Aug 212012
 

Over the past week or so, I have found myself having very similar discussions with various parents. Whether it is a mom of a two-year-old boy or a father of an 11-year-old girl I hear the same question: “How can I get them to stop tantruming?” The toddler who wails at the top of his lungs and throws a truck across the room. The child who yells with fury and clenched fists. The preteen who stomps and slam doors and sobs about the unfairness of it all. Oh the pain, the agony, the drama. The emotion!

But what is a “tantrum”? What is it really and what does it all mean? In the heat of the moment, tantrums can feel overwhelming to everyone involved. The child may feel out of control, the parent may feel at his/her wits’ end, other children in the home feel unsettled or even unsafe. From an adult perspective, all of this drama because the eggs were scrambled instead of fried, or because the blue shorts are in the wash, or because a friend can’t be called until chores are done. To our adult brain, the emotional output does not match the input. “All this over something so silly?” Our frustration rises. It can be hard to make sense of it when we think about it with our rational, problem-solving, goal-oriented,get-the-kids-in-the-car-and-on-to-the-next-task parent brain.

When someone asks me “How can I make this stop?” (or I hear myself asking the same question, because I do), I immediately counter with, “Why do you want the tantrum to stop?” Usually this is met with a blank stare, as if I were an alien. What a silly question. “No really, why do you want it to stop?” And here is what we come up with:

Because I don’t want them to turn into adults who tantrum. Okay, so clearly, we wouldn’t want our children to learn that throwing themselves on the floor and crying for 30 minutes when the eggs are scrambled instead of fried  is a reasonable response. But when is the last time you saw an adult do that? Children have been “tantruming” since, well since children have existed, and I would venture to say that the number of adults who do that is statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that adults know how to handle emotion. Many of us don’t. But worrying that your children will forever throw trucks across the room is just unrealistic.

Once we get past the fear of raising tantruming adults, we get to the real reason we want the tantruming to stop. It bothers us. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary. It’s emotionally draining. I could go on, but in short, we want it to stop because we can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.

In reality, adults who have difficulty identifying, processing, displaying, or recovering from emotions do so not because they did or didn’t “tantrum” as a child, but because they somehow got the message that emotions were not safe, tolerated, or respected.  They somehow came to understand that feelings should be avoided, should not be shared, create distress in others. They somehow never figured out what to do with big emotions when they arise, much less what they mean or what they feel like. So in reality, if we are really worried  about our children growing up to be adults who throw themselves on the floor, we should be working towards encouraging as many opportunities as possible to work through big emotion now.  That way, they can become well versed in the language of emotion and develop an intimate understanding and awareness of what emotions feel like and what works and doesn’t work for dealing with those emotions. In short, we may want to actually embrace the tantrum.

Maybe we can start by redefining what a tantrum is. The word itself is fraught with strife, negativity and connotations of “spoiled,” “rotten” children who “manipulate” and “connive” to get their way. I wish this idea could be deleted from our lexicon. Rather, let’s see the moment more clearly. It is Big Emotion in a Small Body. The eggs or the shorts or the phone call are not the point. The emotion is the point. And the emotion IS REAL. And real emotion presents an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their feelings, their work in this world. And we, as their parent or teacher or caretaker, have the opportunity to help them, or shut it down. They are having big emotion and they don’t quite know what to do with it.

Have you ever had big emotion that you shared with someone and they responded with, “Well, that’s silly, you are overreacting.” Or “I know exactly what you should do instead.” Or, “Well, it’s your own fault, you did it to yourself.” Generally, these responses don’t feel very good. What we want is to have someone say, “Wow, you’re in pain. I’m here for you.” We want empathic connection. We want to know it is safe to feel how we feel. In the moment of big emotion, we don’t want to be told it is our own fault (even if we know that it is). We don’t want to be told that we are over reacting (even if we are). We don’t want to be told how to solve it (even if we really need help). In that moment of crisis, we want to know that the other person recognizes and respects the feeling we are having. In crisis, we want connection. It’s true if we are two or 82.

And if we can do this for our children in the moment of the big emotion, amazing things happen. When we reflect the emotion to them, we help teach them to recognize their feelings. We connect with them and they feel validated and heard and safe. Simply saying “You’re so angry. I get it!” can go a long way. Just feeling validated can often ease the pain and lessen the intensity of the moment. When we give them space and time to feel their emotion and help them process different ways of handling it, we actually work towards our first goal of creating emotionally competent adults. They can learn that feelings are safe and they can experiment with what happens when they do different things.  So here are simple steps to begin practicing a new way of thinking about and responding to big emotion:

1)     Breathe, observe, wait, and tolerate emotion. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Throughout the entire process. Continue to breathe, observe, wait and tolerate.

2)     Reflect what they are feeling. Let them know that you are there, you see them, you hear them. “You’re so disappointed right now. I can see that!” “It’s so frustrating!” “You’re so angry.”

3)     Set safe limits on behaviors, not emotions. “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)” “I know how angry you are and I see you stomping. But I also know that the stomping is really scary to your little brother. If you need to stomp the basement is a great place to do that.”

