Halloween is next week, so in the spirit of the holiday, let’s talk about one of the spookier sides of parenting: tantrums. On my most recent, weekly, trip to Target, I witnessed a probably-three-year-old-boy have a massive meltdown.
Why did he meltdown, you ask? Because his mother wouldn’t let him pour the finger paint they had just selected all over the floor of the diaper aisle, of course. With a smile on my face, I was silently giggling to myself when I realized there was another woman walking by, on the main aisle, glaring with annoyance at the same scene that I found almost endearing.
I immediately empathized with the mother of the tantruming-toddler (yes, i just made that into a verb), because although I haven’t experienced a full blown tantrum from my 10-month-old daughter, I’ve surely been subjected to those sharp glances or not-so-conspicuous eye rolls when she has been behaving in a less-than-ideal way in public.
My mind went straight to making assumptions about the judging woman (yes, I see the irony in that). Maybe she wasn’t a mother, or perhaps her kids were grown and she didn’t remember the times she had been in the other woman’s shoes. Maybe she just dislikes tiny humans! Or maybe – plot twist! – she was glaring at the mother because she thought she should allow her son to play with the paint on the floor (doubtful).
Regardless of the reason(s) why she decided to stare down the struggling mother in the diaper aisle, it got me thinking…what in the world will I do when my daughter, inevitably, plays out that same act in public? And what would I do if I saw someone shooting me some side-eye when I was already feeling anxious or stressed because of the tantrum I was trying to manage?
When my daughter was crying on the airplane during my solo trip with her to Nashville, I made a conscious effort not to make eye contact with anyone, even though their stares were tangible. I knew that if I looked up, I might end up locking eyes with someone and making a snarky remark. I’m not usually a combative person, but when it comes to my daughter, or dealing with inopportune behavior, I tend to get defensive and, as my husband likes to call it, “sassy.”
Knowing that is definitely not the “right” way to handle certain situations, I wanted to learn more about how to deal with these types of events, whether they be out in public, or even in the comfort of my own home. Are tantrums inevitable? When should I expect them? And how the heck do I respond to them or flat out avoid them altogether? Luckily, The New Mom School is jam-packed with subject matter experts, one of whom is Hayley Goldberg of Heart of Connecting. She is a licensed family therapist, certified parent educator, parenting coach, and early childhood mental health consultant. Needless to say – she knows her stuff about kids, tantrums, and how to manage them.
I sent her a few questions to help shine some light on the “T” word.
Q: At what age do true tantrums begin?
A: The average age is 18 months to 2 years, however there are kids that are ahead of the game and can start as early as 12 months, and there are kids who are later to the party and may get through the 2’s easy going but begin with tantrums when they are 3. So it can be anywhere between 1 and 3 where kids start with tantrums and that entire range is considered normal for development.
Q: Are there “early interventions” parents can employ to help avoid or reduce tantrums?
A: Emotional behaviors are exhausting. When I talk to parents I always talk about 3 areas of parenting: ENCOURAGE the behaviors we do want; PREVENT behaviors we don’t want; and MANAGE behavior when it comes up.
Parents need tools in all three areas. I talk to parents about spending 70% of their time encouraging and preventing behavior, if possible, and only about 30% of their time should be spent managing behavior. Parenting is exhausting if we are only focused on dealing with or managing behavior when it comes up and doing nothing to encourage and prevent it.
Connection, curiosity, choices and fantasy are my four go-to strategies for parents to try to prevent tantrums (or any behavior).
- Connection: this is the relationship with your child. Connect with them, validate and empathize with their big feelings. Not that you are going to give them what they want, but kids need to be heard, seen, and understood.
- Curiosity: when we try to control kids and tell them what to do or just say “NO,” that increases the upset. When we get curious with kids – Why they want that, when might be a better time, how could we compromise on that? – it helps to calm the brain and the impulsive need for something in the moment, and allows us to talk to our kids and try to collaborate on a solution.
- Choices: these help to decrease tantrums when we give kids some power/control/autonomy.
- Give the wish (the reason why they are throwing the tantrum) a Fantasy: this helps prevent the tantrum because we talk to kids about their wish being granted. We can really get fun and elaborate with the fantasy. Example: your kid wants ice cream NOW, and you said no, so a tantrum ensues (or is beginning to bubble up).
You say: “Wouldn’t it be great if ice cream was a food that helped our bodies grow up big and strong? If we could eat as much ice cream as we wanted, whenever we wanted, what flavors would you choose, how many bowls would you eat?”
Q: What are your 2-3 suggestions on how to approach tantrums, both in public and at home?
A: We need to approach tantrums calmly and confidently. You must reframe your mind as to what a tantrum is: big emotions that little kids are feeling (and at times even us adults) and don’t have the brain development and skills to manage their big emotions and control their behavior. We need to model what is “calm” for our kids at a time they can’t do it for themselves.
