The dreaded tantrum… The “red zone”… The storm…
As parents and caregivers, we’ve all seen and experienced it firsthand. While we often feel completely targeted by the tantrum (“they’re doing this on purpose to spite me!”), and maybe even feel like we’re losing our own cool (or getting into the “red zone” ourselves), it’s important to remember that our children are not purposely acting out or misbehaving. The world is an amazing and scary place, and they too, sometimes enter the “red zone” – a place where learning shuts off and they resort back to a biological state of alarm (think fight or flight) when things get too big to handle. At this point, they have a hard time managing and containing their BIG feelings, and are quickly losing control of their bodies, minds and emotions (what a scary feeling for anyone!).
The good news is that there is a way to combat and reduce those tantrums, and you can do it! Teaching kids how to manage and to use their caregiver to help contain their big feelings is the first step in reducing those epic tantrums, and empowering your child to communicate his or her needs, manage upsets, and return him/herself back to a positive state. Below are a few tips I like to share with my families that come in for counseling for their children struggling with frequent tantrums.
- Stay Calm. When your child hits, throws a tantrum, or melts down, it’s not only an expression of emotion, but also a call for your help. The calmer you are, the calmer he will feel. Keep your voice steady and matter-of-fact. Get down to his level and make eye contact when you talk. Remaining calm re-balances the energy in the room; you’re bringing your child back down to a more appropriate level, as well as modeling good skills for managing his frustration, sadness and anger.
- Show Empathy. Ultimately, we all want to be comforted and understood when we are really upset about something. Your child has those same feelings and desires, but lacks the appropriate way to ask for that connection. Put an arm around your child, hug her or hold her hand. Acknowledge how she feels: “You look frustrated, and it’s okay to feel that way.” When YOU name the feelings you see, your CHILD begins to learn to name them too. (Hello emotion identification and empathy for others and self!)
- Help Solve the Problem. Something caused the frustration – you can help fix it. Rebuild a fallen block tower together, or help him ask a friend to give back the toy that was taken. This is also a great learning opportunity to practice language and communication! Give your child language to articulate his feelings, and to describe to you what happened. “Oh no! Your block tower fell over, that probably made you feel so mad/frustrated/sad! Sometimes I like when others can help me fix something that is broken”, or “That puzzle does look tricky, I know you can do it on your own, but I can help if you think you need it.”
- Have a Calm Down Spot. Create a calming space for your child to go to when she feels upset, angry or frustrated. This could include pillows, blankets, or other soft, calming toys. Explain to your child that this is a place for taking breaks to calm down, and keep it positive. This should never be used as “punishment,” and instead be a way for your child to learn to be more disciplined and regulate her body and emotions. Another important note is to only have the child in their calm down spot for a reasonable amount of time. A good rule of thumb is to go with the child’s age in years, in minutes. With this, a three-year-old child could be in a calm down spot for a total of 3 minutes alone. Also be mindful that some children may be better served with a time in, or having their parent in the room, or near them during this time as well (which brings me to my next point.)
- Be Nearby. Calm down time is not meant to punish or isolate a young child, instead use it as an opportunity to teach self-discipline and regulation skills. Some children who are really upset may not be able to process words or be in control of their body in the moment. In these scenarios they need to know that they (and their feelings) are safe, okay and heard by the people who they care for most. Children need to instinctively know that the adults in their lives can handle their BIG, SCARY Emotions. Our physical presence may be much more effective – staying close to them, rocking them, rubbing their back, singing softly, or holding them, rather than a traditional “time out.”
- Help End and Reinforce the Break. Eventually children will wind down and feel ready to return to play. Help reinforce the positive nature of breaks by saying, “It looks like you feel better now,” ”You helped yourself calm down!” or “Look at how calm and quiet your body is, it looks like you’re feeling calm!” After the break, offer hugs or high fives for being able to calm himself, and smooth the transition into a new activity.
- Teach, Model and Practice Calm Down Skills. During quiet moments when no one is upset, show your child how to breathe deeply to relax. Say, “Let’s watch our bellies get bigger while we breathe.” Together, close your eyes and talk about feeling peaceful, still and quiet. Place a stuffed animal on the child’s belly, and have them watch how it goes up and down with each breath. Show her how to hug her shoulders with her arms or rock slowly back and forth to help calm down the body. Or try bubbles (a child favorite!) as a way to practice controlled breath. A favorite of mine is using the phrase “smell the flowers, and blow out the birthday candles”. This works to make the abstract concept of deep breathing a bit easier for your child to understand and eventually use on their own.
- Think Ahead and Redirect. Before young children explode like little volcanoes, try stepping in quickly with a favorite toy, book or other object to refocus and redirect their attention to something more positive. Or even before that, keep an eye out to make sure basic needs are being met. Is a child hungry, thirsty, bored, tired, anxious, or overstimulated? Staying on top of those needs is a first line of defense, and a sure way to avoid the dreaded tantrum!
Ultimately, when we are able to respond to our child’s BIG feelings in a calm manner, we are teaching them:
- I won’t be abandoned during scary and difficult times (I am worthy)
- Momentary rage doesn’t result in rejection (I am loved)
- Feelings CAN be contained and NOT derail my caregiver and their ability to care for and love me
- There is calm once again after the storm
**** You’ve got this. I promise.
Kelle Arend is an Early Childhood/Child Counselor, and Parent Educator at Renovation Counseling in Circle Pines, MN. She holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from St. Mary’s University of MN. Kelle is passionate about her work with families of young children, and enjoys working collaboratively towards family cohesion, emotional and mental health and happiness. She enjoys reading and spending time outdoors with her husband, daughter and two furry (dog) babies.