Tantrums are unpleasant. No one can dispute that fact. They are loud, annoying, irritating, unpleasant – the list of descriptions can go on and on. As adults, we know that most children tantrum and that it is a normal behavior, but even though we know this we often tend to respond in ways that aren’t helpful. Worse, we sometimes respond in ways that actually cause the tantrums to occur more often, last longer and increase in intensity. Here are some ideas that have been proven helpful in handling children’s meltdowns.
So, starting at the beginning, let’s realize that children need to be guided and taught how to understand what emotions are and then how to handle them. Children are not born knowing how to read, count or understand concepts like up/down and big/little. We teach these skills by doing age-appropriate activities like games, songs and reading books. Emotions and social skills require similar activities. Talking about facial expressions, happy/sad/mad feelings are fun and crucial learning opportunities. Find opportunities to talk and see these emotions in books, videos, when at the store. Incorporate this into everyday life whenever possible.
Next, focus on how you transition the child from one activity to the next. The majority of tantrums, BY FAR!, occur during transitions, yet it is not something that we get much information about when getting behavior management advice. Children who are abruptly told to stop what they are doing and to change their activity are much more likely to become angry. A little pre-planning can go a long way toward decreasing the number of angry tantrums.
First, get the child’s attention and let them know the plan of events for the future, which can be for the next 20 minutes, two hours and the whole afternoon. Give them a heads up as it gets closer to the time to change activity, such as saying, “Five more minutes,” “three more minutes,” “one more minute.” This is a more proactive approach, it is more respectful of the child’s capabilities and it models a “planning ahead” approach to everyday life.
Using timers is a great help to get children to transition. Setting the timer on a cellphone becomes a way of life for the children after a while. For very young children or those who do best with visual cues, a visual timer is a really helpful tool to download. One is Countdown. It is easy to set the time, can be used with or without a ticking sound and as the time passes more of the clock face is revealed. When the time is up there is happy music and one of a variety of child-friendly pictures is revealed. This is only one example of a visual timer app; there are several to choose from. Regular kitchen timers are also useful, especially simple digital timers from kitchen supply sections of stores. A benefit of using timers is that it is the timer notifying the child of the transition and not the adult! This creates less friction and fewer tantrums, especially when used consistently.
Another tip that seems obvious but is overlooked surprisingly often is to make sure that the child’s basic needs are met. Have they eaten, had enough water or is it past nap time? Little bodies need constant refueling. They don’t know that the bad feeling is thirst or that they are hangry. And we all know that children will never, ever, ever admit to being tired!
There are many other helpful strategies for dealing effectively with tantrums, but the final one I am going to focus on at this time is that you ask yourself “Who is in control during this tantrum?” If you are focused on trying to persuade the child to not tantrum, then you are NOT the one in control. The child has your undivided attention and is going to try to hang on to it for as long as possible. Stay close, take deep calming breathes, keep the child safe, but minimize interactions and giving attention as much as possible during the outburst. Save the interaction for when the child is calm. This way you are reinforcing and rewarding the socially appropriate interactive behaviors that you are looking for.
Used consistently these tips will go a long way toward decreasing angry outbursts. Remember, we can model the best or the worst ways to handle our anger. Children will learn from us either way.