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
I know, this seems weird because children aren’t really that logical. Thinking from their perspective often sounds something like “I am the boss of you…” or “My daddy can beat up your daddy!”
But seriously, the kid usually has a good reason for his actions, but it can be hard for them to tell us what that reason is. Unfortunately, kids suck at 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.
And by all means, don’t trivialize the situation because, no matter how insignificant the problem seems when compared to adult woes, it matters to your child!
The problem with this step is that young kids don’t have the skills to tell you what they want, so it can be really hard to think from their perspective. If only they had the skills to tell us exactly what the problem is.
With my 13 month old, I find myself offering her anything I can think of that she might want, and she just hits things out of my hands because I have apparently got it wrong. Of course, that is super frustrating since I am trying my best to meet her every want and need.
Even when it is very clear to me what my kid wants during a tantrum, she’s just acting to nasty that I don’t want to give it to her. Not in a vindictive way… I just worry that she will be rewarded for acting out.
I have learned through trial and error that there are always alternatives to just giving kids something. They can always earn things by improving their behavior.
So just because my kiddo is obviously pointing to the toy on the shelf that she can’t reach (while tantruming to try to get it) doesn’t mean I should just get it for her simply because I know what she wants.
How do we know when to give kids what they need to prevent further frustration and when to hold out to make sure we aren’t rewarding the tantrum? Keep reading!
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.
During a tantrum the other day, I tried to complete this step but all I could think was, “What I value is a child who isn’t screaming in my face! And hitting things out of my hands!! And embarrassing me in the store!”
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.
A Fresh Outlook
The big thing to remember is that 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.
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.
- 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 aren’t giving in to the tantrum! This just teaches kids that tantrums are an effective way to manipulate mommy or daddy into giving them what they want. This is a tough pattern to break once a kid learns it.
So, find out what the kid wants, then offer him an appropriate way to earn it rather than just getting it.
- 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, it is clearly a better option to, for example, “Just say please,” rather than putting all this energy into yelling and thrashing on the floor.
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 kid 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 so much. 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. Some people aren’t that lucky.
Unfortunately, parenting doesn’t come with a handbook.
We often don’t realize what kids can turn into until the habits are already created. Then you’re left to try to fix it, which is much, much harder than preventing it.
For all of us who have a chance to prevent bad habits in our children, please know it is worth it to prevent.
Make the choices daily that will create a better life for you and your kids.
Don’t give in to tantrums.
PS. Click the image below for a great resource on setting and achieving your goals!