I love answering my readers' questions. It's a long time since I wrote a post, given all that's happening in my life at the moment, but this morning Cari asked:
How do you handle tantrums?
And I can just imagine what she's going through. Anyone who's had a toddler knows what she's going through. So I'll put my Aunt Annie hat back on for a moment, to answer that question properly.
A tantrum isn't about one event, or one reaction. A tantrum is the result of a build-up of elements, and it's triggered by you setting a boundary.
I want to break those elements down to help show you how to reduce the number and severity of tantrums, because the fact is that you'll pull that trigger over and over again- you have to set limits and your child won't like it.
You won't ever eliminate tantrums completely- but you can make life better for both you and your child during this difficult phase.
1. Work on yourself
Step one is to be sure of your role in your child's life. With certainty comes confidence in your own reactions; with confidence comes the ability to relax while dealing with an out-of-control child.
And if you can relax and just deal with your child's emotions calmly, you are not adding emotional fuel to the fire. A child who senses that her tantrums make her mother or father tense, angry or fearful will feel even more insecure and unsafe in expressing her emotions.
So, what is your role? Find a mantra that you can say to yourself at times when emotions are frayed and the edges get fuzzy. Here's one I found useful as a mother:
My job as your parent is to ensure that you grow up to be a healthy, happy adult.
And I would follow this, in my head, with a logical statement about the cause of this particular battle of wills and the reason for the limit I'd set:
Healthy adults don't eat endless ice creams.
Happy adults don't hurt other people.
Being sure of what your role is and why your limit is a good one will help you to hold firm in the face of banshee-like screams, pinches or kicks and even horrid personal statements from your child. You are the parent; over there is the child. You have learned emotional control; your child is still learning. Your job is to maintain control of yourself, as an example to your child.
This is why spanking a child who's having a tantrum is a really pointless strategy. You haven't defined acceptable and unacceptable behaviour- you've behaved like a child yourself, and lashed out because your emotions are out of control. Don't join in the tantrum! Be calm! Serenity is the way to douse the emotional fire of a tantrum.
Speak gently. Touch gently. Breathe deeply to maintain your calm. If you feel yourself losing control, walk away and take some deep, slow breaths.
This sounds easy until it happens in a public place, of course, where you have the additional pressure of other people's judgement. HOLD FIRM. Make eye contact with people who are staring. They want to take part in your child's tantrum? Fine. Include them. Try to smile at them, and say loudly "I'm just taking some deep breaths here so I can deal with this without losing my cool."
2. Work on your child
Step two is giving your child better tools than tantrums to deal with their feelings. Children have tantrums because they don't know any other ways to express or release negative emotions. The sooner you teach them how to express emotions and how to release them, the sooner the tantrums will abate.
My favourite book for this is 'Annie's Chair', by Deborah Niland, in which Annie chucks a first rate tantrum because her dog won't get out of her special chair. Two-year-olds often love this book, though it's designed for older children.
It's good also to converse about things that make your child feel the big feelings, at a time when you're happily interacting.
"You looked sad when Daddy had to go to work this morning. I was a bit sad too, but I'll feel happy when he comes home tonight. Will you be happy when Daddy comes home?"
"I don't have any more of your favourite yoghurt. I bet you feel disappointed about that. Would you feel happier if we go to the shops after lunch to get some more?"
"You were a bit angry when your big brother grabbed your teddy out of the cot, weren't you? I saw that angry face!"
"It's frustrating when you can't get the piece to fit into the puzzle. I take some big breaths when I get frustrated."
Even very young children can learn to point to smiley faces that express the basic emotions. They can understand the words sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed long before they can say them, IF you use those words in context when you're talking with them. By talking about feelings from an early age, you supply your child with tools to express themselves. Believe me, it's far easier to hear a child scream "I'M ANGRY!" than it is to be hit or kicked!
Slightly older children can be taught anger management through breath control. Younger ones can be directed to stamp their feet or hit a pillow or soft toy when frustrated. Sometimes these more playful methods of defusing situations can become a big giggle-fest!
