What are some big no-no’s when dealing with a tantrum? Let’s also look at the best ways to approach a meltdown that fit well to the child’s level of development.
Over here we talked about what temper tantrums are all about and why they are so common. Hopefully you now have a more supportive framework to work from when you are facing a tantrum. You will also be better able to predict and see them coming way before the actual crisis erupts, and that will make you more proactive.
Let us first look at some big no-no’s and what not to do. Although on the surface it may look like the child is misbehaving, please remember why tantrums usually happen. With that reminder in place, it is clear that punishment is not an appropriate reaction to a temper tantrum. Punishment may take a number of forms, including the use of a time-out, yelling back at the child, physically handling the child in hurtful ways, etc.
Whatever is the form of it, it is simply not appropriate to punish a child who is struggling. It is also not a good idea to ignore the child.
Now, I am not talking about tactical ignoring, which is a planned approach in a behavior intervention toolbox. This type of ignoring requires a bit of training in order to know how to implement it successfully. What I mean is, things like walking away from a child or not talking to the child, and otherwise acting without a clear simple message about what you are doing and why.
Needless to say, but getting agitated yourself would not assist you in your efforts. If you think of emergency personnel who show up to deal with major problems, have you noticed how calm they are? It is because they have to be, in order to help those who are in need of support. And yes, it does require practice and–you guessed it–the right mindset.
Think of the temper tantrum as not your personal emergency, but your child’s crisis. You are the emergency crew that shows up for help.
Of course there are times when even despite our best intentions, we are just too stressed or too tired and cannot manage our own emotions. In this case, understand that you may not be as effective and may need someone to help you take care of it. This is a whole other topic that will take its own blog post, but do know that there are strategies for those times when you may not be in the best space to work with your child through his challenge.
What your child needs the most when he is caught up in a meltdown, is empathy and understanding.
Even when the child looks like he would rather be left alone and is rejecting your assistance, he does need to feel connected to you and to the world because the alternative of being left one-on-one with his emotions is way scarier and too intense. Something important I want to mention here is this: There is a fine balance between staying connected and present, while at the same time, giving the child the space that he needs. See, while he does need to know he is not alone in facing this tragedy, he still holds you partially (or fully!) responsible for what happened (because you are the one that set those limits). Knowing your child will help you understand where that balance is.
So what kind of adult presence will feel most supportive to a child in crisis? Yes, a calm, steady, reassuring presence. Not the wimpy, apologetic, you-can-have-it-if-you-want-it-so-badly type of presence of an adult who takes back the limit that was set a minute ago, but the type of I-am-here-no-matter-what and we-will-get-through-this-together composure. You can let your child know this with a few words or just simply by being there for her.
One day, she will learn to be that supportive presence herself for someone else, but for now you are her best resource and a role model. You are an abundance of love for your kiddo and you will give her what she needs when she is ready.
You will give her the words when she needs them and a hug when she wants it, you will show her why the limit was set and how to get what she wants in other ways. All of that is in you, because you are the resource. This is another reason why having your own negative emotions and stress mixed in is not helpful to a child — she will end up feeding off of it and getting an extra dose of heavy emotions on top of her own. You can do it. A typical tantrum lasts only a couple of minutes if handled appropriately.
Being there doesn’t mean asking questions, and in fact, being put in a position of answering questions before he is completely calm, can make the child even more upset and anxious.
Be rest assured that in order to calm your child down, you don’t really need to know what made him upset. Depending on the age of your child, language may be a barrier during these moments. Not only does the child struggle to find what to say, but he may also not know exactly why he is upset. Therefore, your language should also be very simple and supportive. When the child is finally calm, he will be able to talk about it. If your child can handle it, you can also offer empathic statements about what the child is feeling and what is happening in the moment, such as “I see that you are really sad/angry/scared now and that is why you are crying/screaming/kicking.” Let him know he is a lovable and kind person who is having a difficult moment, and that those moments do pass and go away, like a bad weather.
I hope you feel empowered to face your child’s next meltdown. Tell me about the worst temper tantrum and how you dealt with it. Or, alternatively, tell me what you found most challenging in that moment. As always, you can connect with me on Twitter or via email.