What Tantrums AreTantrums are uncontrolled outbursts of anger, frustration, and sadness typically by children. They are characterized as following a regular pattern and flow when left unchecked.
- Phase 1: Yelling and Screaming
- Phase 2: Physical Actions
- Phase 3: Crying and Whining
So, what’s going on with children who fall into tantrums?
Big Emotions, Small ChildA mistake a lot of people make is assuming that children are like tiny adults. This is so far from the fact of the matter. Babies, children, and toddlers do not have the brain chemistry and wiring to deal with their emotions. Emotions left unchecked, as many adults can certainly attest to, are very overwhelmingly powerful things, especially anger, frustration and sadness. The portion of the brain responsible for keeping tantrums in line, the Prefrontal Cortex, doesn’t really come ‘online’ until 12 months of age.
Impulse and Emotional Control in ChildrenThe Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that manages organizing thoughts, problem solving, considering consequences, adapting behaviour as the environment changes, impulse control, adjusting powerful emotions, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and a host of other functions that have an obvious relationship to children navigating tantrums. There are other major stages of development for this area of the brain usually about every two to three years there after (at age 1, 3, 6 and so on…) and it isn’t finished growing until a person is around 25 years of age.
The Prefrontal Cortex also helps redirect signals to listening and speech related areas of the brain. This is the reason toddlers and children have such of a difficult time communicating while in the midst of a tantrum… they simply do not have the wiring yet to set aside emotions long enough to articulate speech effectively.
What Doesn’t Work – Proven by Millions of Moms Everywhere!Many ‘child experts’ who typically recommend parent-needs-focused baby training such as cry it out, controlled crying, and feeding routines also tend to give bad advice about how to handle tantrums as well. The advice is ‘bad’ because it doesn’t focus on what the child needs; its often contrary to parental instinct and consequently sensitive and empathetic parents feel awful about doing these things; and its proven time and time again that these methods merely escalate tantrums through their full cycle.
These ‘experts’ tell parents, teachers, care givers, and other roles responsible for children to ignore tantrums. Tantrums are not power plays by children to control their parents as many of these ‘experts’ will have their readers believe. A child who is not in control of their own emotions simply cannot control a situation and manipulate an adult. It just defies logic. Kids are bright, but they don’t have the wiring yet to be that bright! Further, adults are wiser, better equipped, and should maintain control of themselves during a tantrum.
Some ‘experts’ even tell parents and related roles to laugh at their child’s tantrums, or to mock them, or to even punish them. Yup, makes perfect sense to do something to wind up a child even more when they’re already angry, frustrated, and sad. Or worse, to teach children that corporal punishment solves problems. As an adult when you’re unhappy about something and then someone comes up and humiliates you, how do you feel about that? You’re the adult who has the wiring to put a cap on your emotions. Children simply have not had the time you've had to develop that.
Mothers who use these methods consistently report that their child’s tantrums may last anywhere from a half hour to a few hours. This is not natural and is not healthy for the child, nor the care-takers.
Also be aware that children who were raised with ‘cry it out’ sleeping methods often have altered brain wiring and chemistry where they are predisposed towards not coping well with stress. The experience has taught these children that only by escalating their tantrums or otherwise practicing learned helplessness can they cope with the rigors of emotional outbursts.
Either way, all that the child learns is that his needs are unimportant. Or just as bad, the child learns that she has to escalate tantrums even further in order to solve problems. At the end of the day, children parented under this advice have delays in developing their impulse control, their control over emotions, and in critical problem solving skills, besides issues with self esteem.
Each and every tantrum is a potential learning and growing experience that is lost any time a child’s tantrum is ignored, laughed at, mocked, or punished.
What Works for MeThe program I’ve been following for helping my son through his temper tantrums is actually a hybrid of many other methods, motherly advice, conventional wisdom, common sense, personal experience, and my own instincts. Tantrums can be a force of nature, to be sure, but they can also be managed and you can provide your child with the tools she needs to help her learn to control her self.
For young toddlers starting out in the temper tantrum phase, the solution is: Prevent, Intervene, and Redirect. For older children who have more words to use and more cognitive ability, the solution has two more items added to it: Problem Solving and Revisiting. Here’s a break down of each step.
PreventMake sure your child is well rested, isn’t hungry or thirsty, is free of discomfort, and feels secure and engaged.
It nearly goes without saying that the number one method for preventing tantrums is ensuring your child is well rested, as over-tired cranky kids are much more prone to outbursts than well rested children.
If your child is hungry or thirst to the point of discomfort, of course it is going to affect their mood! How do you feel when you’re hungry or thirsty? It likely makes you just a tad cranky.
Free of discomfort includes ensuring your child is clean with clean clothes appropriate for the temperature as well as treating any sicknesses and ailments that are common to childhood—colds, teething, etc. A child who feels physically uncomfortable is more prone to tantrum.
And finally, making sure the child feels secure. Children who are in a loving, caring environment where they trust that they can depend on the people caring for them will simply have less reason to tantrum. Further, if children feel engaged and are actively present in their environment, they will be less prone to tantrum if they otherwise feel ignored or unimportant.
