Most parents have been there: Going through the daily routine of parenting when suddenly your usually agreeable offspring starts having a red alert-level meltdown. The more you try to take control of the situation, the more they buck against your authority (or, let’s be honest, your pleas to calm the heck down!) until all that’s left to do is to admit failure and let your child’s tantrum run its course.
But if this is happening to your little one a lot, sooner or later you’re likely to start asking yourself: are YOU the reason for your child’s tantrums?
The right answer to that question is: “kind of”.
The truth is, while, at a very basic level, your child is just attempting to communicate with you, it is possible to guide them to do so without allowing their frustrations to completely overwhelm them.
But I get it. We’re busy. We’re often stressed ourselves. And we might feel that we don’t have the time or energy to be the constant keeper of peace and good behaviours.
Yet all it could take is just a few simple changes to your approach to make your child’s tantrums a thing of the past.
Your child does not need fixing
Many parents believe that their child is being wilfully antagonistic when they launch into mega-meltdown territory. They think that their little one’s tantrums are a purposeful and petulant attempt to get their point across, but that the parent can “fix them” by getting them to listen or act in a certain way.
In reality, if your offspring is in full-on rage mode, they’re communicating in a way that they’re actually incapable of controlling.
The real reason for your child’s tantrum
According to science, two parts of the brain come into play during a tantrum – the amygdala, which is responsible for fear-related behaviours in response to threats, and the hypothalamus, which among things, controls the stress response including unconscious functions like heart rate or temperature.
Both the amygdala and the hypothalamus are connected to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), that part of the brain that modulates cognitive control functions such as reasoning, impulse control, comprehension, and perseverance.
But here’s the kicker: our PFC doesn’t reach full development until adulthood. This means that when a child’s frustrations start to flare up, managing those emotions becomes very difficult for them. Something has alerted them to a threat – mommy’s impatient, daddy’s not close by, or food they don’t want to eat is being aeroplaned into their mouths – and their stress response, which they can’t reason or comprehend, has gone into high gear.
So, what’s a parent to do? The answer is, of course, easier said than done: we need to ward off the stress response before it happens.
Remember you’re the adult
Our kids are constantly learning from our behaviours and so it’s up to us to model the kind of behaviour we want from them (don’t forget, we do have fully grown pre-frontal cortexes so we can make that decision!)
This means not letting our frustrations get the best of us, and instead, modelling calmness, composure and consistency.
For example, as adults we tend to think it’s normal to be mad, yell, complain, or even swear, but we reject it from our children. Our excuse? We know the boundaries and they don’t.
In fact, we might even yell, complain and swear at them when they start to have a tantrum. After all, we’re the boss, right? But if we slow down instead of fighting back we’re better placed to mitigate the situation.
How do we calm a fire? With more fire? Of course, not. But while this doesn’t mean we should sit back and accept our little one screaming the house down, what we need to avoid is adding another layer of anger and frustration to the situation. All that will do is keep the flames blazing AND show our toddler that hollering and maybe even hitting out is fine when you’re feeling upset. Instead, we need to try and prevent the fire in the first place.
Talk to them
If you act in the way that you would like your child to act, you can then bolster this by talking to them.
We all know communication is key in any given relationship. And while we tend to think that kids are too young to understand, it is possible to speak to them at their level.
If they regularly have temper tantrums it’s important to let them know that you love them always but that it’s not OK for them to behave in this way.
Don’t try to talk to them while they’re in mid-meltdown. Wait for an appropriate moment instead. Put yourself in their shoes and then communicate with them in the way you would want others to communicate with you.
If you know that bedtime or the supermarket are where they tend to lose their heads, also outline some expectations in ways that they understand.
For example, you could say, “In 5 minutes I will turn off the TV and then it’s time for bed.” Or “we are going to the shop but I won’t buy you anything. You can look but that’s all”. And stick to your words! Always.
Give them your presence
Many of us believe that our children need us all the time and that they are constantly asking for attention.
But that’s not true. What they need is uninterrupted mindful play and loving time with their parents.
It’s completely unrealistic to expect to give 100% of your time to anyone. So stop feeling guilty about not giving that time to your kids.
Instead, make time for mindful presence with them at certain points in the day. Put aside your phone. Take your head out of your work. And give them 100% of your presence. Praise them for positive behaviour. If you’re reading together or drawing pictures, help them feel proud of what they can do. Let them know that you’re a safe space for them, so that on those occasions when they do start to rage, your loving presence can help them cool down.
Teach boundaries instead of forcing them
Being 100% present during the moments we spend with our children is vital but so too is establishing boundaries. Doing so will not only benefit our kids but it will also make the parenting journey a lot easier as they grow!
In order for our little ones to be more resilient and independent, they need to know that the world does not revolve around them and that to be emotionally healthy individuals, it’s necessary to respect other people’s needs and boundaries.
As a family, you can establish a time to do activities together along with a quiet time where everyone gets to relax and rejuvenate and a time for adults to do things without children.
Set these times down as rules and stick to them. Often parents have difficulty maintaining their boundaries, fearing that if they’re not there for their kids’ every beck and call their children will think they don’t love them.
In reality, a lack of boundaries tends to lead to the very tantrums that you’re trying to minimize; You’re not teaching your little one that all humans have needs. Rather, you’re letting them believe that only their needs count.
Finally, be curious. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and be reminded that they perceive the world around them in a way that’s wholly different to how you, as an adult, perceive it. This discrepancy or gap between an adult’s expectations and their children’s standpoint is often what creates tensions on both sides in the first place.
Remember that your little one’s tantrum has resulted from their underdeveloped brain telling them there’s a threat. However silly that “threat” might be, offer them compassion and empathy. Doing so can diminish the notion of danger to your child.
Also, showing them you care is not excusing their behaviour. Rather it can open up communication between you wherein you start to understand your child’s feelings more. Discussing their tantrum in a curious and patient way can help validate your child’s feelings while also letting them know that there are better ways to convey what they want.
Truth be told, managing your child’s temper tantrums is not easy – but it can get less difficult if you are willing to shift your approach and stay consistent.
It is possible for you to lead by example and maintain boundaries firmly but with a calm and loving presence. And it is also possible that if you do all of that, your child’s tantrums will not only lessen but your relationship with them will deepen too.
(Photo: Courtney Stephens)