Tantrums 101

I’m going to open this post by saying that I’m not putting myself out there as any kind of expert.  Every kid is different and there are a million different parenting philosophies, all most of which will work for some kid somewhere.  Truth be told, while it would be great if someone was helped by this post, most of the reason I want to write this is so that I can come back and remind myself what works on days I’m feeling overwhelmed, because surely they will come again.

Now for a little brag…in prep for our case management conference, I was reviewing Sprout’s behavior journal and I couldn’t help but feel really good about the progress he’s made.  In his first month with us, Sprout had at least two “regular” tantrums per day and two to three “severe” tantrums a week which was defined to include property destruction, urinating, and/or screaming until he lost his voice.  Well, he has been with us six months now and recently we’ve barely touched the behavior journal.  His last severe tantrum was in March and now he averages less than 1 tantrum per week.  Way to go Sprout! 

So here’s what appears to be working for us…

  • There are 2 distinct reasons for Sprout’s tantrums and recognizing which we are dealing with is the crucial first step.
    1. Overstimulated, sensory explosions: these tantrums come at the end of a busy day, following a visit with bio mom, or when we’ve spent 10 minutes too long shopping in a loud and crowded store.  He’s tired, he’s hungry, he’s had way too much sensory input and attempts to balance himself by expelling it in the form of yelling, screaming, crying, kicking, you get the idea… Of course the best way to handle this type of meltdown is to prevent it – any mom reading this already knows that.  But this is real life which means that it will inevitably happen at the least convenient time.  So what do I do? First step is to drop whatever I’m doing and get him to the calmest environment immediately available, then I wrap my arms around him in a big bear hug and rock him gently.  I coach him to listen to my heart (studies have shown that a child can actually match the tempo of their heart to their mother’s) and take deep breaths.  At first this type of thing was foreign to him and it would take a long time for the storm to pass, but with some practice on both our parts, we can now go from full-blown rage to centered in 5 minutes flat.
    2. An attempt to control his environment.  Mainly: manipulation, task avoidance, and seeking attention.  This is that naughty kind of tantrum that makes the hair stand up on the back of our necks and our lips purse.  There is only one thing to do during these types of tantrums: ignore, ignore, ignore.  Make sure he is in a safe space, and walk away.  One of the most powerful messages we ever taught Sprout is that he will get nothing out of a tantrum.  And even more, we will not allow ourselves to be treated like that.  I know that this response will put a sour taste in the mouth of some.  It may feel like you are letting the child “get away” with the misbehavior, but I assure you that is not the case.  The middle of a tantrum is not the time to address the poor behavior – I promise that the child is not listening and you’ll just end up in a shouting match.  There is plenty of time to discipline later.
  • The Achilles’ heel of any tantrum is calm.  Calm works for the overstimulated tantrum because it specifically models what you want the child to achieve and doesn’t escalate the outburst.   And calm works for the naughty tantrum because they aren’t getting the one thing they want.  I’m certain that there is nothing more motivating to Sprout in this world than getting me mad.  He is a pro button pusher and as sad as it is, he’s grown to be most comfortable when he’s power-struggling with his caregivers.  It used to drive him crazy that he couldn’t make me mad but now he hardly ever tries, knowing it wont get him anywhere.  The truth is, he’s made me mad plenty, but by staying calm he was none the wiser.  During the worst, I just reminded myself that staying calm would not only benefit me through the one tantrum I was facing, but it would also lessen every one to come. 
  • Parenting takes first priority anywhere any time.  In the privacy of my own home or in the middle of a crowded store – I will parent that child no matter how many eyes are watching. 
  • The tantrums are his, not mine. I don’t own them. I’m not burdened by them – he is.  This relates to one of my primary parenting rules: I can’t control my child, nor do I want to.  The only person I can control is this world is me.  My job is to guide and to teach, but he is his own individual spirit in control of his body and mind.  There is no power struggle because I freely give him all the power he needs and deserves – but that also means he gets the responsibility of his actions. 
  • Don’t hold a grudge.  Tantrums happen. Its part of a child’s job description.  But if you are thinking about it and simmering over it for the rest of the day, they will too.   There is no more powerful teaching tool than modeling, so just let it go.

