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.
- 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.
- 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!