Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes. All the way from short episodes of crying and whining to full-blown screaming, hitting and destruction. As a parent, it can be very difficult to know what to do during these high-intensity moments.
Three important things to remember when your child is having a tantrum:
- Their behavior is communication
- They are still developing the skills to communicate their frustration in appropriate ways
- They are still developing the skills to cope with those strong emotions
Next time your little one is having a giant, eruptive tantrum, remember that it is communication and learning a new skill takes lots of practice. So how can we teach kids to cope with those frustrations and learn to communicate in appropriate ways rather than with tantrums?
When you want to teach kids something, timing is everything. During those moments of high intensity (mid-tantrum) it is not the time to teach! Telling your child what they did (or are doing) wrong and how they should have done it better is not going to be effective in those moments. During those moments of intense emotions and tantrums, the brain goes into flight or flight mode and is not ready for taking on new information or learning new skills. If you try to teach in those moments, you will be wasting your breath.
So instead, just take a deep breath, notice it, and keep breathing. The moment of intensity will pass.
Wait until after the storm has passed to talk about what they did and how they could do better next time, or skip the talk altogether and practice it! When kids (and adults) are learning a new skill, it isn’t enough for you to tell them how to do it; they need to practice it – many times. Kids need to practice basic social interactions, conflict resolution skills, and emotional coping skills many times. Behavior Skills Training is a teaching method with a huge amount of supporting research; it uses a 4-step teaching approach which includes instructions, modeling, rehearsal (i.e., practice) and feedback. When your child needs to learn a new skill, tell them what you want them to do, show them, practice it and give them feedback. However, when you work on building these skills is important.
When you notice your child is struggling with a particular skill, (e.g., waiting calmly, sharing, leaving a favorite place) don’t lecture during the melt-down moments but rather wait for the perfect teaching moment when they are calm and happy and then practice.
How to practice and teach developing skills with my child?
Kids love pretend-play games; much of what children learn is through play. Join your child in play and create pretend-play scenarios where they can successfully practice one of those developing skills. Model the appropriate responses you want them to practice. Encourage and praise them for practicing those skills during play. Try to focus more on the actions you want to see instead of what you don’t want to see. Get creative and have fun. You could use dolls or stuffed animals to act out different scenarios for how to practice specific skills. You also can act out scenarios yourselves; role-play is an excellent way to practice skills. E.g., Let’s pretend you’re the mom and I’m the kid and it’s time to go to school but I don’t want to get out of bed.
The more kids practice those developing skills, the more likely they will be able to respond appropriately when the moment of frustration arises. But like everything in life; learning takes lots of practice and patience – both for the learner and the teacher.