The Best Way to Handle a Temper Tantrum
Few things are more embarrassing for first-time parents than a public temper tantrum. They seem to come from out of nowhere and, once they start, it's hard to know the right way to proceed. Some argue that children should be removed from the situation immediately while others believe in a direct, emotionless approach. There is no end, it seems, to advice when it comes to handling a temper tantrum.
But what about the kids? What does a temper tantrum really mean for a toddler? What’s behind the sudden outburst of emotion?
I will never forget the first time one of my kids experienced a temper tantrum. In my mind, I knew we were due for one at some point, but my kids have always been sensitive. They are more likely to cry than yell, and we've worked on feelings since before they could talk, so I secretly hoped we wouldn't endure many tantrums. There weren't many, but when they happened, they were loud. Very loud.
We were going through security at the airport during one memorable event. A lovey was grabbed from my child's hand to go through the x-ray machine and, as you can imagine, that didn't go well. The tears turned to screams, and the screams turned to flailing arms, and I suddenly felt acutely aware of the eyes staring at me from all sides. Forget about the fact that the TSA agent walked to and fro taunting us with the lovey but not giving it back. Forget about traveling with two small children and nerves about flying. The emotions of my child took center stage as the tears and screams escalated with each passing second.
It came from fear, of course. The tantrum was directly related to fear. My frustration and anxiety with the situation only made it worse. My little one picked up on my emotions and cried even more. It was then that I realized that I needed a better plan for tantrums. I needed to soothe my child through it instead of reacting with my own emotions, and I needed to begin with empathy.
Even toddlers need to feel heard and understood. It might seem like temper tantrums come from nowhere, but there is always a trigger beneath the tears. It might be exhaustion, hunger, frustration with something difficult, fear, or sickness. Whatever it is, it helps to begin by acknowledging the trigger.
When we convey our understanding of the feeling to our children, we show them that we get it and we are there to help them through it.
Newsflash: Toddlers don't actually know how to calm down, so telling them to calm down or stop crying is actually fairly meaningless. They need to learn how to calm themselves in the moment.
I taught my kids the power of relaxation breathing early on, and that has helped them through some difficult moments. Ask your toddler to imagine blowing bubbles. Hold up your hand as if you have a bubble wand, take a deep breath in, and slowly exhale. Cue your child to follow your lead. Put his hand on your chest so he can feel the slow rise and fall of your breath. Practice this strategy during calm moments so that your child can access it when he's frustrated.
Kids feel equally as out of control as they appear when they are in the middle of a temper tantrum. If they can’t seem to stop the behavior, it’s because they don’t know where to begin.
Help your child problem-solve. Chances are your child won't get exactly what he wants in the moment, but he will learn that he can get what he needs, instead. Toddlers are capable of learning problem-solving skills; we just have to take the time to teach them. Help your child come up with choices and alternatives. Pick the best one. Hug your child and move on.
Temper tantrums tend to decrease with age and as frustration management skills are learned. Take the time to teach your child how to calm down now so that he doesn't continue to struggle later on.