Anyone who has spent much time with a toddler or young child knows that young children process their emotions through tantrums.
Feeling angry about leaving the park? Tantrum.
Feeling sad that Grandma had to leave? Tantrum.
Feeling over-excited after a big day at the zoo? Tantrum.
Tantrums are an unavoidable part of parenting, but how you handle them can make a big difference. Having a strategy ahead of time can help you stay calm, which in turn sends the important message that your child's feelings are safe and that you are there for them no matter what.
There are two kinds of tantrums—tantrums that happen at home and tantrums that happen in public, and each demands its own strategy.
Montessori-friendly techniques for handling tantrums at home:
When a tantrum starts at home, it's generally best to just settle in and ride the wave. This is the best time to show your child that all of their feelings are okay and that their overwhelming emotions are not scary or too much for you. Showing your child that you are comfortable with their flailing and screaming and tears sends a very important message that it's okay to have big feelings.
1. Be present and patient
If you can, sit on the floor with your child when they start to throw a tantrum. Look at them, but don't talk to or touch them right away. This can feel overstimulating to a child who is in the throws of a tantrum, and they likely can't hear you anyway.
Don't do anything that makes it seem like you're trying to end the tantrum, just watch and try to remain calm. The important part is that you're sending the message that their big feelings are safe.
2. Don't rush it
Their big emotions will come out, so if you rush the tantrum now it will likely continue later, possibly in the middle of Target instead of in your living room. Also, the more you try to interfere with logic or even hugs, the longer the tantrum is likely to last. While you're waiting for them to calm down, keep your tone and body language really calm so that it's clear that you're not angry, you're just looking out for them. Wait it out—remember it will pass! And next time, try to build in an extra 15 minutes whenever you have to be somewhere at a certain time.
3. Offer comfort when they're ready
Eventually, you will be able to see when the tantrum is starting to diminish. Your child may still be whining or crying, but all of the energy is drained from their efforts.
At this point, offer comfort. This may simply be holding out your arms to show that you're available for hugs and snuggles when they're ready. Show them that you love them no matter what, even when they're so mad that they're kicking and screaming on the floor.
4. Acknowledge their feelings
After your child is calm, you can acknowledge their feelings. Say something like, "You were so mad when I told you not to climb on the couch." It's possible that this will get the tears going again as they relive the horror of being told to sit safely on the couch, but that's okay.
It's also important to help your child name what they were feeling and understand what just happened. Don't dwell on it, but acknowledge their actions and feelings.
This is of course an ideal situation, a situation in which you can drop everything and be with your child for their tantrum. But, we all know this is rarely the case. More than likely there's dinner on the stove or a sibling who needs help and that's okay.
Here's how to handle tantrums while in public:
How you handle tantrums in public all depends on your tolerance for people staring at you. If it genuinely doesn't bother you, then you will likely be able to remain calm and sit with your child for the duration of their tantrum even if it occurs at the park or in the grocery store.
If you're like me and public tantrums make your face hot and your heart rate increase, you'll need to take a different approach.
1. Assess the situation
How far gone is your child? Can the tantrum still be stopped by distracting them with a snack or making them laugh with a silly joke? Taking a deep breath and figuring out your next step will lessen your stress and hopefully calm your little one in the process.
2. Bring your child to a safe place
If you determine that it's a full blown tantrum that can't be stopped, bring your child to a place where you can be in private. This might mean a quiet corner of the park, or it might mean leaving the store.
The important part is not to do this in anger. You don't want to huff out of the grocery store telling your child they're ruining your day, even if you really need groceries. Instead, tell your child that you're going to bring them somewhere quiet where you can be together.
3. Distract if necessary
While I would not recommend distracting a child out of a tantrum at home, sometimes, it's the best solution when you're out and about.
If your child is in the early stages of a tantrum, try to focus their attention elsewhere. If you're at the park, point out something fun you can do together. Perhaps you can push them on the swings. Perhaps they can join you in hunting for acorns.
If you're running errands, solicit their help. Try saying, "Hmm, I forgot where they keep the milk here, I wonder if you can help me find it" or "I just don't know what kind of fruit to buy this week, I wonder if anyone can help me decide."
4. Expect a tantrum later
If you do manage to distract your child out of a tantrum, know that those big feelings still need to come out sometime. You will likely see your child throw a tantrum later in the day, probably over something seemingly insignificant. They need to release the pressure and sooner or later, it's going to happen.
So if you're at home, try to relax and just let the tantrum happen, knowing that it's not about the sippy cup, it's about your child holding it together all morning while you were out and needing some release.
Over time, you can help them learn the skills they need to process their emotions without screaming and throwing things, but this is a very gradual process. Start by naming your child's emotions, talking to them about what you do when you're sad or angry, and always be present. In time, this will translate to fewer tantrums and more heart to hearts.