Kids learn to internally manage their emotions by first seeing it modeled for them externally – and that’s the hardest for parents, keeping calm themselves. We are triggered – fear, anxiety, overwhelming emotions, embarrassment, etc. come up for us when our kids have tantrums, and either we want to shut it down ASAP and will use any parenting means possible, including anger and punishment, or we are fearful of them and want to shut them down, so we give in to our kids and give them what they want. Parents need to look at the long term – each time a child has a tantrum is an opportunity to teach, guide, and coach them to develop the self-regulation skills they are lacking. Sometimes what we want in the short term (tantrum to stop) is not what we want in the long term (kids who can manage their behaviors).
I coach parents to look at what is hard for them and why it is so hard for them when their kids are having tantrums. I meet them where they are at to explore this topic with them and build skills in their own self regulation so they can stay calm. Having a mantra ready to use in the moment really helps, and then building their confidence around the what and why of tantrums. When they understand them better and there is a plan for managing them, parents feel calmer and do better. I also tell parents to get comfortable with managing and responding to tantrums at home because being out in public is harder since there is often judgement involved – but we still need to manage them!
My first takeaway from this mini-interview is: I’m already doing too much “managing.” Even with my nearly 11-month-old, I find myself saying “no,” or pulling her off of things or away from things frequently. Do I think it’s avoidable? Absolutely not. Hayley even mentions that about 30% of the time should be spent managing. But I know I can do better. I can baby-proof my house more effectively – PREVENT – and I can be even more enthusiastic when my daughter does something I like, especially if it’s an “opposite” of something I don’t want her doing – ENCOURAGE – (like when she nicely pets our cat vs. aggressively pulling his tail).
Another point she made that resonated with me is that we need to model what is “calm.” It got me thinking back on that mother in the diaper aisle, and even though her toddler was losing his mind, she remained calm (on the outside, at the very least). I don’t recall hearing her threaten him, grab his arm, or even seem flustered. What I remember is a mother who kept herself together while her child was falling apart. I have no idea what she ended up saying to get him to stop his tantrum, but I do remember his screaming subsiding as I rounded the corner to give them some privacy and see what kind of damage I could do in the children’s clothing section.
I think the biggest takeaways from Hayley’s words of wisdom are 1.) tantrums are most likely in my near to immediate future; and 2.) they’re not just a reflection of a spoiled kid, a child who is acting up to get attention, or one who is just plain misbehaving. At the end of the day, they are tiny humans who are still very much developing and do not have the rational minds that we do, as adults. I like to think of myself as a fairly empathetic person. If someone is struggling or feeling a type of way about a situation, I always try and put myself in their shoes and understand where they’re coming from – even if I haven’t experienced anything remotely close to what they may be going through. So why should that be different for my own child?
A book I am reading, called “The Whole-Brain Child,” separates tantrums into two categories: upstairs tantrums and downstairs tantrums. To keep the explanation relatively short, they break the brain into an “upstairs,” where the prefrontal cortex is and things like decision making, control over emotions, empathy, and self-awareness come from, and a “downstairs,” where the amygdala lives and basic functions like breathing, fear, and blinking reside. They categorize upstairs tantrums as a time when a child decides to throw a fit. The way they describe this makes me think that is what the little boy in Target was doing. He wanted his finger paint on the floor and he wanted it there NOW. Perhaps he was choosing to tantrum in order to test boundaries with his mother. Isn’t that what kids do, well into their early twenties? Test our patience and boundaries to see exactly how far they can go before we “give in” to their wants or simply give up? The downstairs tantrum, however, is when a child gets so upset, that they are unable to use their upstairs brain. This is when you see thrashing, scratching, and hitting. Your child, in this moment, is physically incapable of controlling himself. While the tactic of “do not negotiate with terrorists” may work with an upstairs tantrum, downstairs tantrums require a much different approach. A calm voice, demeanor, and loving touch usually help get the child back to earth. And if that doesn’t work, a firm bear hug while physically removing them from the situation should do the trick. Once the child starts to come down from their tantrum, the upstairs brain starts to re-engage, and you’re able to have a more logical conversation with your child as to why they got upset and how you both can avoid that situation, moving forward. The key, according to these authors and to Hayley, is that your child feels understood and heard – they have to be part of the solution.
I wish I could say I feel absolutely confident going into my daughter’s second year of life, ready for these tantrums that are lurking behind every corner. But, the reality is, I’m not ready. I’m not confident in how I’ll handle a public meltdown – because I assume hiding behind the closest person would not be something Hayley would generally approve of. And while all of her advice is sound, and the book I’m reading quite literally details out a step-by-step action plan on how to handle tantrums, I just won’t know how I’m going to handle it until I’m in the situation. So until then, I’ll
focus more on preventing and encouraging behaviors, and when the time comes, I’ll have Hayley on speed dial.
To surviving toddler-hood (and beyond), Melanie
If you want to learn more about Hayley Goldberg and the services she provides, check out her website: www.heartofconnecting.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 949-233-0609