When Your Child’s Tantrums Make you Tantrum

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A friend recently called in tears to tell me that her beloved four-year-old daughter, born after years of fertility treatments, was experiencing awful tantrums. After a fun afternoon shopping at the mall, the toddler had refused to get in the car, even dangerously trying to escape into the parking structure. The mom instinctually grabbed her before the girl went too far, but that brought on another tantrum, replete with screaming and kicking.

The final straw: As mother tried to reason with daughter, the little girl called her “stupid.” The mom yelled at her, then roughly shoved the child into the car seat. “I had a parent tantrum”, she told me. And she felt horrible about it.

Sometimes, your child just flips the switch. She misbehaves and suddenly, you find yourself losing control, yelling and striking out, right alongside your child. Tantrums are difficult for most parents, and can trigger unexpected, intense feelings. The irony is that when toddlers tantrum, what they need most is for the parent to be calm and to guide them back to a calm state. Babies and toddlers are biologically wired to find calmness with the help of a loving adult. Contrary to popular belief, helping a tantruming child will not reinforce the tantrum, but over time, strengthen the child’s ability to soothe herself.

In fact, tantrums present valuable opportunities to support our children’s future mental health. As parents, we set the stage for our children to learn healthy ways to manage their distress. We begin by looking at our own responses to these questions:

  1. Are you instantaneously triggered by something your child says or does on a regular basis?
  2. Do you often feel out of control in response to something your child does?
  3. Are your reactions equal to or more intense than your child’s outbursts?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s essential to find ways to stay in control. The key to solving tantrums is to figure out ways to get calm together with your child. This approach is in sharp contrast to viewing tantrums as “noncompliant” behavior that you should either ignore or punish the child for. What a tantruming child needs is an adult who can first help them find calmness in the body, and then later offer teaching moments. Toddlers—all human beings, really—cannot take in new information when they are in an active tantrum state.

How can parents shift into this new mindset to support healthy emotional development in children?

For Parents:

  1. Have compassion for yourself. Every time you miss the mark, it is an opportunity to learn how to do better the next time.
  1. Find ways to become calm through your child’s storm. Develop an awareness of your own feelings. Simply naming the feeling to yourself is a good first step. Taking several deep breaths can prevent your own tantrum.
  1. Understand your personal triggers. If you experienced excessive stress or trauma as a child, you may be at a greater risk for being triggered by your child’s tantrums. If you often feel out of control with your child, seek help from a mental health professional for perspective and support.
  1. Develop tools that help build parental “tantrum readiness”. Mindfulness can help to calm your body and mind. Apps such as offer mindfulness exercises to practice expanding your ability to stay present in as little as two minutes. Parenting educator Andrea Nair’s ebook, app and tantrum webcasts provides practice for supporting your child when the next tantrum arrives.

With your child:

  1. Make the first priority becoming calm together by discovering methods that are soothing for your child. During an active tantrum, body-based methods including comforting touch, gentle sounds, and a calming presence are more effective than talking. Isolating, punishing or trying to teach an actively tantruming child is not consistent with building psychological resilience.
  2. After the tantrum passes, and when your child is in a calm state, become curious together. Now you and your child can deconstruct what happened. Help your child figure out what sent her into the tantrum. If she is able to put words to the feelings she experienced, she will learn a valuable lesson for better emotional health throughout life: self -awareness.

This new way of viewing tantrums opens doors for parents and children alike. Parenting expert and interpersonal neurobiologist Tina Payne Bryson writes about how these techniques have a positive impact on brain development. So remember, the next time your child flips the switch, it’s a great opportunity to prevent a parent tantrum and learn together.

My  book explains how all childhood providers can support children’s social and emotional development.

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