About Me

I am a parent coach. I received my MSW from Simmons School of Social Work and have been a licensed social worker practicing in the greater Boston area for over 20 years. My dream has always been to work with parents on the most important job in their lives. In my practice and in my blog I want parents to be heard, supported and informed in order to feel empowered to be effective as parents. I love helping parents find joy and mastery in their parenting.

"Stop trying to perfect your child, but keep trying to perfect your relationship with him" - Dr. Henker

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

When tantrums inevitably arise

One of the first times parents need to start building their limit setting skills are when children first start to tantrum.

In my previous post, I stated that children’s job is to test limits, it is the way they learn the boundaries of appropriate behavior.  One of the first ways that children test us is a tantrum.  It is an inevitable challenge for parents, not a reflection of bad parenting, or a sign the child is demon spawn.  Although, in the moment, it can certainly feel like that!

Considering that most of us are quite reasonable people, it can be startling when our baby, toddler, or preschooler first starts to cry intensely about something over which you and/or they probably have no control. It seems to be wildly unreasonable.  They may cry without being able to be soothed, they may throw themselves on the floor and flail their arms and legs.  They may start to scream in a high-pitched voice that seems to reach every corner of the restaurant or grocery store, when you are in public. That same scream may get on your every nerve at home as well.

Why do our children act so unreasonable?  There is not any one reason a child has a tantrum in any given situation.  It can be helpful to understand some of the things that might be going on from a toddler/preschooler’s perspective.  They are young and small.  Often things happen to them that they didn’t anticipate and didn’t choose.  They frequently don’t have the language skills, or emotional development necessary to understand, process, and express what they are feeling.  Yet they feel passionate about what they are feeling, and need some way to let us know.

When children are about a year old, they can often, not always, be distracted from a tantrum by moving the coveted object, handing them a different toy or cup, singing a spirited song, or moving them to a different place.

It becomes much harder as the child reaches two years old and onward.  Understanding what may be behind or trigger tantrums doesn’t make dealing with them any easier!  There are a few strategies that can help.

Most important, to the extent possible, is remaining calm yourself, when a child is having a tantrum.  I know it can feel counter intuitive and amazingly difficult to stay calm when a child is screaming and thrashing, but it actually can help the child to calm down, knowing that the adult/s present are staying calm.  Often the cycle of a child crying and screaming and a parent beginning to yell actually escalates the situation.

Children get their most powerful teaching through the behavior we model for them.  If we find a way to stay calm in stressful situations, they notice and begin to see that as a possibility.  If we fly off the handle they learn that behavior as well.

This is much easier said than done!  I have found that every parent or caregiver needs to try out different strategies and see what works for them.  It is helpful to have a toolbox of strategies for use in different stressful parenting situations.

When a child begins to have a tantrum it can be helpful to try to take three long, deep breaths, in and out, counting to eight for each inhale and exhale.  You will be surprised to see how powerfully that affects your ability to calm down.  Some people prefer to slowly count to ten without focusing on the breath.  It can feel soothing to develop a self-compassion themed mantra to say to yourself in the moment, something like, “I am okay, children have tantrums, this will pass” It has to be something that’s meaningful for you.

If it is safe and possible, you can take a “time out” for yourself.  Go briefly into another room, call a supportive family member, or friend.  There is very supportive Parenting Stress Hotline 1-800-632-8188 that you can call 24/7 and talk to a trained volunteer counselor.

The key is understanding that a tantrum is uncomfortable, irritating and can feel embarrassing and infuriating.  Yet it is a child’s attempt at communication.  Something is upsetting them and they need to let us know.  They just don’t know how to do it in the reasonable manner we are accustomed to from (most) adults. We can’t control that.  But we can control how we react to a tantrum, and it will help to diffuse it.  It is also a way of teaching our children coping skills for stressful situations.

Today’s post addresses how to understand why tantrums happen and the importance of finding a way to stay calm.  In the next post I will address more about what to do with the child in the heat of the moment!

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