How to deal with tantrums part 1 , 5 principles of the tantrum years

how to deal with tantrumsI am lucky enough to work with a wonderful midwife, lactation consultant and parenting guru, Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, who (amongst other things) runs courses on confident parenting. She has written, for Live Oxfordshire, this wonderful two-part guide to dealing with tantrums. In this part she discusses the general principles surrounding tantrums and how to (hopefully) avoid or deflect them. In the second part she covers how to handle a full-blown tantrum to minimise the distress to you and your child and stop them becoming a regular feature in your life. I hope you find these as helpful as I have!

Tantrums start in a child’s second year – so any time after the first birthday – and peak in the child’s third year. Three and four year olds still have tantrums and they can be less frequent but more prolonged. After that age, most children grow out of the classic tantrum but will still have times when they lose control and have “a hissy fit”!
Tantrums take different forms – screaming, crying, breath-holding, head-banging, biting, kicking and destruction (sometimes of favourite toys). All stem from the same cause: the child’s frustration at not being able to have or do something becomes overwhelming and he is not sufficiently developed enough to manage the ensuing emotional overload.
5 Principles for the age of tantrums
The mid-tantrum toddler is lost to the world, swept up as a result of an emotional blown fuse over which he has no control. It is horrible and exhausting for you and terrifying for him. You know it will end and he will be quite ok again, he has no such internal reassurance.
Even though you know that this is a developmental stage, tantrums still rattle your nerves and give you grey hairs. It does help to know that tantrums really are terrible to endure for both of you and that what your child lacks (self-control) you have to provide.
There are a number of strategies for handling tantrums. As with all other aspects of child rearing, what suits one parent will not necessarily suit another. However, whichever method you choose, the 5 principles remain the same:
  • Avoid
  • Distract
  • Handle
  • Reassure & move on
  • Praise
1. Avoid: Given that tantrums arise from frustration, it makes sense to remove as much frustration as you possibly can. Tantrums are just horrible and you may as well reduce the number you all have to live through to a minimum. Ensure your child’s room and all other “free” areas in the home are as child-friendly as possible. Ensure your child can reach and open “free” cupboards, use child steps, have child-friendly clothes and shoes, keep hair short, hide “banned” foods, and so on. The fewer times you have to back your child into a corner with “no’s” and “don’ts” the better.
2. Distract: This can work very well with the younger toddler. Just as you sense a tantrum building – remember that it will be triggered by frustration at not being able to have or do something – quickly distract in whatever way you can think of. An airplane outside, a spider on the wall, a cat needing feeding or, if you are a wee bit late, that big fat tear that’s just about to tickle her nose!
Sometimes it can help to name his feeling and kindly acknowledge it, “I can see you feel really frustrated that I’ve said no to sweets, it’s a horrid feeling and one that needs a hug and a race …” then race him to the supermarket door. It IS horrid to want something so badly and not be able to have it and sometimes we need to learn how to cheer ourselves up! Remember that he is your disciple so be a role model when you are frustrated and voice your feelings,  “Oh, I am soooo frustrated that my car’s got a flat tyre – I really wanted to go to the garden centre. Ah well, a good dig in the garden will cheer me up!”
Some children are able to find another outlet for their pent up feelings with art or music if you can grab the opportunity in time.
3. Handle: Either you are too late to distract or this tantrum is just going to be unavoidable due to one reason or another so here you go … what now?
How you handle the tantrum will depend on how you feel emotionally, what the trigger was, where you are and what you find works. The main point to remember is this:
When the tantrum has run its course, carry on as before. Neither give nor do what was demanded, nor refuse what you were going to give or do in order to punish or vent your spleen. A tantrum needs to be of no consequence in itself even though it may result in lost time and therefore the loss of anything time dependent (ie a bedtime book). There are at least 5 ways of handling a tantrum and we’ll look at that in greater detail next week.
4. Reassure & move on: It is essential that your child understands that her tantrum or emotional blowout changes nothing one way or the other. She needs to know that you expect her to learn to manage her very strong feelings in an appropriate manner and that you think no worse of her for going through this learning phase. Your calm confidence and ability to quickly get back to normal as soon as the tantrum is over are all that is needed to let your toddler know that her tantrum is not all-powerful and can’t destroy either of you. It can be really difficult not to simmer for ages afterwards and return for a fresh nag or dig – we are, after all, only human, but we want to show our children how to manage those unsavoury feelings. Share the feelings with your partner or a friend.
If your child is older and has had a major blowout during which he called you names, then you are into disciplining territory and rule setting so you may feel it appropriate to keep a distance before re-connecting. Then it will be sensible to insist that you sit down and restate the rules and more appropriate ways of dealing with anger. But don’t then keep bringing up the subject. Hugs and “I love you”s are really needed after a fall-out. Just don’t then fall into apologizing or allowing your child to get the impression that YOU were the one behaving unreasonably! Moving on means not reminding your child about yesterday’s tantrum, even in a good way, “You haven’t thrown as many tantrums today as yesterday! Crikey, you were a cross-puss yesterday!” She doesn’t need reminding of yesterday’s issues.
Remember that children have acute hearing so don’t go talking about your child at all within his earshot. You know how horrid it is to catch someone talking about you! Don’t regale your partner with a run-down of today’s tantrums and misdemeanours over supper with her there either – you have dealt with it so there is nothing to be said (at least, not until she is asleep!) Shame is a really uncomfortable feeling and there is no place for it here.
5. Praise: As with all aspects of child rearing, use praise (well-timed, specific and appropriate) to your advantage. The very second a tantrum has passed, look for an opportunity to praise. Ignore the tantrum, so try not to say, “Well done, you handled that tantrum well!” although it might be nice to say something like, “That’s better, big hug and then let’s go and hang the washing out.” Just be extra vigilant and take the first chance to give praise. This is just as important with an older child. All of us love praise, even for the smallest things, but try not to qualify it, ie -“That was a lovely cup of tea, thank-you. Such a shame we had to have the nonsense before it!”
Lastly:  None of these ideas and strategies will “cure” your child of having tantrums. They are developmental and pass with time. All you are trying to do is to handle them in a way that keeps you both safe, preserves dignity all round, keeps them to a minimum, keeps each one as short as possible and most of all, does not create a situation where tantrums are kept in your child’s strategy box as an ongoing weapon of mass destruction!

Next week we will look at the 5 techniques for handling a tantrum.

Rachel Fitz-Desorgher offers “Confident Parenting” courses comprising six
2½ hour workshops designed to equip parents with tried and trusted strategies that leave both children and parents feeling empowered and capable. For more information, or to contact Rachel, you can visit her website – Rachel Fitz-D


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