With that said, lets stick to kids for now. In working with families, the parent(s) usually states there is almost nothing that is effective in stopping a tantrum. That's actually true. Just like adults, when a child is in the middle of a tantrum, there isn't a magic word, machine, or potion that can stop a tantrum dead in its tracks. There are, however, a number of strategies you can use to stop tantrums before they start or minimize the duration and intensity of tantrums.
Developmental psychology. Know your child's developmental stage. Sometimes our children can be so impressive: sharing without asking, unannounced hugs, being a great helper. With that, kids are still kids. Tantrums usually happen because children don't yet have the capacity to manage their feelings in an appropriate way. This is especially true for kids under the age of 5. Even though it may feel that way, tantrums don't happen because kids just feel like being difficult.
Keep your composure. The automatic reaction is to stop the meltdown as quickly as possible. Sometimes that results in impulsive decisions, by the adult. Keep a level head and calm by understanding that tantrums are a normal part of child development. Presenting as a calm and steady force can actually deescalate your child and shorten the duration of the tantrum.
Let it happen. Once a tantrum has started, let it happen. Sometimes that might be 30 minutes or 3 hours of screaming. If you're in a public place, remove yourself and your child from that area. That doesn't mean you have to leave the mall, but be prepared to ask the waiter to pack your meal or to leave your grocery cart in the middle of an aisle.
The ABC's. Antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Most parents initially say the tantrum came from such a small request or even out of nowhere. That's possible, but in my experience, when a parent reflects on an situation there are usually antecedents to the tantrum.
As for the consequence, be thoughtful and not reactionary. Don't pile on consequences when a child is in the middle of a tantrum. That approach usually exacerbates the tantrum as your child is not in an emotional or psychological state to gain composure and instantly change behavior.
Play detective. Reflect on what happened before the tantrum, those antecedents. Was your child tired, hungry, sad, anxious? Was he already having a bad day? Is he sick? Does your child do well with a shift in plans or do they like routine and predictability? You may have a fun, surprise activity in mind, but if your child likes routine, don't be surprised if they say no or aren't excited.
Attention. A common theme in families is children will learn that they get mom and/or dad's attention by acting out in the form of a tantrum. It's the same concept as when a parent says, “the only way someone listens is if I yell.” Parents feel in order to get kids to behave or obey, they have to yell. Sometimes kids learn in order to get a parent's attention, they have to kick, scream, and act out. You see the same dynamic in teenagers and even in marriages and other relationships.
Set your child up for success. What is going to increase the chance of success in a situation? If your child can't swim, are you going to get mad if they don't jump into the deep end of the pool? So if you are pushing your child through their nap or past their bedtime or comfort zone, recognize that you are increasing the possibility of a meltdown.
If your child likes structure and predictability, tell them there may be a surprise after school on the morning ride to school. Give them the option of doing this fun, unplanned activity or keeping their schedule. If your child is breaking a rule, instead of instantly punishing them, let them know what will happen if they do it again. If they do it again, follow through on the action you said would happen.
Return to the scene of the crime. The purpose of this is not to show the child the damage or mess they caused to shame them. The idea is to reflect with your child on what happened for both parties to better understand the situation to minimize the chance it happens again.
When you revisit the tantrum, wait until your child is calm and mentally available to talk about what happened. If they are still upset, revisiting won't be very effective. If they are in a positive mental space, they'll be able to have a dialogue about what happened. They may even provide answers and ideas to what you can do differently when this situation arises again (and it will).
Revisiting and having a healthy conversation shows your child that something bad can happen but you can still talk about and learn from it. This is an incredibly important part of the process. Many times, parents don't revisit the tantrum because they feel it is obvious that the child overreacted. However, it may not be obvious to the child. Your child might be thinking it should be obvious to you what you did wrong. Revisiting strengthens your relationship, especially if you allow your child to express their feelings on the situation.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!