If you have a 2, 3, 4, 8, 15 year-old who throws classic tantrums- I mean all-out kicking, hitting, screaming, biting, yelling, throwing things tantrums- this is the post for you. Every decade or so, a new parenting "solution" hits the press. It's no wonder parents are confused. Are we supposed to allow our kids to learn how to "self-regulate" by letting them "cry-it-out"? Or are we supposed to use a sticker chart, rewards and praise to "reinforce" good, non-tantruming behavior? Is time-out still a thing? Or maybe just the right combination of meds will put our child back on track? Why is nothing working?!
Here's the thing. Tantrums are normal for toddlers. And they're very common for older children who have a history of trauma or sensory issues. Tantruming children are not broken. They do not need to be "fixed" via cry-it-out, positive reinforcement, or medication.
Little people simply need some help from big people when their feelings get too big for them. That's where you come in.
In my professional opinion, the best way to handle tantrums depends on the child's level of "dysregulation" or emotional distress. Let's create a scale from 0-10, where 0 is no signs of distress, and 10 is flailing, biting, punching, yelling, foaming-at-the-mouth all-out craziness. What a 10, 5, or 2 looks like for one child will be totally different for another child. Some kids nearly ever hit 10. Others only have a 0 and a 10 on their scale with almost nothing in between. Take a minute to make a mental inventory of your child's scale.
When your child is at a 10, she is totally out-of-control and cannot learn.
Regardless of what else your child might be feeling, when she is at a 10, she is also deathly scared. This level of dysregulation is also referred to as a "meltdown" if your child has sensory issues. Now is not the time to teach a lesson, have a heart-to-heart, or correct her behavior. If her behaviors are out-of-control, she also feels out-of-control and scared. Stay with her and ride out the storm. Remain very, very, very calm. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that you are a good parent and this will not last forever. Take a break if you are struggling to stay calm. Your job as the big person in this scenario is to stay so calm that your little one can use you as a resource for calming down. That's the most important thing to do: stay calm. Because the limbic system is an open system, how you feel will impact how she feels, even if you say or do nothing else.*
If her behaviors get dangerous or aggressive, safely hold her so that she can't hurt herself, you, or others. (Depending on your child's age and weight, you might need specialized training for safety. I recommend the Crisis Prevention Institute's Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training.) With some children, holding actually increases their distress in unmanageable ways and puts you at greater risk of injury. If that is the case, holding them must be a "last resort, only for safety" measure. Some kids actually love to be held when they are distressed, and it seems to instantly soothe and calm them. What will never work, regardless of the child, is an adult holding a child and feeling anger, resentment, or fear. If you are feeling any of those ways, I can guarantee that holding your child will make the tantrum worse and escalate things.
When your child is at a 10, you might try sensory interventions to soothe her and help her nervous system get back to a comfortable place, one where she is able to control herself. You can try singing to her, stroking her back, rocking her, bouncing or swaying with her in your arms, changing the lighting or noise level, offering a snack, or holding a cool washcloth to her forehead. Think about how you might soothe an overtired, sick, or scared baby. Think about what worked with your child when she was younger. How can you implement something similar the next time she hits a 10 on her scale? Find what works, and continue to use that. Stay tuned for another blog post on ways to soothe the senses.
Some children will show the behaviors of a 10, but their actual emotional distress ranks around a 2, because they have learned that extreme behaviors get parents to freak out, give up and give in. But it is usually quite easy to tell when kids are "faking." Simply act disinterested for a few minutes or play on your phone. If you child momentarily pauses and looks to see if you are looking at them, and when you look back at them, they start crying and screaming again, your kid may be trying to dupe you.
When your child is at a 5, she's in control, but not quite ready to learn.
She may be able to keep her behaviors in check, but she's not yet in a place where she can sit down with you and have a conversation. Controlling herself is taking up all her energy at the moment, so it's still not time for a heart-to-heart.
This is the place for traditional "discipline" type measures that many books recommend. This is when it would be appropriate to use time-out, removing a privilege, or another logical consequence. The purpose here is to set a limit, asking your child to reign in her wild behaviors. For example, you might say "Please use an inside voice. If you continue to yell, you will be losing your video game time tonight."
It's important to note that your child may be able to manage the limit and start to calm down, but she also may escalate into a 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 on her scale, especially if she's not used to you holding your limits. There may be a period of "testing" if you haven't been very consistent or firm in the past. If a child escalates in response to discipline, you might try empathizing while holding firm to the limit: "I know you're really disappointed about losing your video game privilege. I'm sad too, but maybe tomorrow you will be able to play." If she continues to ramp up, shift into the strategies described above. You hold the limit, but you also help her tolerate the disappointment, sadness, and anger she feels. You stay connected to your child, even when you are frustrated with her behavior.
When you catch your child at a 2, the entire tantrum is preventable!
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If your child has frequent tantrums, I hate to tell you this, but every time they tantrum, those neural pathways in the brain are being reinforced. So, we want to help our child tolerate consistent, firm limits and structure, in a way that helps them spend as much time as possible below a 5 on their scale. This doesn't mean your limits change or disappear, only that you are willing to be creative and very involved to help your regulate her emotions when those limits are set.
When a child is at a 2 on their scale, they are able to be very easily "redirected" by you to better behaviors. It is also the most subtle shift to notice. In order to notice the move from a 0 to a 2, you have to have the eyes of a hawk and be totally in tune with your child. If your child spends a lot of time at a 10, this shift will be even more difficult to notice.
If you can notice the shift in your child and catch them early, you have so many more options and can, in many cases, avoid the whole incident. The first step is to check that your child isn't tired or hungry and take care of those basic needs first. Assuming neither of those are a problem, you can use playful distraction, guiding your child toward a more desirable activity in a fun, enthusiastic and playful way: "Ooh, wow, your voice can be so LOUD! But I wonder how quiet your whisper can be? Wow, that IS a quiet whisper!" You can try a short verbal prompt and some explanation can even happen: "Hey sweetie, we are in a library. In here, we need to use our whisper voices to show respect to all the people reading and studying." Often a smile, gentle touch or hug from you can help your child get back on the path. Or you can try some mirroring and naming of their emotions: "You're so excited to be in the library today for story-time!" You can try directing their emotional energy in a different way: "Instead of using your LOUD excited voice, can you show me your excited legs? How high can your excited legs jump? Can they jump high enough to give me a high five way up here?" Redirecting "negative" behaviors into positive, playful games is a great way to go!
Struggling to implement these ideas? Concerned about your child?
*For more on the dance between limbic systems, check out: "4 Steps to Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First When Your Toddler Tantrums"