InterveneEach and every child has their own behavioural cues that indicate an incoming tantrum. Close observation of your child as well as digging in deep into your own parenting instincts will reveal these cues to you. Don’t be afraid to trust your gut!
In my son’s case, before a tantrum begins he starts in on mischief. However it’s without humour—it’s done more with frustration, based on his body posture, facial expressions and general air around him.
When you see the on-coming storm… before the pin is pulled from that hand grenade… intervene. Get right into that child’s space, as close to eye level as possible and ask him “What’s going on?” Usually simply asking that question interrupts that child’s train of thought and the tantrum is prevented before it even begins.
Further, it’s just one of those fundamental facts of life that children generally respond very well when they feel connected to their care provider who shows empathy, compassion and care—kids thrive on it.
Most importantly, remain calm, compassionate and connected. Kids may not yet be completely wired for controlling their very powerful emotions, but they are certainly wired for empathy… they are very quick to pick up on an adult’s true emotions.
RedirectSometimes, I miss my son’s starter cues and miss the opportunity to intervene which is easy to do in situations such as being out in public when I’m paying attention to other things. Then my son will start to fuss on that roller coaster ride upwards towards a tantrum. Most times, I have only a few seconds to act and I usually act with redirection. Redirection is moving the child’s attention from one focal point, such as their in-coming storm of emotions, to a different focal point… usually something outside of him in the environment.
There are so many creative applications to redirection; the limits are only those you place on them. Redirection can be as simply as introducing a different toy to your toddler to telling your child, ‘hey let’s do something else for a moment…’ to grab their attention and begin redirecting it outside of themselves.
Over time, children… even young toddlers… learn to redirect themselves. If intervention and redirection becomes a habit that pauses the child when they reach a certain emotional level while riding that tantrum tide, they will pause to look outward for distraction. Many mothers I know who practice methods similar to what I advocate here have witnessed this, and I’ve even witnessed it in my own 14 month old toddler. This later develops into skills for delaying gratification and self control that will help the child academically and then professionally.
For children who don’t have the words or the age appropriate problem solving skills yet, this is often the point where this lesson ends, except for if you missed your redirection opportunity. I’ll explain a bit more below how to gently manage your child through the physical stage of tantrums into the final stage.
Problem SolveFor older children with the language skills and age appropriate cognitive ability to creatively solve problems, tantrum management can provide a wealth of learning and growing. Once the child is redirected and while you still have their attention, ask the child, “what result do you want to see from this situation?” while maintaining eye contact in the child’s space and thus connection and empathy to the child.
Then help guide that child to some creative solutions. This may be more difficult for children who are new to these methods or who are otherwise not accustomed to being asked these questions and asked to think and respond in this way. So in the beginning, you’ll likely be doing more coaching and guiding. Eventually, the child will have her own ideas on how to solve the problem. And then later tantrums are prevented because the child becomes more practiced at solving problems before emotions escalate.
Further, this practice increases the child’s awareness of others and their environment. They actively participate in making better behavioural and social decisions. This boosts their confidence and self esteem while boosting your trust in their decision making ability.
RevisitSometime later that day, revisit the tantrum situation with the child. Ask him about what he was feeling and thinking at the start, during and after the situation. Ask her about anything she thought or felt about the situation in the hours after. Ask her what she thought about the solutions the two of you worked together on. From a problem solving and learning perspective, revisiting the issues hours after heads have cooled and everyone has the benefit of hindsight seals the learning experience.
When Intervention and Redirection is MissedIt happens to the best of us… we miss the opportunity to help our child pause and redirect the anger, frustration, and sadness they feel with an on-coming tantrum. The pin is pulled and that hand grenade goes off, explosively. After yelling and screaming, the child begins the second phase of tantrums—physical action. It is critically important to remain calm, connected, and empathetic to help guide the child quickly from physical action into the third stage of crying and whimpering.
During the physical action stage, there is no room for reasoning with the child. Their emotions have so overwhelmed them that they absolutely loose their temper and their control, exhibiting behaviours that their Prefrontal Cortex would otherwise inhibit. Stay near the child, in that child’s personal space as much as you can and resume as much eye contact as possible. Help move things that could harm the child out of their way. It is a very tricky prospect to both remain calm and connected and to help the child keep from harming himself and others. Leading by example with self control speaks volumes to the child after the tantrum when revisiting the situation later.
Watch very carefully for an opportunity to take the child up in your arms to hold him. The sooner you get that child into your arms, the faster she will be able to gain control of herself again. This might take some quick action and nimble feet as well as some other gentle physical actions to help calm the child enough to where it is safe enough to hold her. Rub her back and shoulders. Talk to her soothingly and with empathy, acknowledging the anger, frustration, and sadness.
When the child seems to be moving on from that distressful peak, take her in your arms and hold her over your shoulder. Trust your gut when timing this as quickly as possible. Tell your child soothing, loving things while continuing to rub his back.
