Even the chillest of parents are tested during tantrums and meltdowns. We all know it’s important to stay calm, but that’s often the most difficult and seemingly unnatural thing to do!
“It is easiest to understand a tantrum as emotional dysregulation,” says Marcella Kelson, LMSW, MSc, a parental wellness expert and coach. “It happens when your child is overwhelmed with an experience that they cannot emotionally process and so their system sort of shuts down in this very reactionary way. Tantrums happen for many reasons, but they can often be triggered by hunger, confusion or frustration. When a child cannot communicate their emotions or process their feelings, their nervous system goes on overdrive and they cannot regulate their reactions. Tantrums are not ‘bad’ behavior, they are usually a last resort for a child.”
If you’re a new parent and wondering when this phase will hit, the age range is large and usually correlates to language development. According to Kelson, tantrums usually start around one-years-old and can last for a few years, at least until communication is more established through speech and language development.
Let’s talk strategies for dealing with tantrums.
“I stay focused on one goal when my son is having a tantrum: safety. I make sure that he is physically safe or that another child is physically safe by removing him from the situation and helping him regulate his emotions away from the trigger. Sometimes it escalates his reaction, but it usually shortens the tantrum overall. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by his tantrum and I can’t stay calm, I might put him in his crib and tell him that I’m going to take a deep breath and come back when I’m ready. I find that a short pause allows me to come back and approach it differently.”
It’s important to remember that, contrary to popular belief, you can’t teach a lesson during a tantrum. “A child’s brain is not available during a tantrum for learning since it is essentially shut down and off. Tantrums are not teachable moments, but coming to the emotions later in the day, when everyone is calm, and thinking it through together can be very advantageous and allow for clear communication. Don’t pressure yourself to ‘fix’ the upset during the tantrum as it will usually exacerbate the situation. The goal is just to come out safely on the other side.”
Kelson also notes that sometimes tantrums are triggered by boundary reinforcement. “For example, if they ask to play past their bedtime. At that point they are probably overtired, but they might be insisting on staying up. Unfortunately giving in and sacrificing a boundary won’t actually help them learn how to manage their emotions. It might prevent them from having a tantrum, but ‘giving in’ will make emotions harder and harder to regulate in the future since they will not have much exposure or practice. Boundaries are very healthy for children, especially if our reasons for reinforcing them are sound.”
What’s your strategy for dealing with tantrums?