If you search “tantrums” you’ll find an endless supply of information about what they are and how to handle them. My favorite definition is from Stanford Children’s Health (stanfordchildrens.org), “Temper tantrums are a way a young child lets out strong emotions before he or she is able to express them in socially acceptable ways. A child may seem totally out of control, but these fits of rage, stomping, screaming, and throwing himself or herself to the floor are a normal part of childhood development.”
Tantrums are often an undeveloped form of emotion expression and somehow none of the advice I have found on how to handle tantrums addresses how to teach emotion processing skills. When our children present us with a tantrum they are offering us a window into their development. Emotional development is a great place to start no matter what the age of your child. Thinking about what preceded the tantrum may give you a clue as to what they might be feeling. Are they angry because you said screen time was over? Or disappointed because they could only have one cookie? Or jealous because you’re paying attention to their sibling and asked them to wait?
If you have a guess about the feeling they might be having (even if a boundary you set was the trigger for that feeling) then offer it up! Refrain from sharing your opinion about whether or not this feeling or this volume is appropriate to the situation. Feelings are normal and teaching the names that you would use to express them gives your child a tool to communicate better with you next time. Also, a little validation goes a long way. Whether or not you agree about the context, certainly you can agree that some feelings are uncomfortable. Validate that! You can state your observation as a question, “Are you angry because I said that screen time is over?” and then if you got it right your child will likely show some sign of recognition. Validation sounds something like, “That’s a hard feeling,” followed by a suggested coping strategy, “would you like a hug?” or “Would you like to draw that feeling with me?”
Sometimes it’s true that they just need to finish the tantrum process and nothing you can say or do will change that. In this case you can let them know you love them and that you’ll be ready whenever they are.
It will be helpful to keep in mind that tantrums:
- will likely increase during transitions (like completely altering your entire family’s daily routines all of a sudden because of a pandemic!)
- can indicate that a child is trying to figure out what your boundaries are
- often increase when a child is approaching a developmental milestone
- could be an indicator that another area of development needs extra attention (speech, sensory integration, physical development)