I used to think that a smart parent could predict and avoid situations that would provoke a tantrum. I used to try to cut off wild play before the inevitable moment that one of the participants would get overexcited and start to scream or cry. I still think a parent can be smart about understanding the triggers that get our kids wound up, but you can also be smart about riding those wild emotions when they come out.
Silly or hysterical laughing, playing until you cry and raging in frustration are natural strategies for discharging stored up emotions. Why is this important? It prevents big hurts and fears from piling up inside and hijacking the child’s emotional life, secretly directing their behaviour for the short and even long term.
Have you ever cried at a TV commercial? You might not be conscious of the deep issue that makes you cry, but you are probably aware that the commercial is just a trigger and your body takes the opportunity to offload some feelings you are carrying around from another time in your life. When your child reacts with rage to something like not getting to hold the TV remote or to having their toast cut the wrong way, you can be 100% sure that a natural healing process is underway. That process is using the present situation to access some older hurt that needs to be cried away in cleansing tears.
Here’s a suggestion for managing any kind of tantrum:
Stay as close as you safely can, speak in a warm, calm tone of voice and gently keep them from hurting themselves or anyone else. Say “It’s OK to be angry, but I can’t let you hurt me.” Hold a thrashing hand or foot if necessary. Slide a pillow under a head that might knock against the floor. Try any of these phrases that feel right or suit the situation. You will come up with your own over time:
“I know. I can see how upset you are.”
“I’ll stay right here with you and I won’t let you hurt the baby.”
“You really want that thing. I know, you want it very badly.”
“You wish it wasn’t time to stop doing that now. You wish you could keep on doing that as much as you want, even all day!”
“I know, I see you. You really want to be first again.”
“You wish I didn’t have to help your sister now. I know. I see you. It’s OK to cry when you are sad.”
Here’s a new twist to the good old ‘time out’: If you need to remove the child to another room or to a corner, go along and stay nearby. Just hold a space for all the crying or yelling. Frustration of desires is an important trigger for therapeutic crying but it only works if the child can sense your love and acceptance while she is showing the most unlovable parts of herself. If someone is watching (holding you in their gaze, with a loving attitude – sort of like you do when you watch how they slide at the park), the crying has value and does its job to clear away a pile of old hurts.
When your child is calming down (and the first few times this can take a pretty long time, like any good tantrum), that will be the right moment to bring him or her into your arms for a few moments of real closeness and connection. Afterwards, you will notice a new maturity, more willingness to try new things and to cooperate. I’ll bet that’s more than you ever got from a time out alone in their room.
Dealing with tantrums is a skill like any other and it will grow as you practice. Let me know if you would like more help applying this technique, or to talk about homeopathic remedies to reduce the frequency or intensity of your child’s emotional outbursts.