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If there is one all-encompassing word to describe “when fit hits the shan,” it’s “Tantrum”.
This is everything from stomping feet, to flailing on the floor, to screaming, to physically attacking people and things. It’s basically a name for every parent’s nightmare… especially if tantrums happen in public.
In our case, tantrums started when our baby hit 13 months. She will tighten up her hands into fists, her whole body shakes, and she screams bloody murder. This is usually followed by crying and falling to the floor. Sometimes when my husband and I try to help her calm down, she will push us away or hit us.
So, being good, responsible parents…. What are we supposed to do?
Think of the Child’s Perspective
Children usually have a good reason for their actions, but it can be hard for them to tell us what that reason is. Unfortunately, kids struggle with communication. It’s not their fault. Honestly, lots of adults suck at communication too.
When we stop and really look at why the kid is acting out, usually we can find a good reason that we’ve overlooked.
- Maybe a situation really isn’t fair.
- Maybe he’s hungry and that makes him irritable.
- Maybe he’s tired so he’s grouchy.
- Maybe he’s bored.
- Maybe there’s so much going on that he’s having sensory overload.
- Maybe he needs your attention but doesn’t know how to ask for it.
- Maybe he wants an item that someone else has.
- Maybe the physical limitations of being a kid are frustrating (I can’t reach that, I can’t take the lid off, etc.).
Even though some of these things sound like “kid problems,” ALL of them involve real feelings. So take a second, look around, think, and see if there is an obvious need that can be met. Sometimes this solves the problem before we even get started.
I try hard as a parent to avoid writing off the situation because, no matter how insignificant the problem seems when compared to adult woes, it matters to your child!
Give The Child Tools
Various developmental stages require different responses.
Babies don’t tantrum- they cry because it’s the only way they have to communicate.
Toddlers are just barely learning to use words, so encourage what words they do know and model new words until they can master those too. This stage requires a lot of patience because if a toddler doesn’t know a word, the only other communication he knows is to cry.
Children who are old enough to speak fluently can learn to master their emotions by learning to calm down and practicing expressing their wants and needs to adults calmly.
Help a child be just a little bit better than they were the day before. Teach a new word or skill and be excited for them when they make tiny steps towards implementing that new word or skill! Even if they get frustrated, you can still notice and reward their positive efforts!
A Learning Experience
What do you want your child to learn? What do you want them to become? This varies depending on your values as a parent.
- Some parents want a child to be independent.
- Some want the child to know how to empathize with others.
- Some want kids who can problem solve.
- Some parents want children to learn to cope with their emotions.
- Maybe you want all or a mix of these things.
Your focus will probably change depending on how old your kid is and what their strengths and struggles are at the moment. If your kid is good at empathy, you might focus on something else… maybe problem solving. Or maybe you want to perfect that skill so it’s exactly what you want to focus on!
It might even change from one tantrum to the next based on the circumstances.
Whatever you value, make that your focus and tailor all your reactions to her behavior based on what you are trying to teach.
Sometimes, it is really tough to think past the initial problem to focus on bigger issues like independence or problem solving.
Of course, we all want the best for our kids. The next step will help with getting past the day to day frustrations so that you can focus on the bigger picture.
Each tantrum is a teaching moment.
Usually, your natural reaction in these situations isn’t to teach- It’s to put an end to this behavior as quickly and as effectively as you can.
A Fresh Outlook
Stop for a second. Take a deep breath, take a break, count to 10, use a calming tool (click on the image below!), whatever you need to do to delay that initial reaction long enough to think it through. Intentional parenting is always better than just reacting.
If you lose your cool and yell at your kids…. Who’s learning? The kid? Nope! You? Hopefully!
Well, let’s halt. That’s not entirely true…. A kid can learn from these moments but they don’t always learn what you want them to.
- They can learn that yelling is an appropriate way to handle tough situations, even though it isn’t.
- Or, if you have a resilient child, they might learn that being yelled at isn’t fun and that they don’t ever want to yell at other people. We all hope for this, but unfortunately most kids fall in the first category.
If this happens, don’t be afraid to go back and make it a teaching moment after the fact. You can show your little one how to say sorry. You can teach them how to fix a relationship that has been bruised. You can help them practice forgiving another person. So all isn’t lost!
