Ahhhhh…the dreaded temper tantrum! As parents, we’ve all been there (I’m talking about your child’s tantrum, not your own). These colossal, bursts of emotional meltdowns typically occur in the most public places—he grocery store, the library, church! When our child is in the midst of a meltdown, it is easy for parents to succumb to feelings of shame, inadequacy or embarrassment. The reality is, a tantrum is simply a child’s way of communicating his or her unhappiness. Typically, the tantrum occurs when the child is unable to adequately communicate what he wants. The reason the child is unable to communicate in that moment can vary widely, but we know that emotion originates from the right side of your brain. When the right side is activated or elevated, the left side (logic, reason) is unable to be accessed. This explains why rationalizing and reasoning with your child is ineffective in the middle of a meltdown. In that moment, she does not have access to the logical side of her brain.
There are several measures that you can take in order to be preventative in fending off a tantrum. The first measure is to go back to basics. Before taking your child out in public, make sure she is not hungry or tired. Hungry or tired children are more apt to act out in negative ways (as are adults). Also, make sure your child has had plenty of opportunity to burn off energy before being expected to sit in a grocery cart or sit quietly in church. Hit the park before heading to the store. If you don’t have time to stop at the park, time your child as she runs around the car three times! Create anything to burn off some energy.
Less obvious measures to fend off tantrums are to fill your child’s “attention” and “control” buckets. Days are busy and filled with activities, errands, work/school. Children require and thrive when they are allotted individual attention daily. This means taking the time each day to focus solely on each child in your home without any distractions (TV, phone, tablets, etc.). This can be 20 minutes upon waking and beginning a busy day. It could be on the drive home from daycare or maybe right before going to bed each night. The key to filling the attention bucket is that it is an individualized connection with your child. Your child will seek your attention, sometimes, that is in the form of a meltdown. You can minimize the negative attention seeking, by intentionally filling the “attention” bucket daily.
The second bucket, “control,” is also imperative for your child. Children have very little control of their own lives. Parents tell them when to wake up, where to go, what to eat, etc. Yes, this is necessary to get through the days. But having some age appropriate control over decisions can go a long way in preventing temper tantrums. The whole premise behind a tantrum is that it’s “out of control” emotion. The more control you give to your child day to day, the less out of control he is likely to feel. Choose areas where your child can make his own choices—which shirt to wear, which alarm setting/sound to wake up to, what snack to have after school.
Remember, tantrums are not a sign of poor parenting. They are natural reactions to a child’s inability to express themselves appropriately or regulate their emotions effectively. An amazing book that I often recommend to parents is, “The Whole Brain Child” by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. This book breaks down the development of a child’s brain, how it can lead to tantrums and what to do about a tantrum when it’s in full swing. For more on tantrums, visit my website: www.christinerushfordcounseling.com.