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Temper Tantrums

Donna Bruschi
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 5, 2008, pp. 40-42

A temper tantrum is a cry for help. A child having a tantrum is totally overwhelmed and needs support. Unfortunately, not all parents received such support for their strong feelings as children, so they have not learned basic skills for working through a tantrum. During a tantrum parents have the opportunity to develop an understanding of what the child is experiencing. Children have their own perspectives on their experiences. A parent's job is to help them cope with the crushing frustration and disappointment that they will sometimes encounter in life.

Leading up to a tantrum, the child is trying to say, hear, receive, give, or do a certain thing. If he is unable to complete the action he may get frustrated and start to show signs of distress. When a parent is in tune with her child, she can pick up these early cues and help the child complete the action. If the parent misses these early cues, the child will amplify his frustration into crying, yelling, hitting, or other obvious demonstrations in an attempt to get help.

In an infant, frustration might lead to what we call fussiness. If the mother notices her baby squirming and fussing and starts to nurse him, the tantrum is averted. For a toddler, a challenging structure like a staircase might attract his attention.

The toddler can't quite negotiate the stairs and starts to get frustrated. If his dad stands behind him and directs his feet, his son will be able to climb safely. In school-age children, an older brother might tease his younger sister, who can't keep up with his verbal gymnastics. As she starts to yell, their mother may step in between them and affirm that the sister is furious because she is being teased. She holds a safe space and waits until everyone is calm. Then, she deals with the brother's inappropriate behavior.

When pre-tantrum cues are missed, a parent can still handle a tantrum with love and support. It can be a challenge to negotiate the strong feelings that come out in a tantrum. Tantrums can trigger the parent's own unmet childhood needs and can result in parents acting like children. When a parent is aware of this phenomenon, she can step back, center herself, and resume her appropriate adult role.

Step by step, here are some things parents can try when a full-blown tantrum emerges:

  • Stay calm, detached, and nearby, offering support as needed (as well as protection from sharp edges, traffic, and other hazards). The parent may have to restrain or physically remove the child to prevent him from hurting himself and others. If the parent finds herself getting upset, it is better to make sure the child is safe, leave the room, and calm down. If this is not possible, she should stop talking and breathe deeply. If this is not possible, she should try again with the next tantrum. She will handle tantrums better with each attempt.
  • The parent can reassure the child that she really wants to understand what is wrong. Help him to calm down. Only when he is reasonably calm should the parent continue. If the child gets upset again, return to calming techniques.
  • Ask the child what happened, and listen. Listen for the facts (the situation) and listen for the feeling (the emotion).
  • If he can't verbalize it, make suggestions and watch his body language for cues that you are on the right track. It may help for the parent to imagine herself in the child's place. Once the parent has identified the trigger, she can help the child to understand it. Common triggers are the inability to do a task or the loss of a favorite toy. Other triggers are fears, punishment, and separation from the parent. Aggravating factors can be exhaustion, hunger, and loud public places.

Once it seems that the parent has figured out what caused the tantrum, she can help her child to say, hear, receive, give, or do what he was unable to do pre-tantrum -- or she can help him work through his disappointment at not being able to say, hear, give, receive, or do it.

Babies and children have the same feelings as adults. They want things they can't have and suffer disappointment. They are put in situations where they are scared and can't leave. Life is not perfect; some things in life are necessary and painful. It is the parent's job to put that suffering into a context the child can understand. Parents can help their children share a negative feeling before it turns into negative behavior.

It is important for children to learn that while all feelings are appropriate, negative behaviors are not. Hitting and scratching are never acceptable, and the parent must firmly set this limit. While some children take longer than others to learn how to do this, they learn because the adults in their lives remind them and model this behavior.

When a parent demonstrates great behavior, it is her opportunity to shine as a human being, and she will help her child learn how to behave like a better human being. Children watch their parents like hawks, mimicking their every action. A conscientious parent will attend first to her own actions and words when she witnesses her child doing something inappropriate. Her calmness will automatically help her child to behave appropriately without punishment or bad feelings.

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