Don’t beat yourself up if you have imperfect parenting moments. Those… oddly enough… are good for kids because they open up a whole new world of teaching moments for you, so don’t think you have to put on a perfect face for your kids all the time. Kids need to see someone handling mistakes well if they are to be expected to handle mistakes well themselves.
I have found that this is the most difficult part for me. To just stop before I say or do something I’ll regret later.
And having enough humility to apologize to my kids. Sometimes I feel justified for yelling because I was right and the kid was wrong. But that’s no way to live life and not how I want my daughter to learn to act either. (Click the image below for a great children’s book to teach your child about apologizing!)
This is usually the last straw that helps me get over myself and go apologize to my kid.
She’s always so kind and forgives me right away. But I’m not so kind. I don’t forgive myself as quickly.
This might be a perpetual problem for parents. Or at least for me. But it is something I’ll keep working on.
With the community built through this blog, we can all help each other learn to forgive ourselves for our parenting mistakes.
Carry Out your Teaching Moment…. Even if it’s Hard.
Remember earlier when you decided what you value? Now it’s time to make that happen.
This isn’t easy.
First of all, make sure you find a better solution to the problem and show your child how to implement it! This shows the child that he can be proactive in finding a solution rather than getting upset. You can work through the stages of problem solving and think critically together. Of course, early on, the parent does most of the brainstorming, but as the parent slowly gives the child more and more involvement in the process, the child becomes independent at thinking of solutions on his own.
So, find out what the kid wants, then offer him an appropriate way to work towards that goal without behaving in a way that is hurtful to others.
- Using words is one of the best ways for a child to earn something they want. Use one of these phrases:
- “Say please.”
- “Tell me what you want and I will get it for you.”
- “Ask nicely.”
- If a child is tantruming about a task, give a shorter version of the task before allowing them to take a break.
- “You don’t have to clean your whole room now, just pick up one toy, then you can have a break. But you will need to finish the room after you calm down.”
- “You don’t have to finish your homework now, just keep working for one more minute. Then take a break. But you will need to finish your homework after you calm down.”
I’ve seen parents make the mistake of making it really, really, really difficult for the child to earn the thing that they want. This teaches the child that it’s easier to yell and scream rather than try to do what you’re asking, so they will just keep up the tantrum.
Offer your child a really easy way to earn the thing they want. Then, the positive behavior is clearly a better option over the tantrum. .When the easiest choice is the positive behavior, the child is more likely to use it.
Then you can slowly increase the difficulty of the task once the child masters the easier things.
Clarity and Consistency
But what about when you’re just plain tired? Sometimes… It’s just easier… to not. Not do anything. Not worry about teaching. Not follow through.
I have noticed that if I give in even once, the tantrum is worse the next time and harder to get rid of.
It’s so much better if my child just knows what to expect from me. If she clearly knows that mom means what she says because I’ve always followed through in the past, then she doesn’t test me. If she isn’t sure if I will follow through or not because I didn’t follow through last time, then she’s more likely to push my buttons.
As difficult as it can be to be consistent in the moment, I keep myself straight by thinking of the bigger problems that happen when I fall off the wagon.
I’ve seen kids who rule the roost. They dominate the household while their parents cower before them and meet their every want (not their every need- their every WANT!). It’s seriously like watching a dictator bossing around his servants. Here’s a few of the memories I have from these households.
- A 5 year old beating his dad, who had a disability, by jumping onto his back, kicking and punching him repeatedly, and yelling hateful comments about how lazy and worthless his dad was.
- A mom terrified to run errands because of how powerless she felt with her children. She couldn’t go shopping without buying them whatever they wanted, and it was ruining the family financially.
- A child who could eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. His parents would ask him not to but didn’t have the courage to really stop him. As a result, his health was failing. He was overweight, had diabetes, and frequently needed medical intervention.
- A child who ran away from his parents every time he didn’t get his way almost got hit by a car. Not like, the car was generally near him. He really ALMOST GO HIT. He got the candy that he wanted.
I’m afraid of these scenarios.
I’ve promised myself that I will never, ever allow my home to look like that. I was lucky enough to see this before I ever had kids, and it changed my parenting for the better.
Just remember, fixing is much, much harder than preventing.
Make the choices daily that will create a better life for you and your kids.
Don’t give in to tantrums. Instead, teach positive skills!