Raising a Ticking-Child-Bomb

Dealing with tantrums


“Oh boy, here we go again.” 

You count the seconds in anticipation for the Big Blast. Your child’s breathing accelerates; his face contorts, and you can almost see the tantrum coming. Then, it begins


Your local supermarket may not be the ideal place for your child to throw a tantrum, but you of all people know that time and place don’t matter when it comes to the emotional performance. You try to calm them down: whispering quietly that they need to stop, that this isn’t the place, that they’ll be in trouble later. But you finally give up and let him/her have it. Sound familiar? 


You’re not alone. Many parents struggle with understanding and managing their child’s temper tantrums. As a behavioral therapist, I have walked many parents through understanding a child’s emotional journey before, during, and after a tantrum. I will share some tips on predicting a tantrum, helping your child through it safely, and constructively, and on how to build solutions together. 


Constant Vigilance!


Parents can see a tantrum coming. Watch for physical signs, such as changes in breathing, facial expressions (frowns, clenched teeth, etc..), and body language (stiff shoulders, tight tummy, etc). At this point, it’s a good idea to verbalize your child’s physical disturbance and relate it to his/her emotions: “I can see that you’re breathing quickly, do you feel upset?” It is necessary to guide the child to grow aware of their emotional state before the storm hits, since this is likely to allow him/her to self-soothe. 


Confess Your Love and His Distress


But let’s be realistic: sometimes, there’s no stopping the other shoe from dropping. So, what do you do when you’re standing in the middle of a mall with your toddler kicking and screaming bloody murder? 


It is imperative that your child understands the necessity to calm down first. Talking about the problem can come later. First and foremost, calm them down. Whether you suspect your child is going bananas because he/she’s not receiving enough attention or is genuinely out of (emotional) control. Give them a hug, tell them you love them, and most importantly, validate their distress. It’s as easy as repeating or rephrasing what your child says in response to how they feel. “I see that you want the toy, and I know you love cars, but you need to calm down first, then we can talk about it.” 


Sometimes just a hug, an “I love you”, and a “you need to calm down” helps. This is not you accepting the tantrumental behavior, this is validating love and support without giving them the object they are throwing a tantrum for!


Recognize, Don’t Chastise


Validating distress is one small step for you and one giant leap for your child. Only when your child is calm and back in control of their emotions can you even begin to discuss what happened. But what attitude should a parent have about the tantrum? Is this the time for reprimand or acceptance? The fact that your child successfully regained control of his emotions is in itself an aspect for celebration. The behaviors the child used in the calming down process need to be emphasized. “You are breathing and talking nicely” and “you calmed yourself down” are some examples parents can begin with. Helping the child find an emotional solution is the real added value in the journey of emotional growth.


It Takes One to Be One


The next step is building up your child’s emotional awareness and bank for coping mechanisms. I recommend involving the child in planning a failsafe method of calming down. If a child must endure a 2-hour visit to a distant relative’s house (not a favorite place), give them a heads-up. Sit with them ahead of time and lay down the expectations. They can decide on how to spend the time there, calmly and happily, by taking a toy, choosing how to spend time there and the spaces that they may use. Let him/her feel responsible for their own behavior. Most importantly, go over the factors that might trigger a tantrum and check the list of warning signs so the child can self-monitor their own emotional state. Giving your child a sense of autonomy and control over small details in their activities can be momentous to their ability to stay in control. 


However, in order to stay in control, children first have to learn how to be in control. And guess who children learn that from: 


Parents and children are in the same emotional container. 


Parents need to cope with their own emotions and remain in control to validate the child’s emotions and help them remain in control. Children do as children see. If you portray tantrums when things don’t go your way, your child will do the same. If you try to force your child into calming down by ruling over him with your screams, he will learn to do the same to you. Instead, I recommend that you model emotional control in moments of distress. When a child sees their mother or father taking deep breaths when stressed, expressing their emotions constructively when annoyed, frustrated, or starting to get angry, or excusing themselves to their room when upset for some quiet time, he/she is indirectly gaining coping methods to help build their own repertoire to use in moments of distress. There is no one right way, each person chooses his coping techniques.


Parents, we see your struggles, we hear the shrill screams, and we feel your pain. But do you feel your children’s frustration? Adopt some of these tips with your child and let us know how it works out for you; when things go south, only you can get the compass and turn them right back around! 

Rola Annan is a board certified behavior analyst with an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction - Applied Behavioral Analysis from Arizona State University. Rola is a Mindfulness Trainer for youth and adults. She is also certified in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. One of her areas of focus is Parental Coaching.