it, so hang in there and remember that you are doing the best you can. Or smile and say something like, “I’m sure you remember these days!” I find that sometimes causes people to run the other way faster!
5. Teach feelings: I know, it’s all I talk about! So many kids get through elementary school without really being able to decipher what they are actually feeling. We teach baby sign language to help our little ones learn to communicate, but often we leave out the feelings. Feelings are a constant part of the day. Label it for them when they’re happy, sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, etc. Get a feelings chart (see the “Strategies in action” tab to see ours) for your kitchen and help them learn to attach faces to emotions (you probably use emoticons on your smart phone, why not use a feelings chart for your kids?). Books: “Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods that Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is an excellent resource for talking about feelings, and “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss helps children associate feelings with colors.
6. Talk it over: Once your child is calm, have a very brief chat about what happened. Label the feeling (“Liam, it sounds like you felt frustrated that you couldn’t sit in that blue chair”) and provide an alternative (“let’s give the other blue chair a try until that one is free”). No lengthy discussion needed, just a quick recap and a good, long hug. Reassure them that you love them and will always keep them safe. Your child will probably feel tired and hungry post tantrum, so be sure to offer water and a snack.
7. Think about causes: It’s the little things that seem to send kids over the edge, but the underlying causes are the real culprit. Most tantrums result from hunger, fatigue, boredom, changes in routine, illness, or over-stimulation. An old friend has been weathering a series of tantrums with her two year old since he recovered from an illness. When kids get sick their normal routine often shifts. They also tend to eat a lot less. When they return to “normal” they have to play catch up with eating and get back on a regular schedule (which might include mommy and daddy returning to a normal work schedule). Riley was down with rotavirus for two weeks last March. She spent a day in the hospital getting fluids and medication, and barely ate for almost two weeks. She started to have tantrums upon her recovery, sometimes in the middle of the night. A quick consultation with her doctor revealed that her blood sugar would probably not get back to normal for quite some time (it took almost six months). I had to give her small snacks throughout the day to help her stay energized and prevent meltdowns. Pay attention to hunger, fatigue, and changes in routine. If your child is under three and having 3-4 long (45 minutes) tantrums daily, check with your pediatrician. Or just check if you’re unsure, they are there to help guide you along the way.
8. Prevention: Tantrums will happen, but you can try to prevent a few meltdowns by staying on top of the main causes. Always remember snacks and water when you leave the house. For a while I kept a basket of pre-packed snacks by the front door to make it easy, but then Liam started eating them all day long and skipping his meals. So only do that if you can keep them out of reach! Make sure your child is getting enough exercise (more on this coming soon). If he/she is always in a stroller, it’s not enough exercise! Try to stick to a routine for eating and sleeping. Especially for naps. Toddlers and preschoolers need their rest, they work hard all day! If they had a rough night for whatever reason, cancel the play date. Setting your child up for failure is no fun for anyone. Book: “When Sophie Gets Angry- Really, Really Angry…” by Molly Bang is a wonderful story about coping with frustration. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in their feelings.

Temper tantrums come and go and cause a lot of frustration along the way. The good news is that by the time your child is 3-4 years old, tantrums will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, hold on tight and stay calm…and know that you’re not alone.

I shared one of my public tantrum experiences…what’s one of yours? And how do you help your child cope?