Just when you thought it was safe to get out of the water — BAM! — another tantrum hits.
Just when you thought your child had outgrown them — BOOM! — she flips out at the park.
Just when you thought you knew how to deal with them — YIKES! — you find yourself at a loss about what to do.
Even on one of your best days, tantrums can be hard to handle. Whether your child is 2, 4, or even 12, it’s hard to know what to do or what to say that will de-escalate such episodes.
Because not much will, or necessarily should. There may be value to your child getting it all out, whether it’s a preschooler’s pent-up anger about sharing or a school-age child’s frustration about a project.
Fortunately, there are ways to communicate that may help both parent and child survive intact. Here are some ideas to consider:
Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Imagine yourself unfiltered. Imagine yourself really mad because you didn’t get your way. Then imagine no one is listening to you. Your child feels this way when he has a tantrum, amplified and without controls.
Remember, you’re the adult here. Understanding why your child has a tantrum doesn’t mean giving up parental authority, but it may help you understand what’s going on with him and what to do about it.
Accept the feelings. Telling a child “You don’t mean that” or “That’s not nice” might only make him madder, because you are denying his feelings. It may help, particularly with a younger child, to repeat the feeling back without judgment, saying, “You think it’s not fair that Suzy got a turn on the swing.”
Slow things down by listening. If your child feels “heard,” this may keep a tantrum from turning into a terrible fight. Instead of reacting quickly, try kneeling down to your child’s eye level and saying, “I’m really listening. Can you explain again what’s going on?”
Try not to take it personally. If your child says, “I hate you,” it’s hard not to wind up in a shouting match. A little levity, without making fun of your child, might go a long way. “I know, I’m horrible!” might do it, or simply “Ouch.”
Let the tantrum occur as long as no one is being hurt. If your child is in a rage, make sure he’s not hurting himself or others. Comfort him physically if he’ll accept it. You might need to move to another, more appropriate location (another room, the car, the street). Staying nearby and connected will provide reassurance to your child.
Give yourself a timeout. If you know your child is safe, you might want to leave the room, take a breath and cool off. When you return, some simple words like “OK, I’m here now” may reassure your child that you are close.
Try not to make empty threats. Countering your child’s explosion with an extreme punishment may only heighten the conflict. It’s likely that your child is not in a logical state if mind, so she could start to resist the punishment with full force, which may only increase the conflict or transform it into an argument about the punishment. If the situation warrants, a realistic consequence that fits the behavior may have more impact.
Wait it out. You don’t necessarily need to fix this immediately, and it may not help your child if you do. And talking about the feeling in the moment may not be possible because your child is not being rational.
Talk about it later. When you’ve both cooled down, give your child a chance to recover — with an “out.” He may be embarrassed. You could say, “I’m sorry that was so upsetting. Now let’s try and figure out what’s going on.”
Consider getting professional help. The advice in this column is geared for kids with a normal range of outbursts and explosions, which are considered part of the growing process. But it’s not geared for kids whose behavior is consistently or dangerously out of control. If that’s the case, or you are experiencing a pattern of behavior you are having trouble dealing with, consult a therapist or counselor.
Josh Daniel is a parenting writer and editor, educator, husband, and father of two girls. He has created award-winning parenting materials for Sesame Workshop, PBS Parents, and Nick Jr., and runs his own company (www.contentinventions.com).