Parenting is hard and insanely complicated.  The overwhelming truth is that even though this post ridiculously long, dealing with tantrums is just a tiny piece of my parenting and discipline puzzle.  Also, I’ve screwed up on every single one of those bullet points up there.  But like I said, this is just one small piece and the sum is so much greater than its parts.  Keep calm and carry on!

Questions? Reactions? Disagreements? Real-life scenarios? I’d love to hear ’em!

11 Responses to “Tantrums 101”

  1. Amen. This is pretty much what we *TRY* to do – although I have a really hard time staying calm sometimes. *where is that blushing face when you need it?* You guys are doing an awesome job!

  2. This is wonderful stuff and I FULLY agree. Now, we only have a 13 month old, and haven’t dealt with too many tantrums yet…but every now and then, they’ll rear their ugly head. Same reasons as with Sprout- he’s either overstimulated and tired, or super frustrated with not being able to control things or communicate to us.

    We usually ignore the tantrum until it passes. Usually it passes within 5 minutes. It’s HARD to watch him so worked up, crying/screaming, sometimes making himself cough. But he’s doing it to himself, and needs to learn to calm himself down, even at this age. Prevention is great, but one can’t always prevent unfortunately.

    You are so right on the tantrums being his, and on agreeing not to be treated like that. Sounds harsh to some, but the quicker they realize that they’re not going to get anywhere, the quicker they’ll extinguish.

    I may refer back to this post in the future 😉

  3. I love you. I want to be as good a mom as you are.

  4. I have to absolutely agree 100%. This is how I always was with the children I watched, especially the “problem” children, if you will. (They weren’t the problem. But anyway.) I’m hoping I can stay calm and collected enough to do it with our own child when she gets older.

  5. I’m so frazzeled I’m giggling! Somedays it’s like we’re parenting the same kid. I just walked out of a huge tantrum in which I held, rocked, walked, and sshhed Simeon while he screamed, and tried to climb out of my arms. All the while pinching, kicking and blindly hitting. I was his calm. And his straight jacket.

    Once he was done being violent, I left him sobbing in his room. A few minutes later he emerged, chipper as usual, ready to play. AAARRRGGGHHHH!!!! I want to drop kick him sometimes! Instead we had a long eye contact holding talk and a big hug.

    As far as I can tell you hit the nail on the head. Simeon is in a constant power struggle, too. Leo’s been out of town for two weeks, so I think there’s some feeling of out of control around here. I know I feel it.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me know I’m not alone!

  6. You know I agree 100% with your post!

    The vast majority of LMC’s tantrums fall into the number 2 category.We do what you do, ignore it as best we can. It’s tough because she is a button pusher but I work so hard not to let it turn into a power struggle.I tell her once she has calmed down to come see me.I want her to learn to soothe herself as best she can. I also tell her if she needs help calming down to tell me. She never learned o self-soothe and I want her to recognize that she is capable but I am there if she needs help.

    The hardest thing for me has been learning that wth LMC, sometimes less is more. There needen’t always be this big long discussion about behavior and feelings. Sometimes she just needs to hear what is expected of her, know that we are there and love her no matter what and then, you are right, she has to own it and handle it.

    It works so much better and tantrums are much shorter now. We still have days where she is determined to carry on for a looong time but I bite my tongue and let her work through it as best she can.

    You are a great mom and have changed Sprout’s life forever.

  7. This is wonderful! It is exactly what I’m hoping to be like with Gwen in the future (though, of course, I’m crossing my fingers I won’t need it!). I’m saving this post for future reference.

  8. Great post! I’m bookmarking it for future reference. You should write a parenting book…

  9. I have 4 children in my home, and initially tantrums were their main thing. I agree with you…ignore the tantrum, control issues…they are better, but yes everyday is a struggle. Thanks for your posts it reminds me I am not alone.


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