3. Work on your environment
Step three is make life easier for yourself by limiting your child's frustrations. Look around you. What are the precious, dangerous or fragile things in this room that really could be put away until your child is a little older? Is your pantry cupboard full of foods that you don't want your baby to eat? Why are you having to say 'no' so often? What can you change so you can say 'yes' more of the time? Can you set up a safe area for your child to play in, where everything is okay?
Look at your schedule. Are you expecting your child to have more emotional endurance than is age-appropriate? Are you expecting a toddler to wander around the shops with you for more than an hour, or to socialise with other children (or adults!) who are not compatible with them? Are you cramming too much into your own day so that you're tired and stressed, and it's rubbing off on your child?
Look at the amount of noise and movement in your child's world. Are you overstimulating them? Do you have loud music playing all day, or the TV on? Is there nowhere quiet for them to retreat to? Are you constantly putting them into and out of the car or changing their clothes? Are they getting enough sleep? Have you gone to the other extreme- are they just bored and looking for excitement? Have you given enough opportunities for natural play outdoors, instead of surrounding them with brightly coloured plastic toys and branded goods? (Nature play is MAGIC for de-stressing upset children.)
Allowing more quiet time and removing the triggers for those battles of will can only help to limit the number of meltdowns per day.
So much for the three steps. You've done all that, and STILL your child has a meltdown. (It happens. We've all been there.) What do you do?
First, simultaneously make sure nobody's getting hurt and validate the emotion.
If your child is hurting someone or damaging something, set a limit. Hold his hands firmly but gently and say "I won't let you hit/kick/break things. It's okay to feel angry but it's not okay to hit/kick/break things."
If he's racing after someone to hurt them (yes, I've seen that!) it can be helpful to pick him up, sit down, lie him face down across your lap with his tummy on your thighs and hold him there, stroking or patting his back and talking gently to him. In that position it's hard for him to hit, kick or bite you, so you have a better chance of maintaining your own cool.
If she's writhing like an octopus and lashing out at anyone who comes close, get the message! Don't touch her! Sit down close by, but out of range. Talk calmly to her.
Here are some words you can use, gently, to an out-of-control child (whether you're holding them or not). They won't necessarily register everything you say, but the idea is to keep talking calmly and don't back them further into a corner.
"I can't understand your words when you scream/cry. Can you use your normal voice so I can hear what you want?"
(I've seen a two-year-old snap out of it instantly when I put my face down on the floor next to hers and said that.)
"I hear that you're very angry that I won't let you have a lolly. Is that right?" (wait for an answer, repeat if necessary)
"It's okay to be angry but I still won't let you have a lolly now, because you already cleaned your teeth and it's bedtime. It's my job as your mum to make sure your teeth are healthy. Lollies at bedtime make holes in your teeth."
Be patient. Wait.
For the writhing octopus on the floor, when you feel sure that you'll be heard over the screaming and crying, still don't touch them (as long as they're not damaging people or things) but say something like this:
"I'm right here and I'm keeping you safe till you feel better."
"I've got a big hug here for you when you're ready. Let me know when you want it."
So the secret formula here is give emotional support, but keep the boundary firm.
NEVER raise your voice or smack.
NEVER change your mind about the limit because of a tantrum.
I'll end this with a little story from when my son was two. I'd taken him to the supermarket after I finished work, because I thought I had to do a full shop every time in those days; it hadn't occurred to me that I could have grabbed the basics, given that my son was already grumpy and I was exhausted. I popped him in the seat of the shopping trolley and away we went.
By aisle three, he was screaming the place down. I had said 'no' so many times to so many outrageous 'I want' requests that I was at boiling point. People were staring. I was ready to spank, truly I was.
I froze. I stared at the horrible red screaming thing volleying abuse at my face. And then I turned and walked away into aisle four.
And aisle five.
Leaving the shopping trolley in aisle three.
(I could still hear him screaming from there.)
When I could breathe again, I came back. I picked him up out of the trolley, left all the shopping behind and went home.
Sometimes, when a child has a tantrum, that's the best you can do. Don't beat yourself up about it. Parenting is hard.