What is a tantrum?
Tantrums are generally the last measure of a child’s attempt to take care of himself. They are the final and ultimate expression of frustration when the child has been unable to get what he needs, when he needs it. Your child is unable to calmly ask for your time and attention so he can tell you how he is feeling. He simply “blows his fuse” out of sheer frustration and a sense of helplessness.
As parents, the goal is to teach our child how to express his feelings and encourage him to be more direct in telling us what he wants and needs. Often “what he needs” might make absolutely no sense to the adult, but listening to him gives you the chance to talk to him before the tantrum occurs. This is your opportunity to help him find a solution that will work for both you and him.
Tantrums are about control
Many children who tantrum learn that being “out of control” is actually a very effective way to be “in total control.” Turning off lights in your home is easy – you just flip the switch. Turning off tantrums is another story, and many adults cannot find the “off switch.” A tantrum often paralyses the adults because they simply don’t know what to do to prevent it in the first place or to stop it once it has started.
The first time or two a child has a tantrum may be a random discharge of anger or frustration. However, the child soon learns the power of a tantrum and tantrums soon become all about “power and control.” In fact, they are very effective in helping the child achieve power and control over just about any situation.
In most circumstances there are defined steps an adult can follow to deal with awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes violent tantrums. In all cases, our first choice is to learn the early signs and reverse the tantrum at the onset.
It is much more effective to identify the “triggers” that often lead to a tantrum so you can help the child get his needs met before the tantrum occurs.
Recognise the patterns
The first step is to closely observe the patterns that surround the tantrums.
- When and where do they occur?
Do they happen more frequently during the week or during the weekend? When the child asks for something and is told “no” by the parent? Early in the morning or later at night/before bedtime? When shopping or otherwise in public? When the absent parent returns?
- Who else is around?
Look to see if there is a pattern to who else is around when tantrums occur. Are they more common around brothers and sisters (or any one in particular)? When other friends come to the house to play? When adult visitors come to the home? More often with mom? More often with dad?
- Has the family schedule or structure changed?
Notice any new patterns or changes in family schedule or structure. For example, your child’s behavior after a death in the family, a divorce, the birth of a baby, or an older sibling coming home for the summer may be patterns worth noticing.
- What about health?
Could the tantrums be related to the child’s health or the health of another family member who may be less available because of poor health?
- What other patterns are noticeable?
Search for any additional events or changes in family patterns that may possibly be triggering the tantrums. Is another child getting more attention for some reason?
Additionally, search for events or changes in family patterns when tantrums do NOT occur and make special note of those times. Those times are when the child most likely feels a sense of balance and stability and they should be repeated at the early signs of a tantrum. Examples include when you are playing with your child, when the child is playing with a sibling or a family pet, when the child is reading a book he or she likes, if the child is colouring, or watching television, or even helping in the kitchen.
How the adult reacts
Notice how the tantrum is handled by the adult who is present.
Is pre-tantrum behavior only occurring around particular adults? Is the adult reaction to become angry or even have his own “mini-tantrum” as a response?
Decide on a plan to stop the tantrum from growing at the very earliest signs of upset. Notice the beginning signs, such as your child banging a toy on the floor out of frustration, knocking over a tower because the block he places on the top keeps falling down, or stomping his feet on the ground when you ask him to put away the toys in his room.
If the tantrums keep repeating, then begin a new routine with your child. The following concepts can lead to win-win solutions:
- Start with a brief discussion about remaining calm (even when he doesn’t get what he wants)
- Explain to your child that if he does not like the rules you have set that, it is alright to say so although he must still follow those rules
- Create a simple agreement with the child that allows him to earn rewards whenever he is able to follow the rules and stay calm. Offer the child several choices for a reward and let him choose
During a calm moment, ask your child what he or she thinks is needed to help prevent the tantrum the next time. Let the child know that you are still in charge and will continue to set rules and boundaries. However, you would also like his or her input and ideas.
Make sure to thank him and use the ideas that make sense to you as you remind him that it is your decision.
In all cases, your goal is to retain your adult authority but to empower the child to help find solutions that will have a better outcome for everyone. This empowerment is often the best way to reverse the patterns of tantrums.
An example scenario
Your child is sitting on the floor and peacefully stacking blocks.
He begins to whine or bang the blocks together because his tower keeps falling down, so you tell him what a great job he is doing and reinforce his efforts to stack the blocks by perhaps giving him a piece of his favourite cereal because he is working so hard. Use your imagination and talk to the blocks firmly, telling them that they better not fall down anymore or you will put them back in the basket and then put them and the basket back in the closet!
Lead by example
When all else fails, try staging your own mild tantrum (without actually losing control). Repeat your child’s behaviour, but stop yourself and say, “But I’d rather have a treat than a tantrum, so I think I will stop so I can have three pieces of cereal.”
Immediately stop the “tantrum” and enjoy the cereal. When you are done eating, you might softly say, “I’d rather have a treat than a tantrum,” and quietly continue to do whatever you were doing before getting the treat.
Remember to keep your focus on the “positive.” Positive attitude, positive choices, positive rewards. Let your child know what behaviour you would like to see, not what he has done wrong.
Most of all, remember that challenging and defiant behaviour is actually the child screaming for help to get his needs met, feel that someone is in control of his safety, find behaviours that do not isolate him from the others, or feel better about himself. It is your role to help him learn how to control himself, because being out of control is actually a scary experience for the child.
We cannot overlook the fact that there may be medical reasons for the child to tantrum and a parent might want to check with the child’s doctor to rule out possible medical causes if the tantrums are frequent and excessive and if none of the suggestions above work for your family.
Article by Sandra Kwesell, Child Development and Family Dynamics Expert, Pillars for Success