All parents face it one day!
Sunday afternoon, the supermarket is crowded and Mary, 3 years old, wants candies. That’s the dilemma… If I give in, she will soon get used to ask for treats and if I refuse, I will surely have to deal with a tantrum. What should I do? Should I explain myself? If I do, she will take it as an opportunity to discuss and negotiate and may not understand anyway. Should I just say NO, plain and simple? But will it be enough to convince her? I’m not so sure… Finally, I gently refuse and there she goes: she cries, argues, clings to the candy shelf and screams when I raise my voice.
Although a majority of parents experience, one day or another, the embarrassment and the shame of seeing their own child screaming to the top of his lungs in a public place, when it happens to us, we feel like we are the only parent in the world who did not manage to teach the basics of anger management to our offspring and we think that everyone who is looking at us is judging us for being such a failure when most of them are probably thinking; ”Poor him! I remember when it was me…”
Tantrums happen at all ages
First, it is important to clarify this: children’s tantrums (especially between 2 and 4 years old) are normal. You should not worry about it or see it as the manifestation of a major behavioural problem. Although not all children exteriorize their negative emotions with so much energy, you must expect a strong-willed and extroverted child to express fear, anxiety, disappointment, anger and sadness loudly with tears, screams and even violence.
Temper tantrums usually begin between 18 months old and 2 years old and finish before your child goes to school. It usually peaks around 3 years old with tantrums sometimes lasting for over an hour and accompanied by various manifestations such as screams, tears, uncontrollable movements, breaking or throwing objects. Some children will even induce vomiting, bang their head, pull their hair or hurt themselves. Even though very impressive, those tantrums are “normal” at this age and a lot of children will do it, to their parents’ dismay.
Crises of children over 6 years old are somewhat different. While toddlers throw tantrums because they have not learned how to manage their frustrations, school children can now control their actions. Even if their anger is uncontrollable, their reaction to it is chosen. If he had really lost his self-control, he wouldn’t be able to control his movements enough to turn a doorknob or to use his hand to hit someone or something. He would scream nonsense and could not choose words that hurt and the best insults to cause a reaction. So, for school children, a tantrum is not a lack of control, it is an attempt to take control. It usually aims at hurting the parent who is the source of frustration. The golden rule is to make sure that the child does not gain anything with this behaviour and that the tantrum is useless and only bothers the child.
Causes are many. However, in toddlers (2 to 4 years old) tantrums are usually caused by the fact that your child has not developed his language enough to express his frustrations verbally. Imagine if you were trying to express your anger in a language you do not speak very well…
In older children, tantrums can hide a lot of anxiety, an impulsivity problem or just a bad habit that your child has not yet overcome by lack of tools or support. Also, if your child gains something from tantrums (or if he did in the past…) he will be tempted to try again. It is the same principle as the lottery ticket: “If I have a chance, why not give it a go…"
A few tips
- Clarify with your child, using examples and scenarios, what he CAN do when he is angry and what is forbidden. Also show him a few things that he can do to calm down when he is angry (breathe deeply, draw, cry silently, etc.)
- The first step is, of course, acknowledging his emotions. Make sure that your child can recognize anger in him and in others. To do so, tell him clearly what he is feeling when he is overwhelmed by negative emotions. “Oh! Sarah! I think you are angry right?” Also teach him to recognize emotions on the faces of his friends or on the characters of his favourite cartoons.
- Through simulations, demonstrations with dolls, Barbie or puppets and through concrete examples, teach your child to make the difference between the good and the bad ways to express his anger.
- While watching television, make him express what he thinks of how the characters express their anger and resolve their conflicts. (“Oh! Peter pushed Frankie! Do you think that’s ok? What would you do instead?”)
- Through role-playing (“Let’s say I am Martin at daycare and I take away the truck you were playing with…”), frequently help your child practice good ways to express his anger and solve conflicts.
- Show him physically, by mimicking and asking him to do the same, what it is to “be calm” and “throw a tantrum”
- Because all children don’t learn the same way, don’t always teach verbally: experiment with your child, act out a tantrum, go in the corner with him to calm down for fun, draw good and bad ways to express anger and put the drawings in his room, etc.
- In your day-to-day life, apply the right ways to express anger with him. Admit your mistakes when behave badly. Don’t try to justify your actions when you express your frustration inappropriately (“I screamed really loud but it was the fourth time I said it”, “Daddy hit you because he wanted you to understand that…”, “I said bad words because I was very angry, it’s not the same for adults”)
- Let him deal with delays and frustrations regularly (we learn to manage frustrations through practice…) Do not ever try to avoid a tantrum by giving up to his whims or explaining ad arguing. If your child sees that you are feeling uncomfortable to say no, he will react even more. If he knows that you are afraid of tantrums, he will feel powerful and will throw them even more. But if you are calm, firm and respectful: “I know you are not a happy camper but that’s the way it is”, he will accept it more easily."
- Never argue with your child when he whines, opposes you or when he is aggressive. Stop discussing and say that you will answer when he will calm down. Get away from him to ignore his whining, don't look at him and stop replying. If he throws a tantrum, withdraw him.
