Tantrums are an emotionally charged reaction that can send shockwaves through a room. Young children, usually up to age 6 years old, have tantrums for a variety of reasons. They may be frustrated and overwhelmed. They may be unable to successfully communicate a need or solve a problem. They are sad and angry at the same time and feel out of control. Young children are egocentric. They want what they want when they want it and cannot begin to relate to why they cannot have it. They cannot see an adult point of view. Empathy, higher reasoning skills and coping mechanisms are often out of their realm of development.
Children’s tantrums can be equally frustrating for adults. We have all seen and/or experienced the discomfort of a public tantrum. The emotional outburst itself is not a reflection of poor parenting skills; yet, people tend to judge families based upon one behavior that actually is considered typical for young children. One tantrum at home can change the timing and complexion of an entire day. Dealing with young children’s emotions as simply and productively as possible is a skill that adults can develop. It takes thought, time and patience to help children deal with the emotional storm.
Once a tantrum begins, it is very difficult to stop it. Young children cannot process information when their emotions have taken so much control over their bodies. Not only are tantrums emotional but they are also physical. Just like when an adult feels a great deal of stress, a child’s heartbeat will increase and adrenaline will be released. The majority of adults have developed coping mechanisms to deal with both emotional and physical changes but young children have not. If your child tends to have strong emotional reactions, watch for the signs that a tantrum may be on the way. There is a small window of time when they begin to feel stressed but before the physicality takes over. In my experience as both an early childhood professional and a parent, that window is the time to facilitate coping skills. Catch the beginning of the emotions and encourage the child to take deep breaths. The deep breathing and increase in oxygen will lower the heart rate and send signals to the brain that no further physical reactions are necessary. When helping your child to breath deeply, encourage eye contact. Speak calmly and acknowledge the frustration. We can give children the words to express how they feel. Say “I know you are frustrated/sad/angry” to teach them the emotional vocabulary that they lack.
It is essential that parents/caregivers to not get trapped in the tantrum with their children. Reacting emotionally will exacerbate the emotions of the child. Tantrums end faster when the adults remain calm. If you miss the opportunity to avoid the peak of anger, unfortunately, the child must go through it. Their bodies have taken over and they cannot process what you may say or do. Contrary to what you may see on well-meaning television shows, talking to a screaming child or isolating them in time out does not solve the problem because it does not stop the body’s physical reaction to stress. Rather than send an out of control child from the room, it is safer to stay nearby. If need be, you will be close enough to step in and prevent possible injury. Children in the full thrust of a tantrum cannot reasonably decide that flinging themselves or other objects may be dangerous. In fact, they should know that you are nearby and that they haven’t been left alone while out of control. Being so out of control is frightening for young children. There are psychological studies that have shown that time out seems to work because the isolated child has become so terrified that the body actually swings in the other direction. This extreme reaction to terror is not teaching your child how to cope. Stay nearby, calmly say their names and tell them that they will be okay. They really don’t know that.
Just as emotions and physicality have a build-up and peak, they also have an ending period. It theorized that the peak of a tantrum occurs when anger exceeds sadness. At some point, the sadness overtakes the anger and we see what appears to be calming. I have seen children go through an entire tantrum of screaming and body movements without tears – until they start to calm down. The sobbing often begins when the sadness takes over. When you emotionally step back and observe this pattern, it is even sad to watch. It is, however, the deep breathing during heavy sobbing that slowly returns the heart rate and other bodily reactions to normal. It is only after the children regain control that they can process what you might want to teach them.
After they are completely calm, you can revisit the original problem – the source of their emotional reaction. As with all behavioral situations, consider this a chance for instruction rather than punishment. Teach them what to do to solve the situation so they don’t have to feel so stressed next time. Give them the words to help express what they were feeling so both of you can use them in the future. Above all else, always remember who the adult is in the room. You have years of practice in controlling your reactions and emotions. There is no better time to use that skill than when your child needs you.
Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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