Taming Tantrums through Connection
Many parents think of tantrums as misbehavior. The view is that the child is pitching a fit to get their own way or seeking to avoid something asked of them.
What if we switched our mindset from misbehavior, to the child is signaling?
If we change our mindset, then we also change our approach to address the tantrum. With misbehavior, our approach may include consequences, punishment or time out. If however, we believe our child to be signaling something, then our mindset shifts to figuring out the meaning of the signal.
Remember when your child was an infant and cried? You accepted that signal and figured out if it was a poopy diaper, hunger or the need for stimulation. Once you connected, understood and met the need underneath the signal, the child settled. Now that the child is older and pitching a tantrum, we need to connect and figure out the meaning of the signal again.
Tantrums in children often signal fatigue, hunger or feeling thwarted – a sense of frustration. Those feelings or conditions make managing life remarkably challenging for the child. Hence, we need to receive the behavior as a signal and figure out its meaning. Rather than cajoling the child to listen or settle down consider saying any of the following in a gentle and calm voice:
- I see it is difficult managing right now. I wonder if you need a drink of juice? Would you like a drink and then we can talk about [whatever the issue was]? I know I’m thirsty.
- I am feeling tired right now and it makes it harder for me to sort things out. Would you take a quick rest with me, so we can talk about [issue] when we can think better?
- It can feel so frustrating when we have to do one thing when we want something else. Are you feeling something like that too? What is it you would like to be doing?
As we work towards figuring out the signal, we are connecting with the child. This creates a sense of emotional safety for the child and allow for a mutual exchange to determine the meaning of the signal.
Once connected and understanding the meaning of the signal, we are in a better position to meet the needs of the child and resolve the tantrum. Resolving the tantrum is about accepting the signal and connecting to understand it.
Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW is a Canadian Social Worker in private practice. He is recognized from his 65 episodes of the hit show Newlywed/Nearly Dead, to over 500 columns as the parenting expert of a major metropolitan newspaper, to more than 350 media appearances, to his book, Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the US and helps family peacemakers grow their practice.