- As often as possible, give him options rather than orders. But give him options that fit what you want. For example, “Will you take your bath with boats or with cars?”. Notice that you decided the bath time. Let him assume his choices by keeping a firm yet respectful attitude. For example: “You are hungry? I know… You must regret not eating before. No, I cannot give you a snack, you chose before…” “Yes, it is cold outside…that’s why you should wear a coat… Next time you should wear one!” (It will help him choose the best behaviour).
- When he refuses to obey, don’t fight for power. Give him the responsibility of his actions and let him assume his choices. For example: ”I think that you should wear your jacket because it is cold outside” “Are you sure you don’t want to eat anymore? You know, you won’t have anything to eat later.” “IT’S YOUR CHOICE!” “YOU DECIDE!”
- Determine a withdrawal place, rather pleasant but without too many toys. At home, this place can be a staircase, a couch or a separate room like the laundry room or his room if he doesn’t have too many sleeping problems. In a daycare, I suggest to provide a corner in the room, slightly away from the group and ideally out of sight where he will have a cushion, a few books or material to calm down, like soft balls, paper and pens, etc. Some daycares have installed this little nest under a table covered with a cloth or in a cupboard under the sink but with a curtain instead of a door. Present the place to the child positively, not like a punitive place but a place where he can calm down in peace.
- Show him what you expect from him when he is withdrawn, what he is allowed to do or not and how he can calm down.
If they throw a tantrum
For the youngest ones
- If possible, simply ignore the child and go in another room for the whole duration of the tantrum. Do not make fun, do not argue, do not scold and do not try to console him (except if he hurt himself!). Totally deprive him of attention and keep a distant and neutral attitude. Give him attention again when he calms down and change the subject.
- However, if the tantrums gets too big, if you are feeling aggressive and you can’t deal with it any longer or if he gets violent physically (hits, bites, throws objects) or verbally (screams, insults or swears), send him to his room or in any other calm place, comforting and away.
4 years and up
- School children should be withdrawn as soon as they cross the point of no return and stay away until they calm down.
- Take him quickly but gently without being warm and without talking to the place of withdrawal. “Calm down!” The door can remain open if the child respects his space and if he doesn’t scream.
- If the crisis is taking place in public, find a quiet and remote place or bring your child in the car (you can always come back later to pay for your groceries).
- For the whole duration of the tantrum, do not talk and do not react to his attempts to provoke you. Remain silent firm and distant (neither nice or aggressive). During a crisis, a child often tries to share his anger (not to be alone, to get revenge, etc.). We should not endorse this behaviour. We should let him know that this crisis was HIS choice and is totally useless. You can also add, from time to time, in a firm and monotonous tone of voice: “Calm down, stop screaming and then I’ll come to see you”.
- Stay near the door, especially if your child is anxious by nature. If your child stays in his room, leave the door ajar. If he comes out, close it for a few minutes and hold the knob if he tries to come out (about 5 minutes) then open the door and leave it open if he seems ready to follow your instructions. Do not talk to him through the door. If he knocks on the door, ignore him as much as you can. If not, go in and sit him firmly (but without being aggressive) on his bed and say, “You stay there!” and go back out. (Don’t install devices to lock the door. Feeling trapped can increase anxiety in some children and anger in others).
- After a few minutes, when the tantrum seems to decrease, open the door and ask him if he is calmer. If he is, congratulate him and check his attitude. If the crisis remains or starts again, slowly go back out and tell him that you will come back when he will be calm. Go back when he stops screaming.
- Once your child has calmed down, BRIEFLY discuss the situation (you are in your room because…I don’t want you to…) explain clearly your expectations (“For the rest of the evening, I want you to…”) and talk about the consequence if there is one (“Because of your lack of respect, I want you to go to bed at 7:00p.m.) Demand an apology and apologize if you have gone too far.
- Make sure that he accepted your refusal, the rule or that he is ready to follow the instruction that started the crisis BEFORE you let him out of his room. The withdrawal ends only when the parent feels a real attitude of cooperation from the child (if he laughs, if he is aggressive, arrogant or closed, he remains in his room). You can test his cooperation by giving him a simple instruction (ex. please put these toys in the box). If he does it, it probably means that he is in a better mood. If he begins to argue again, stop talking, go out and come back later. Once the withdrawal is over, don’t talk about the situation again.
- When he comes out, avoid questions like “Why did you do that?”. Children often find it hard to identify causality. Say: “I know that you are mad at your sister but you can’t push her. Say what you want with words.” Also avoid prolonging because your child will see this dose of attention like a reward.
- The child can then be forced to do something to repair what he did (apologize, draw something, lend a toy, etc.). At that age, it is not necessary to add any other consequences. Do something else, think of other things but don’t give him any rewards yet (ex. you should not buy an ice cream after a tantrum)
Finally, be patient. When you will begin this practice, the crises will probably be stronger and last longer. DO NOT GIVE UP! If you need to, take away all the toys from your child’s room and promise him that he will get them back when he will learn self-control and how to calm down when he is withdrawn. If, after a few weeks of being consistent with these techniques, don’t hesitate to seek help. And don’t worry; some children who have thrown terrible tantrums become angels when they grow old. My daughter is the best example…