On Dealing with Tantrums
This blog has been silent for several weeks. There are times when I feel that the Lord wants me to stop writing—even though I can write, I know the form, I have the blog—but He wants to work on the content; He wants to use often the struggles of life to sharpen my message and to give me something to, eventually, say from an experience I have had. In the weeks when my children are particularly needy, or the schedule is extra crazy, or maybe I am just hurting too much over something to even think of words to write about it—those are the weeks when I feel the Lord is creating content in my life that may eventually come out in words.
All in all, this isn’t really the season of my life to focus on writing. A husband, two young children, and a home have my schedule pretty much maxed out, and the little quiet work time there is I usually spend in my part-time teaching job. But I have this little blog for an occasional post because I want to, and I think it’s good for me, and maybe eventually I will have more to say and more time to say it in?
I don’t technically have any time to write now since I should be grading compare/contrast essays or working on tonight’s pot roast, but I’ve been thinking today about dealing with tantrums. So by God’s grace I’m going to try to write the blog post I wish I had read a few months ago.
Our son (almost 4) has recently come out the other side of several weeks of tantruming almost daily. My spell check is telling me that tantruming is not a word, but it certainly has been in my life lately. This has been a hard season. I’m a non-confrontational person who likes to avoid conflict and make everybody happy, and to have someone screaming and throwing things at me was horrible. Having it be my own child didn’t make it any easier—in some ways almost worse, since I felt that the tantrums wouldn’t be happening if only I were a better mom.
It took me awhile to realize that one of the reasons the Lord was allowing these tantrums was for discipline—and I’m not talking about our disciplining our son, but about the Lord disciplining us. I needed to get over some parenting pride. I needed to cry out to the Lord in daily dependence. I needed to pray for my son’s heart. I needed to humble myself to ask for counsel and to get the help I needed. Even in moments that were so bad I was physically trembling and felt like throwing up, I needed to learn to stay calm, to realize it wasn’t about me, and to focus on loving and helping my son.
My natural response to tantrums is to tantrum myself (on the inside) because I’m no longer in control of a situation and things aren’t going my way. Watching my son’s behavior was like looking in a mirror. The Lord had a lot of discipline for me in this season, but isn’t that a lot of what parenting is about, growing up ourselves?
Here’s a little of what I learned, that I wish I knew going into this:
What to do in the middle of a tantrum
When I use the word tantrum, I’m thinking screaming, flailing, a child exhibiting out-of-control behavior. When something like this happens, it is not a teachable moment. Do not attempt to train your child, to reason with them, or to explain to them why their behavior is wrong. Do not physically punish your child, since they are not in a state where they can learn anyway, and it will only escalate their anger and probably yours as well. What you want to focus on is de-escalation, getting the anger level down and getting back to control and calm before you can do any training.
There are three things I found, and that others told me, that may help in the middle of a tantrum. Of course, nothing is a quick fix. 1) Let the child be alone to hopefully calm down—basically taking a break, or a time out, until they gain control of themselves. This never worked for our son, since I eventually realized that his tantrum was really a cry for help, and he wanted us there to work through it with him. Other moms I respect, however, have said that being alone really helped their children. Sometimes this is the only thing you can do, either if you are angry and you need to withdraw and calm down yourself before you can deal with it, or if other children or another situation needs your attention.
2) Hold and quiet the child. Especially for a very young child, being physically held so that they cannot flail can give a sense of security and peace, especially if meanwhile you are soothing them and reminding them that you love them.
3) Distract the child. This approach worked best for our son. I remember one time when he was screaming, almost on a whim I pulled Owl at Home off the shelf and asked, “Which story would you like me to read?” Instantly he quieted and said in a normal voice, “Strange Bumps.” I sat beside him and read the entire story as he remained calm. Stories really connect with our son, for whatever reason. Eventually my standard response to a tantrum would be to remove him to a quiet place, hold him, and say, “Once upon a time …”
Of course once the tantrum is happening, it can almost seem too late. The best thing to do is to prevent, if at all possible, by finding and removing the causes. We never did figure out for sure what was causing our son’s tantrums, and why for a few weeks it was a daily occurrence. I don’t have a solid reason for why it started, and why it stopped. Our best hunch is that it was a developmental frustration of our son’s verbal skills and intelligence being way beyond his physical ability.
