You’ve tried everything. You’ve pleaded, you’ve yelled, you’ve given in, you’ve lectured. But your child seems to constantly fall into “tantrum mode”—kicking, screaming, the works! As a parent, how can you prevent your kid’s tantrums? And why on earth do toddlers and preschoolers constantly have them? Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham spends her life talking to parents about issues like this one through her website, AhaParenting.com. Markham defines tantrums as times when emotions overwhelm reason.
Surprisingly, she says that these outbursts happen throughout life, although they're most common with young children. “Mothers have tantrums with children when they get pushed over the edge, people have tantrums with their spouses, workers even have tantrums with their colleagues,” she says.
The difference is that when adults get overwhelmed by emotion, the frontal cortex steps in and reminds us to avoid the fight or flight response, as long as the situation isn’t really an emergency. In a young child, however, the frontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet; in fact, it won’t be fully developed until at least age 25. This is normal—although frustrating when your little one decides to have a meltdown in the checkout lane of the supermarket!
Once your child begins a tantrum, there’s not much you can do to stop him. What you can do is work on preventing the tantrums in the first place by helping your child regulate his emotions.
Before you can expect your child to self-regulate, you’ll have to keep your own emotions in check. When a stressful situation arises, take a deep breath and count to ten silently to give yourself time to manage your emotions. By remaining calm, you're subconsciously communicating to your child that the situation isn't an emergency, and doesn't warrant a big reaction. Sometimes, your negative response to a situation can actually trigger your kid’s fight or flight reaction, which sends him into a tantrum.
Meet Basic Needs
Is your child hungry? Thirsty? Did he miss a nap or get a short night’s sleep? Has he had enough downtime and enough “do it myself” time carved into your hectic schedule? “When children’s basic needs are met, they will have more inner resources to draw on, and they will be more able to handle emotions,” explains Markham. You can often prevent tantrums with a little bit of foresight.
Develop Your Child’s Frontal Cortex
Although different children develop at different rates—with some four-year-olds still throwing full-fledged fits and others who have grown out of tantrums—you can help to speed things along. Here are some ways you can help develop your child’s frontal cortex:
- Show Empathy. “When we give our child empathy,” says Markham, “he feels understood, and doesn’t feel so alone with those big emotions. Empathy gets some soothing chemicals started, which prevents the child from entering a panic state and tantrumming.”
- Plan Physical Emoting Times. Help your child to express his emotions non-verbally. When you tell him to “stop crying” or “be quiet already,” your little one may listen at first by stifling his feelings. At some point, however, the feelings will explode out of him. Instead, focus on letting your child release his emotions physically on a regular basis, not just in the middle of a tantrum. Joke around with your kid so that he can giggle—laughter is a great way for him to release emotional stress (as long as he's not forced, as with tickling). Roughhouse with him, wrestle, throw him up in the air, and let him jump and run around as much as possible.
- Don't Fear the Tears. Sometimes kids just need to cry—another form of physical emoting. Differentiate between actual tantrums and simple tears. For example, if your child's sobbing because a friend can't come over to play, or because you forbid him from having another cookie, that's not a tantrum. It is just a physical reaction to the strong emotion of disappointment, and it's actually quite healthy. Hold your little one while he cries, then offer him a drink of water or a wet washcloth to cool his face. Remember, this is a normal processing of emotion, and it gives you a chance to show your child that you're truly listening. “Children can manage their feelings when we accept them,” explains Markham. “The more we accept their feelings, the less intensely they feel them, because we are building up their frontal cortex. We're teaching them to think, ‘This is just anger, this is just fear, I can handle this.’”
- Give Him Labels. Give your child the vocabulary he needs to express his emotions. “The frontal cortex is verbal,” Markham explains. “When kids use words to describe emotions, their frontal cortex grows and builds the strength that they will need for emotional regulation.” Help your little one label his feelings, even if he can’t use words once he's in fight or flight mode. You can also use social stories, such as “You are worried about the field trip…but you were worried last time, too, and you ended up loving the museum,” to help them deal with fears or other emotions. Just putting his feelings into words can help to fend off a tantrum before it starts.
While it can feel impossible to calm your child down once he's slipped into meltdown mode, you can prevent future tantrums with the tips outlined above. By tempering your own negative reactions and helping your little one work through his emotions, you'll give him the tools he needs to control his temper and react appropriately to any situation.