Sheila Jennings of Seattle has seen this perfect storm develop before. Her 3-year-old daughter, Repah, wants the swing that her cousin Isaac is using. Repah tightly crosses her arms, drops her head and glares upward with beautiful but very dark eyes. That is the calm. The tantrum comes next.
Learning how to handle these episodes with a young child is critical for parents. “I think of tantrums as an opportunity to gain control,” says Karen Joslin, M.A., a behavioral and educational expert and author of parenting books, including Positive Parenting From A-Z. She adds that control is something your child will only crave more of as they get older.
Even the most patient parents can come unglued when dealing with tantrums. From her 32 years as a parent educator with Overlake Hospital and Pediatric Associates in Bellevue, Joslin has gleaned some tips for coping with a tantrum in the heat of the moment:
Easier said than done, as Joslin herself knows. She’s also the mother of three children and has four grandchildren under the age of 4. She says adults must do all they can not to overreact during a tantrum. “If a parent gets mad, then they are meeting the child as a 3- to 5-year-old, not as a parent.”
By staying composed, an adult who is willing to squat down, make eye contact and listen will better validate the child’s raw emotion than an adult who yells back during a tantrum. “Reflect what they are feeling,” says Joslin. If the child will let you hug and console them, by all means comfort them.
However, that does not mean trying to fix all problems. An explosion over not getting Fruit Loops should not be tamed by letting the child get their way. “Don’t talk or coax,” says Joslin. In this case, just acknowledge the child’s anger during the tantrum and, later on, work on preventing this kind of outburst.
If the tantrum happens at home, and the child can be safely confined, a parent may do well to go to another room, look out the window and take a few deep breaths. Try to return to the child in a more resilient frame of mind.
As T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., writes in his book Touchpoints, “Provocative behavior is the child’s way to test herself and her own limits.” Know that, and re-enter the situation only when you are ready.
Brazelton writes that it’s better that a child throw tantrums than be too compliant, which can create other problems later in life. Here are some ways you can help your child feel more in control:
Control of their time
In our highly planned lives, many children do not learn how to manage unstructured time. “Kids need time,” Joslin advises. “If you give a child the time to feel successful, choose his clothes, be in charge of himself, they won’t act up.”
This is a good age to introduce chore charts, available at learning stores or easy to make at home. Take pictures of kids doing their morning routines. Allow them to do those things on their own and the morning rush gets less confrontational.
Control of their play
Giving children time with simple toys, with no screens or batteries, allows children to use their imaginations. And while parents should not hover, offering to sit down and share this down time with your child can be a pleasure for you both.
Control of their meals
Sometimes, the biggest battles break out over food. Instead of always telling a child what to eat, involve them in the process. Allow them to browse for the family’s fruits and veggies. Let them make breakfast by toasting frozen waffles. Give them a dull knife and let them help cut the food for dinner. A child who is involved in the creation of the meal is often a child who is excited to eat.
When it comes to taming tantrums, success feels good. Just ask Olivia Hawkins of Seattle. For months, the bathtub was a tantrum battleground for her 4-year-old daughter, Lily, who did not like getting water in her ears. After changing tactics, not offering rewards and instead letting her pick her own shampoo, they finally had a perfectly enjoyable bath time. “This time it finally worked,” says Hawkins with a smile.
Hilary Benson is a freelance writer in the Seattle area and mother of three boys, whose worst tantrums happen in the cereal aisle.