“I’m sorry you’re upset. I’m holding you because I love you and I don’t want you to harm yourself. I saw that [situation] happened and it would upset me too. Let’s calm down and figure out how to make it all better.”
You may need to repeat this phrase a number of times before the message gets through to the child. Bear in mind that their cap on controlling their emotions is blown, it’s the same area of the brain that helps redirect traffic to listening and speaking. So it may be literally impossible for the child to hear you or to respond until they’ve calmed enough to let that information flow again.
‘Sssshh!’ or sing a song or sway if he seems to escalate his tantrum again, almost like redirection. With practice, the second and third phases will go much faster.
Once the child has reached the third phase where the tantrum is reduced to crying or whimpering, it is much easier to re-engage that child in intervention and redirection techniques. And in all cases, do revisit the issue. Talk to the child about what he felt, thought and did and how in the future she can help herself not get so upset.
A child who is new to these methods or who has the experience of cry-it-out and controlled crying will take longer at first to soothe. I’ve been practicing these methods with my son specifically for two months. At first, it took about 5-10 minutes to bring him down from physical action into full calm. For a while, I didn’t think I could ever take my son out for shopping or lunch. Now it takes me less than 2 minutes to bring him back down again in the rare cases when he gets to that point. In public, it seems longer of course! But I keep an eye on my watch briefly to reassure myself that it isn’t the eternity that it feels like it is. That helps me keep calm and confidence—and the child on your shoulder will feel that!
One more thing: It is okay, if you are losing control of your emotions, to set the child down safely and take a couple of minutes to compose yourself. Learn to identify in yourself when you are reaching a crisis point when dealing with your child’s tantrums and intervene and redirect yourself before you get that upset. You cannot possibly guide the child to calm when you’re not feeling calm yourself—children are empathetic and they do feed off of your emotions, positive or negative. Think of the long term beneficial effects of using these gentle methods rather than resorting to ignoring or punishing the child for his tantrum. Think of the lessons you want to teach by example. And in those couple of minutes when you’re feeling calmer, take a few deep breaths, then reconnect and re-engage.
Also, if my son loses control of himself in public and someone gives me stink eye over it, I give them stink eye right back. All children have had a tantrum at one point or another in public. Some random person at some point in that person’s life had to sit by while that person as a child had their outburst. That person can pay it forward just a bit. If that person says something, remind them of that, calmly and stand your ground. We no longer live in an age where children are merely seen and never heard.
Every Day ApplicationsMy son loves books. Each time we go out, I bring a book with us to use for consistent quick redirection.
If my son begins to get fussy in a restaurant, I’ll take him outside for a brief three minute walk to give him a needed change of scenery.
Many of these techniques can be used in other specific circumstances such as toddler hitting or biting.
At home, I get my son involved in playing ball—throwing the ball into a laundry hamper for 'goals!' to work out that negative energy, move him past frustration, and onto something positive.
I noticed an immediate decrease in the frequency of my son’s tantrums when I improved his sleep by moving his bedtime from 8:30pm to 6:30pm and coaxing him back to sleep if he’s napped for less than an hour during the day.
When diaper changes brought on tantrums, I tried distracting my son with toys, books, or whatever he was willing to take in his hands at first. That didn't work all of the time, but a good portion of the time. I also sang and whistled songs to him while changing him. That usually keeps his attention long enough to get the job done. But I think what worked best was that I started making a big deal about 'good diaper changes' where he stayed still for most of it and that seemed to have the most positive impact. Just telling him, “that was a good diaper change!” and cheering, hugging and clapping my hands for him had immediate positive effects. If it wasn't a good diaper change, I didn't say anything. And a couple of times when it seemed like he wanted to wriggle away, I'd remind him, “Don’t you want a good diaper change?” That would be enough to deter my son from escalating into a tantrum.
My son used to tantrum over clothes changes. To some extent, its understandable… changing clothes interrupts more important toddler things to do. What I did to deter tantrums while changing clothes is by making it into a game at first. Now it’s become a ritual and my son knows fully what to expect during clothes changes which helps him maintain a grip on himself if he’s cranky or if he thinks he has more important things to do. I have the spoken routine memorized: “Up and over the head! Okay, where's that hand, where's that hand, where's that—oh there it is! Okay, where's the other hand? There it is! Now stand for the pippity pops (snapping together the buttons on the onesey) ... count with me, that's one pippity pop, two pippity pops aaaand three pippity pops. Okay, let’s put on the shirt--up and over the head... and where's the hand... good stuff! And where's the other hand? Yippie! Now lets put on the pants... where's the foot, where's the foot? Oh there it is! *tickle, tickle, laugh and snuggle* Now where's the other foot? There it is!” *tickle, tickle*
References and Inspiration
- NPR: The Anatomy of a Tantrum
- Psychology Today: Childhood as an Impulse Disorder, Part 2
- US Dept of Health and Public Services: Maturation of the Prefrontal Cortex
- Dr. Sears: Temper Tantrums (6 articles provided)
- Dr. Sears: Science Says Excessive Crying Could Be Harmful
- Pinky McKay: The Con of Controlled Crying