What is a Tantrum?
A tantrum occurs when a child’s whole system of managing their feelings and thoughts collapses. A tantrum is a communication that seems to happen suddenly for both child and parent. The child may lie down on the floor with flailing arms and legs, screaming and crying. The parent needs to discover the trigger before taking action except for making sure the child is safe. The triggers may be minor such as disappointing a child’s wish for a toy, saying “no” to requests, expecting kids to tolerate delays and be patient when they have not learned to tolerate frustration well, and rivalry with siblings.
It’s important to have the attitude that the child or parent are not bad and should not be blamed for the tantrum. Punishment is not effective because if consequences precede understanding the reason for the tantrum, they are only resented and close communication. Tantrums are an active way to articulate needs that can’t be verbalized easily. With that in mind, look for triggers to the outbursts and try to name them to encourage the child to verbalize their distress. Shifting from actions to words are the key to stabilizing a tantrum.
If the tantrum occurs in a public place, avoid embarrassment and humiliation for parent and child, by leaving the location where the tantrum occurred, go into the car, and explain when you get home, you’ll discuss the distress. The car is a safe haven as an intermediary step for clarifying the communication that was acted out rather than spoken.
The ultimate goal for the parent is to help the child understand what the tantrum means so they feel more in control of their body and their thoughts and feelings. It is an external expression of an internal experience.
Temper Tantrums Managed the Parental Intelligence Way
After the age of three temper tantrums are no longer expected or normal. Parental Intelligence teaches us that there are meanings behind these behaviors that need to be deciphered. Parents are message-makers. The tantrum is an external expression of an internal message being communicated to the parent.
If tantrums occur after preschool ages such as times when your child is in elementary school, middle school, or even high school, point out to the child that they need to find words to express their distress rather than act them out. Do not blame the child or tell them they are ‘bad’ but just that you want to give them the skill of tolerating frustration. Consider that they are not willful; just not skillful.
Strategies for coping with tantrums depend on the meaning behind the tantrums. Tantrums may appear similar, but the reasons for them can vary considerably especially with different developmental stages.
- A typical trigger is when the parent says, “No.” Always give an explanation for the no as you are helping the child set limits on their expectations, necessary for growing up with patience and tolerance for disappointment and frustration. The older the child, the more the explanation should be detailed so the child learns from the experience for the next time it occurs.
- Some children suffer from struggles with indecision. Point this out to them when they are faced with choices. It’s helpful for kids to know why they struggle when they do. Empathize that decision making is difficult, but you are there to help. If the child is young, give them two choices. If the child is older, discuss the reasons why they may want one choice over another. In other words, increase your child’s reasoning skills.
- If you are going through a family transition, such as a separation or divorce and your child is faced with hearing parents argue or give each other silent treatment, the child may not be able to tolerate this tension and be prone to tantrums about incidental things that have little to do with their overriding concerns. In other words, these family changes make them more vulnerable to regress and choose actions over words to communicate. Quietly, suggest to the child that the parent quarrels are upsetting them, and you apologize for this disruption. Invite them to share their feelings and experiences with the parent disputes. Bring this discussion out in the open, so words not actions become the way to cope.
General guidelines are not to yell at a yelling child. The parent needs to be calm, to calm their child. Parental Intelligence teaches that self-reflecting on your own reactions which may be over blown due to the suddenness of the tantrum are essential. Calm yourself before you calm your child. If no one is getting hurt, there is more time to settle the child than it first appears. Parents who speak in low tones, generally help calm their children more quickly. Holding an unrestrained child in a comforting hug who responds well to touch is also helpful to secure their sense of physical control.
Tantrums as Catalysts for Change and Understanding in Teens
- Discuss with your teen their internal and external stressors that upset their equilibrium.
- Prioritize stressors so that they can be understood and coped with one by one.
- Once your teen has calmed down, use open dialogue to talk about what was upsetting them and you will notice their whole body and mind settles down.
- Praise your teen for collecting themselves as quickly as possible and discuss alternative ways they can express themselves if such tensions arise again.
- Assure your teen that in the future, they can come to you with their distress openly without being blamed or judged, so that talk not action is the remedy.
When to Seek Professional Help
Tantrums that last more than half an hour and occur in children over the age of three frequently require professional assistance as soon as possible, so the tantrums don’t become a recurring pattern of trying to solve problems.
Early intervention is key to thwarting the use of tantrums for expressing distress and stressors in the child or teen’s life. A psychotherapist can help you and your child get to the root of their tantrums by using dialogue and play to learn what the tantrum expresses.
The Parents as a Container for Explosive Feelings
It is essential that the child or teen with the tantrum does not feel they are more powerful than their parents. This is frightening. It’s imperative that the parent remain calm and nonjudgmental to show that they can contain their child’s rage reaction. The parent’s equilibrium is needed to help the child regain their equilibrium. Children don’t like to feel more empowered than their parents who they need to view as stable and secure despite their outbursts. Then the out of control child can feel they can trust their parent to give them feelings of safety and security even when they are distressed. This builds the parent-child bond which in itself reduces tantrums as a form of communication.