4)     Let them be the experts on their feelings. Ask what they need. “What can I do to help you through this anger?” This doesn’t mean that you do whatever they ask. We have to remember that the lesson here is working through the feelings. If the child responds by saying, “I need you to make new eggs” we don’t need to do it. Instead try “Oh, I know you’re disappointed about the eggs. New eggs aren’t available, but I would be happy to support you in another way.”

5)     Back to step one. Repeat.

So the next time your child has big emotion, change the way you think and see and respond in the moment. Change your thoughts from “Oh no, not again!” to “Yes! Another opportunity to practice emotional competence!” Take a deep breath and be amazed at the hard work your child is doing. Learning about emotions is difficult, engaging work. Be there, by their side.

 Posted by at 11:23 am

  40 Responses to “For The Love Of A Tantrum”

  1. so, i like many parts of this, but i guess where i have a hard time swallowing this method hook, line, and sinker, is where you say that adults don’t throw tantrums… bc they do. they may not throw their eggs, but they are rude and disrespectful to wait staff… they may not hit other people, but they slam doors and use their words to cut others down. so, the tantrum doesn’t look the same, but they still exist. i don’t believe that validating every fleeting emotion we have is necessarily helpful… is there space to simply label some responses as inappropriate, regardless of the underlying emotion or age?

    • I have seen adults throw “tantrums” too but I highly doubt these are people who were emotionally validated as children. More likely they had poor behaviour modelled to them or were NOT validated and therefore have pent-up frustrations and trouble identifying and regulating emotions.

      What the article is saying is to validate the emotion, NOT necessarily the behaviour. If a child can learn about their own emotions through gentle responsive parenting, they are more likely to learn how to cope with those emotions appropriately, without resorting to unreasonable behaviour. The article does suggest putting limits on behaviour, such as the example of stomping. It’s entirely possible to place limits on behaviour but still validate an emotion and it gets easier with practice.

      “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)”

      • Yes Cath! Thanks for the beautiful summary!

      • I LOVE this article, so beautifully written, thank you!! I also love Cath’s little summary here. I also agree that adults who throw tantrums (I’m thinking of someone in our family who is a parent themselves) are usually people who just didn’t get the emotional support that they needed as kids. The stereotypical image of the child who throws tantrums to “get their way” is often the child whose parents can’t cope with their upset and will whatever it takes to make them stop. Some parents make a child stop expressing their upset by punishing them and others do it by giving them whatever they want within reason. Either way the child is given the message that the parent can’t cope with and “be with” their feelings and the child continues to feel scared and overwhelmed by their own emotions.

        This is the approach that helps children work through their feelings in a healthy way. I’ve used this approach from the get-go, my oldest is 15 and my kids are so good at knowing, owning and taking responsibility for their emotions, they just amaze me and my hubby. My 15y.o. son is always helping friends through their emotional difficulties, he’s more on to it than most adult counsellors and psychotherapists I’ve met. Because his feelings have been listened to and validated, he knows his feelings so well and can express the complexity of his feelings easily.

      • I was one of those not emotionally validated children and therefore must LEARN how to do so for my own toddlers. It is sooo hard for me because I just want her to pull it together and use her words NOW!

        I can remember how frustrated I was as a child after already being frustrated about something else. I was a very pissed off kid and then teenager. I thought I had it all figured out as an adult, but then along came my toddler and I have transformed into my mother.

        You stated in another post, it is not too late to change.

        Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts. I am looking forward to reading all of them.

        • Nicole in Paris, Thank you for sharing. I love how you said “I thought I had it all figured out as an adult, but then along came my toddler…” Never has a truer statement been spoken! I think we can all relate to that!

        • Oh this is so me! It all sounds so reasonable when the kids are angelically asleep in their beds. Then they wake up, and one in particular starts her day with loud negativism 4 or more days a week lately, and it all goes out the window. Certainly grace begets grace but I struggle to start as I want things to continue right now (especially at 6am!).

          We don’t experience gimmegimme tantrums, nor have we seen a lot of emotional “flooding” since age 2.5 or so, but powerful emotions don’t have to be tempestuous to stimulate the ‘make it stop’ response. I have never had a problem accepting explosions due to overstimulation, but accepting emotional explosions is one of those skills that I would be very grateful to see modeled for me.

          • Oh man, when my kids are asleep, I am the BEST PARENT EVER!

            One thing I would consider with ongoing hard wake-ups is whether they are getting enough sleep. Sometimes earlier bedtimes can lead to more peaceful wake-ups! OR maybe the problem is that they need slower wake ups. Waking them up earlier, so that they can lay in bed for awhile before having to “get up and get out the door” can make things run more smoothly.

            I am so glad that you pointed out that sometimes difficult emotion is quieter. I am reminded of brooding, sulking teenage angst that is so painful for parents to tolerate. The concept is the same. Recognizing the growing discomfort inside of us regardless of what is triggering it. Breathe, Connect, Observe, Reflect, Engage. Repeat!

