We’ve all been there: it’s not easy dealing with a wailing kid of any age when we are so overwhelmed and so frustrated that we feel ready to start wailing ourselves. Whining kids also trigger the same bits of the brain that the sound of crying babies does – we are immediately desperate to make it stop. We begin operating from hindbrain fight-or-flight principles instead of thinking clearly.
A wailing kid isn’t necessarily “being naughty”. They’re often simply sitting with big feelings that they are overwhelmed by. Adults can easily be overwhelmed by similar feelings, like jealousy or frustration: I also feel upset when my heart’s desires are thwarted, or angry when someone takes my things, or hurt when I feel like people are being unkind to me: it’s just that I’ve got the forebrain bits in place to deal with it differently. What we need to do as parents is fulfil that forebrain function for our children: we need to help them process. And that can be very hard. Joining the kid in a screaming fight because we are ourselves overwhelmed is only likely to escalate the situation. We need to keep adult as much as possible, although we don’t always get that right – we are, after all, human! And sometimes Mommy needs a time out.
It’s also important to forestall tantrums where necessary. tired and hungry kids are already halfway to a meltdown. Sometimes it’s about attention: having fifteen to twenty minutes of one on one time every day is a quick and easy way to ensure that your child feels like they have access to good times with you, and may head off much of the need for attention seeking. Looking after yourself is also important for your kids as it means you will be better able to be present and relaxed with them.
But regardless of our best intentions, the occasional meltdown in unavoidable. Here are some ways to turn a tantrum around:
Name the feeling. if your child has a label for her feelings you’re helping her create the necessary self insight that will lead her to manage her feelings better later. When she’s little she’s aware only of overwhelming emotion. Giving it a name will help her express it without having to act it out later on. So step one is simply to reflect her feeling back to her: I can see you’re feeling very angry/frustrated/sad right now.
Validate the feeling. There’s always a reason why she feels as she does. You don’t have to agree with her current expression of her feeling, but as you reflect back to her the why of her current emotion you are helping her have insight into herself and modelling empathy. This helps her understand herself and also gives her an example of how to empathise as you empathise with her. You can say things like “it’s very frustrating to not get what you want”, “I know your brother took your toy and you didn’t want him to”, “I can see you really wanted to have ice cream for dinner”. Don’t disagree with the feeling (everyone feels frustrated when they don’t get what they want) but also don’t give in either. Being kind does NOT mean never setting boundaries. Gently and as calmly as possible sit with the feeling itself.
Contain or coach. If your child is fully in tantrum mode you can simply sit with them, or tell them that you are there for them and wait till they calm down. The first two steps often take some of the impetus out of the process. Containing doesn’t mean allowing any kind of behaviour, though. It’s not OK to hurt people or break things when you’re angry. That’s where the coaching comes in, and with little kids it’s often helpful to redirect the behaviour: it’s not OK to kick or hit the dog, but doing something active will definitely draw some of the energy off. Kicking a ball, running, doing star jumps and clapping really hard all draw off some of the physiological effects of what is essentially a fight-or-flight situation. And bodies are build to move when in fight or flight. Reasoning with them may not be possible though: a brain in fight or flight mode will not easily learn.
Debrief. talk about what happened, only once they have calmed down. Talk about what feeling they had and why it all happened. for example Mommy can’t let you have ice cream for dinner, but you can have some for dessert or tomorrow after school etc. Boundaries are there for a reason and the PARENT is in control of these. Being negotiable and reasonable is something that can happen when you are both calm, but the final decision rests with YOU. Being kind does not mean not being firm. The experience of being disappointed or frustrated is also an important one at this age. This is how they learn how to deal with feelings that will doubtless occur again and again in their lives. Being supportive with the feelings but firm and consistent with your boundaries creates a kind-but-firm inner parent for them which will ultimately make them feel more secure and stand them in good stead all through their lives.