6 ways to help your child get through a tantrum, according to a clinical psychologist

Tantrums are one of those unavoidable parts of parenthood and when you're in it, you're really in it. Your toddler has gone boneless and is sprawled crying across the floor. What can you do?

Here are six things to try:

1. Be present and listen.

My number one recommended strategy is to be present. In some ways, this sounds deceptively simple. If you walked into a room and saw a father using this strategy with his child, you'd see a child having a tantrum—yelling, crying, maybe kicking the floor—and a parent just sitting there with them. How hard could that be? Very, it turns out. Pay attention to what is happening and listen to what your child is trying to say.

2. Be empathetic.

In Western culture, we very rarely sit still and just listen to anything. Our instinctive parental urge is to make the tantrum stop. We go through different strategies one by one, just waiting for something, anything, to "work."

And if nothing "works" to calm our child down, we do the next best thing for our own comfort: We check out a bit. We walk away, take out our phone or start to do something else. All we want at that moment is for the crying, the yelling and the kicking to stop; if that doesn't happen, whatever we tried didn't "work."

The other definition of something that "works," though, is something that makes our child feel better, something that's comforting at the moment. Sometimes a parent's presence – their ability to sit and be with all of the distress without trying to cut it short—is what a child needs.

Tantrums are often a discharge of sorts, a catharsis of overwhelming emotions, and often the most "effective" thing a parent can do may be to sit near their child and nonverbally communicate their unconditional presence.

3. Distinguish between feelings and behaviors.

As your child is letting out all of their feelings, it may be that they become so overwhelmed by anger, frustration and distress that they engage in certain behaviors that are not okay, namely those that are not safe for themselves or those around them. These might include hitting, kicking, scratching, hurling wooden blocks across the room, etc.

At this point, you need to make a distinction between their feelings and their behavior, with the underlying message being that although all feelings are welcome in your home, all behaviors are not: "Chloe, I see that you are so angry. You can yell and scream and cry and kick the floor as hard as you can, but I will not let you hurt me [or your little sister, or the dog]. That is not okay."

4. Use a firm—not angry—tone of voice.

Ideally, your presence, including your words and actions, will ultimately help soothe your child. We want them to experience you as both loving and containing. When you use words like the ones above, speak firmly, in a way that conveys you are setting an important limit, but not one that communicates your own anger and frustration.

Might you feel angry and frustrated? Of course. Might you even say that you feel angry and frustrated? That too is okay (although it might be communicated more effectively after the eye of the storm has passed). Speaking in clearly angry tones, however (including yelling), will have the opposite effect you intend; your child's emotion—anger, frustration, perhaps even guilt at this point—will escalate, and therefore so will the tantrum.

5. Consider using touch to keep your child and yourself safe.

Sometimes your voice will not be enough to calm your child down, and you will be sufficiently worried about your or their safety that you need to respond using your physical body. If your child tends to feel calmer when you place a hand on their shoulder, or move closer to them, or even envelop them in a bear hug, then these are all options you can employ, although heed their cues as to whether this is something they actually want or need (as you likely know from your own experiences of strong feelings, sometimes physical touch from a loved one is welcome; other times it feels intrusive).

Of course, if safety is an issue, then this, of course, comes first, and holding your little one in such a way that they do not hurt themselves or anyone else is a priority regardless of their reaction (if safety is an ongoing concern during your child's tantrums, then professional assistance is recommended).

When thinking about the use of physical touch, pay attention to whether your child seems to receive more hugs and loving touch from you during a tantrum than at other times of day, as, once again, you don't want to fall into the trap of inadvertently rewarding (and thereby encouraging) the tantrum behaviors. If this is the case, make a conscious effort to up your physical affection at times when your child is not in the throes of a meltdown.

6. Make keeping yourself calm a priority.

Whatever you do to keep yourself emotionally regulated—deep breathing, feeling into your body, reminding yourself that your little one's brain isn't yet fully cooked—now is the time to go for it.

If you can exude calm and stability, your child will be able to use this to bring themselves back to a regulated state. For me, this is sometimes as simple as Van Morrison's Into the Mystic; when this song is on,right from the opening guitar chords, it is physically impossible for me to feel agitated. Thanks to Spotify and Sonos, I can (and have been known to) play this song while one of my kids is mid-meltdown, in an effort to bring myself to a calmer place.

Excerpted from The Tantrum Survival Guide by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press.

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