3 Ways to Handle Tantrums (at any age)

What happens…

…to all humans?

… seemingly out of the blue?

…at any age?

Tantrums are the #1 challenge for parents everywhere.

But most of us don’t acknowledge when WE have a tantrum:

I’ve just spent 20 minutes getting ready to leave the house (and that’s really good for winter in Minnesota). My 3-year-old throws a little fit about his glove not fitting. My patience has run out, so I half-yell:

“We’ll fix it in the car! Let’s go now!!!”

A tantrum is a loss of control. It is being emotionally dysregulated, for 10 seconds, for 10 minutes. Adults have more emotional regulation skills than children, and as parents we aim to teach our kids those skills. However, that doesn’t mean we are immune from having our own tantrums.

So here are 3 effective steps to take when confronted with a tantrum, whether it’s your child’s, your partner’s or your own.

(1) Figure the trigger.

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Particularly in the younger set (under 6 years), tantrums can be predicted based on time of day, tiredness or hunger level. Collect your data so you can anticipate tantrums more regularly. And importantly, write down or visualize how you plan to stay calm - or to calm yourself. Two easy examples include:

Take 3 deep breaths

Do a walk-away and walk-back (and let the person know what you’re doing)

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(2) Identify its origin in the brain.

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In The Whole-Brain Child Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson define emotional regulation as when the upstairs (logical) and downstairs (emotion-driven) parts of the brain are in sync. It’s helpful to identify whether a tantrum is coming from a more controlled place or a less controlled place.

If you or your child are emotionally dysregulated (stuck in downstairs brain), really it’s just a matter of waiting it out. Use your go-to calming techniques. Think of yourself as the calming agent for your child, and hug, hold or hold space for them.

If you believe the tantrum is an upstairs (more controlled) tantrum, then you can move on to using reason and re-framing the situation or challenge. See #3 for tips to re-frame.

(3) Re-frame the situation.

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Validate the tantrum-ers experience. State what you see happening. Even empathize! (“Sometimes I also feel frustrated when my favorite shirt is in the laundry!”).

If the push-back is strong, it’s likely the person is still in downstairs brain.

But if the person seems ready, try to re-frame the situation. There are lots of ways to do this, and I encourage you not to give up if one strategy doesn’t work right away. Here are two strategies to try:

Creative problem-solving

Treat the person as an equal partner in finding a solution. Imagine you’re collaborating with a co-worker at work, and consider asking questions like “What do you think might help?” “What’s another cereal you like?” “Mommy still says no to more snacks right now, and when do you think a good time for a snack tomorrow will be?”

Playing

From a stance of collaboration, find games that function to acknowledge the issue while also transforming it through play. For example, you might say “Mommy says no to more snacks right now, but will you help me feed your stuffed animal horsey?” Or, become the voice for the cereal box, which has an opinion on when it gets eaten. Or, take a favorite character from a tv show and ask your child what they would do if faced with such a dilemma or challenge.

I repeat: Tantrums are the #1 challenge for parents everywhere. At some point.

They don’t magically go away. Ever. We all still have them, they just look different as we age.

So when we can appreciate that we all lose our cool from time to time, that better equips us to accept, offer support and ultimately teach new skills to our children as they learn how to emotional regulate skillfully.

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