We did do a fair amount of brainstorming by ourselves and with friends. A few possible causes of tantrums can include:
Stress—have you recently moved, attended a new church, started a new preschool or class or sport, had a new baby? Are you particularly busy right now? Is your child exposed to conflict or too much noise or activity? If possible, maybe you need to slow down and spend more positive time with your child making sure they feel secure and loved.
Sleep—is your child getting enough bedtime and naptime sleep on a predictable schedule?
Diet—could you child be acting out because of an unhealthy diet (especially too much sugar or artificial ingredients)? Is your child hungry or thirsty at the time of the tantrum (for instance, does it always happen before lunch)? Could there be a food allergy involved?
Of course there may be other causes. Health issues? I think the eczema on our son’s leg may have been a factor. Bad influences from other children, television, or books?
Can you identify the signs that your child may be entering “tantrum mode” and can you stop it before it starts? I remember Ann Voskamp writing something to the effect of, when you feel like pulling away from a child is when you most need to draw near. For our son, this means sitting together to have storytime or work on a preschool project—in other words, stopping my own work to invest in him.
What to do after a tantrum
When the tantrum is over and your child is calm, this is when the training takes place, because of course training needs to happen. It’s not acceptable for a child to scream and become violent in anger. Find a teachable moment to talk about what happened. Role playing and practicing situations can be helpful. “What are you going to do the next time you’re coloring and you draw outside the lines and you feel yourself getting angry?”
Anger is a heart issue that your child needs help to work through and learn how to respond to. Simply punishing a child for being angry can make the problem worse—fear of punishment can force the anger underground. In a way, a tantrum can be helpful (even though it doesn’t feel that way at the time!), because it means the anger is out there and can be dealt with and worked through. Quiet anger that consumes the heart of a child and eventually finds destructive outlets is far worse.
I really appreciated this article on helping children deal with anger, and we bought and listened to the audio. During one teachable moment, I sat down with our son and helped him write what we called his “anger chart.” On the top I wrote, “Am I Angry?” and we drew together a Mr. Angry with an angry face. Beneath the question, we colored a stop sign, meaning the first thing you do when you’re angry is STOP. Beneath the stop sign we wrote three options: 1) talk, 2) get help, and 3) slow down and be patient.
I think this chart was a major turning point in our son’s stopping his tantrums. Of course it’s not magical, but it does help to pull out the chart and say, “I think you’re getting angry. Why don’t you stop and choose an option? Okay, get help. You need help building this lego car? I’d be happy to help you. Can you ask nicely?”
I remember going to the park a few years ago and seeing another mom attempting to leave with a screaming child. “That is so horrible,” I thought. “That will never happen to me!” Of course I’ve had plenty of opportunity to eat my words. I am a far cry from being a perfect parent, and even if I were, there is no magical formula that guarantees my child will not go through a season of anger.
Believe me that when my son has tantrumed, I’ve been tempted to pour all kinds of condemnation on myself that I must be doing something very wrong, if I could only find out what. Of course, blaming myself put me in no condition to actually help my son; it only fed my irritation with him for making me look and feel bad.
Finally I realized I needed to stop condemning myself and start praying—for myself, and for my son. Anger is a heart issue and the Lord is the only one who can fix it. If a tantrum is the Lord’s opportunity for me to learn to truly love and help my child, that’s a good thing. If a tantrum is what the Lord is going to use to show my child his need for salvation, that’s a good thing.
If you see a child tantruming, don’t judge. The mental energy you would spend criticizing, spend praying for them. The moment a child is tantruming is terribly hard for that parent. If it’s the child of a friend, encourage her. She’s may be mentally rehearsing what a failure she is at parenting, so give her some encouragement. Maybe help out with her other children so she can deal with the one who is angry.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. That’s what I wish I had known a few months ago. Today I am grateful that for the moment, tantrums in our family have basically stopped. I think our son may have learned a little about what to do when he’s angry. I know I have learned a lot.