Why is my Child Still Having Temper Tantrums?
Temper tantrums are essentially mood swings. Children get stuck in feeling a negative emotion because they do not have the coping skills to handle them. Adults help children learn how to manage their difficult emotions typically by being empathetic. For example, if a 1 year old cries and throws themselves on the floor because their sibling took their toy, we show them empathy and recognize that this hurt them. We also realize that this is a small slight but to them it is not. Through that empathy we validate their feelings as real, which helps them move through negative emotions. What happens though when the child is 9 and for whatever underlying reason (e.g., emotional control issues and anxiety) experiences the same reaction. It may seem ridiculous and emotionally immature, but how these situations are dealt with are just as important.
Below you’ll find some quick tips to deal with these changes in mood. It’s important to be attuned to your child so that you can start to notice the minor changes in their mood before it becomes a full fledged tantrum. Usually there are signs.
Things to do when you first notice the mood change:
Step 1: Take a deep breath for yourself
Step 2: Acknowledge the feeling. Have a couple scripted phrases to use as you may also become emotionally reactive and have difficulty thinking on the fly.
Example: I can see you’re really upset about this.
Step 3: Give instructions for the next step
Example 1: I think this would be a good time for you to try and sit in the calm down corner/take a shower/us to do some breathing exercises together.
Example 2: I can see you’re really disappointed you didn’t get XYZ toy. I want to hear you out. Let’s go the car so you can take some time to breathe and we can talk about this.
Step 4: After some cool down time is allowed, ask him if they are ready to talk about their feelings. I call this “sitting in the dark”. Essentially validate feelings and use empathy. Reflect back what he is saying “what I’m hearing you is you were really sad about the possibility of having to go to bed earlier.” Empathy does not mean the behavior is okay. We can be mad/sad/disappointed/fearful but how we express it is our decision.
Step 5: Discuss the consequence for their behavior once he has cooled down completely. It’s okay if this is hours later. They are able to remember what happened and likely understand that this behavior is inappropriate.
Things to avoid:
Catastrophizing - “You can’t do this when you’re ____.” It’s important to stay with the present moment. We don’t know what he will be like in the future. This is a difficult time for some kids but many of them turn out more than okay.
Reasoning - “Think about what you just did”. The reason this doesn’t work is because the reasoning part of the brain is shut off during a tantrum. They do not have access to it.
Problem Solving - Wait until they calm down to do this
Threatening - Don’t threaten what the consequences will be. It’s important to, again, wait until things have calmed down to discuss why their behavior was inappropriate and the real consequences of behaving that way.
Labeling - “You are being bad” or “you don’t care about anyone but yourself” which means “you are selfish”.
Comparing - “_______ would never do this”
Maintain anger rules:
No destroying property
No hurting others
No hurting yourself
Calm down corner:
Bean bag (aggression can be taken out on it)
Anything else you would consider calming or soothing
But this is really hard!
Yes, this is really, really hard and it might feel impossible. Usually parents have spent years trying to deal with their child’s tantrums, so every time they happen they have difficulty not becoming emotionally reactive themselves. After all, they have been dealing with this for a long time and have had many moments that were sometimes equal parts scary and embarrassing, but I know this works! It won’t work immediately because it is not a pill, but over time it will get better. You will know that you’ve strengthened your empathy while simultaneously helping your child strengthen theirs. Your child will also learn to not be ashamed of themselves for having feelings. This helps prevent the “I’m bad for having these feelings” thoughts. Lastly, you will not contribute to lowering their self esteem. Social media does a good job at that already.
Alexis Pardo, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Agape Therapy Institute in Downtown Orlando. She specializes in working with individuals, couples and families across a range of issues. To learn more about Alexis or to request an appointment with her, click here.
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