Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for temper tantrums. Low frustration tolerance, impulsivity and underdeveloped communication skills provide the “perfect storm” for a temper tantrum. If you find that your child demonstrates the occasional melt-down, don’t fret. There is a way to enter into your child’s world of overwhelming emotions and show him the way out.
- Know your child’s hot buttons. Keep a journal of the events and environments surrounding your child’s temper tantrums. Is there a common theme? Do they occur when he is tired, hungry or unable to make himself understood? Knowing what causes them can equip you to address some issues before they become fuel for a temper tantrum.
- Plan ahead. The information from your journal will better equip you to anticipate the possibility of a temper tantrum. If your child always melts down in response to leaving, find ways to make the transition easier. Some ideas include: letting him hold the car keys and unlock the door, placing a special toy in his car seat for use on the way home, or allowing him to take a transitional object (such as a magnet from grandma’s refrigerator). Make sure other adults are informed about your plan so they can support rather than sabotage your efforts to manage the tantrum before it starts.
- Talk to your child. Before entering a possible tantrum inducing situation, equip him with some signs or words that he can use to ask for help. Help him to anticipate how a situation may make him feel by asking: “How will you feel if . . . .?” Teaching children to identify a range of feelings is essential in helping them express themselves appropriately.
- Be realistic. Despite all of this planning, a temper tantrum may happen anyway. By accepting this, you will be better able to handle it with less of an emotional reaction. Come up with a phrase to repeat to yourself to help you manage your feelings such as “This is only temporary, it won’t go on forever. I can handle this.”
- Keep him safe. If your child is acting in a way that is dangerous to himself, others or property, don’t be hesitant to restrain him. Hold him calmly but firmly by sitting on the floor with him facing away from you with your arms containing his. Please note, if you find yourself overcome with anger, do not attempt to restrain your child. Seek help immediately. Also, if your child suffers from any trauma history involving restraint or powerlessness, or has a sensory integration disorder, restraint is an inappropriate option.
- Speak his language. You will need to join his world for a moment to pull him out of it. While your child is raging, logic, reason and rational arguments will fall on deaf ears. In fact, it may even serve as fuel for the fire. Instead, make it your goal to accurately reflect his feelings with appropriate accompanying emotions. You can say things like, “You feel so angry!” “You wish you could stay here forever.” “Leaving is sooo hard!” Try to match the level of emotion your child is emitting – but be sincere or it won’t work. While your child can’t express his feelings, you can do it for him. You may not agree with the feelings he is experiencing and may find his reaction inappropriate. However unfounded his reaction may seem, it is your job to make sure that he knows he is understood. Once he knows that his message has been heard correctly, you will observe a miraculous calming.
- Redeem and restore. At a later point, when things are calm, you can say something like, “Boy, you had some really big feelings earlier. Let’s talk about them.” Allow him to express his thoughts and feelings about the situation. Then play a game of “rewind.” Together, rewind the situation in your minds to before the temper tantrum happened. Then try a different response. You can role play or just imagine together. Helping him to see other alternatives will provide him with important information for the next time a similar situation occurs.
Temper tantrums are so common in early childhood that they are almost like a rite of passage. While you might not be able to avoid them completely, you don’t have to fall victim to them either. A little preparation, a lot a patience and a healthy dose of empathy will be all you need to create order from chaos.