    • I agree that adults can tantrum and it does look different. I would argue though that it wasn’t the act of “tantruming” as a child that led to it, rather that appropriate, healthy, response and coping with emotion was never properly supported or developed (for various reasons). Supporting emotion is not the same thing as reinforcing, accepting or supporting socially unacceptable behaviors. Setting limits while at the same time accepting emotion is the key. “Your angry! I notice that yelling at your brother isn’t helping, I wonder what else you can try? I’m here to support you!” This type of response sends a very different message, one that supports and validates the emotion, sets limits with the behaviors and helps the child to experiment with different coping skills!

  2. So may I ask your opinion on what to do before they are able to communicate verbally? My 9 month old has started throwing fits when it is diaper changing time. It isn’t the physical changing of the diaper but the inability to get up and move during the process. I use cloth diapers and can’t figure out a way to get them on her with her standing up so it becomes a fight for her to stay on her back. Sometimes I can find a distraction toy that works but more often I can’t. I hate physically restraining her, she hates it too, but I don’t know what else to do.

    • Diaper changes can be tricky for so many families. Janet Lansbury has a great post on it, you can view it here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/08/dealing-with-diaper-changing-disasters/. I do think that it is important to recognize and reflect a child’s emotional state at all ages! Even with “preverbal” infants. Being present, reflective and empathic is a whole being experience. Specifically at diaper time, try allowing extra time for changes, so that you can be slow, patient and responsive. It’s difficult not to get frustrated and caught up in the emotion, but the more you can stay calm the better! If you can figure out standing up diaper changes (I did it with cloth diapers, it’s tricky but just takes practice) it may be better. Also, try a different location, like changing her on the bathroom floor, rather than on a changing table. Check out Janet’s post. It’s great!

    • I have been fortunate with my first two who were easy with diaper changes. My 3rd is a mover! It helps if I give him warning a couple minutes before I actually go to do it. “Whooooweee I smell something stinky! I’m gonna change your diaper as soon as I finish_______!”

      Sometimes I think he just likes the attention of getting chased down and the physical challenge of being wrestled, so I try to provide that at other times.

      It also helps if I talk to him a lot while I’m changing him. Talk to him about what I’m doing, the toy he’s holding or the book he wants to look at while I change him. Talking about anything makes it an opportunity to bond a little. I always try to point out how much better it is to be clean and dry too so he will have something to look forward to when it’s over and eventually he will want to potty train!!!

      • Sounds like you are doing everything you can! Depending on his age, you might also try standing up diaper changes, change to pull ups and have him pull on and off his own diapers, and doing all diaper changes in the bathroom. Basically giving him more and more control in the process. Saying “I noticed it’s time for a new diaper! I will be ready to help you as soon as I finish ____, you might like to go pick out a diaper and meet me in the bathroom!” It’s all about control and we want them to have as much as is possible/appropriate!

  3. I had a daycare with 12 kids and my strategy worked for me….First I told them, whining and such meant they were tired and it was nap time for them…usually worked really great with the little ones… If past the nap age, I would tell them they could play in the toy room and could not come out until they stopped the screaming…I would leave the door ajar…and when they came into the hall slirpy sobbing, trying to keep their crying in, I would tell them they weren’t done yet, until it completely stopped…to go back in the room until they were done. I had kids throw every single toy in the room at the door in anger, frustration, hate, spewing things I wouldn’t even say… often breaking the toys, but I would not give in…eventually, they wanted out, so they would stop the tantrum…I made their punishment pleasurable…by giving them a place to vent and regroup…the toy room..pick yours!….and never had to lose my cool and/or hit them, ever. I also used the stairs for time out. I told them to sit on the 5th stair until they stopped screaming, crying, fighting, whatever and they couldn’t talk or the minutes started over…….usually I was right about the tired and they would pass out with their face laying on the next stair up…Usually tantrums are loss of control for whatever reason…I usually attribute it to needing a break from the stimulus…give them a distraction…in 7 years of daycare this technique worked for me, every time… kids loved me for it. You just gotta understand them, being a kid isn’t easy as it seems.

    • Rosemary, you are right! Being a kid isn’t easy! The work they have to do it hard and figuring out emotion is one of the hardest things of all in my opinion. I think that sometimes whining and strong emotion is definitely about being tired. But I also think it can be about other things (hungry, stressed, frustrated, sick, overwhelmed, not having the words or skills to deal with emotion….) I think it is always a good idea to help a kid figure out what their body is saying, feeling, etc. It’s great if a kid can start to recognize the internal cues themselves (what does it feel like when you are tired versus what does it feel like if you are hungry etc.) I also think that using time to cool down can be a useful coping skill for kids, but I strongly believe that it is best to avoid punishing emotion. “Time outs” don’t seem to have lasting impact because they don’t teach a child how to express, manage and recover from emotions on their own. Rather, it simply forces a child to eventually stop the emotional outburst, without pairing it with deeper recognition of the feelings and behaviors that are occurring. The result is that they don’t develop insight into their own process and the next time big emotion happens, the pattern is set (meaning that repeated time outs are needed, without change to the overall pattern.)

      If space and time to cool down is needed, I recommend that this happen with parent support and with the child having as much control over the process as possible. Some ideas are:
      1) Suggest to the child that “it looks like maybe you may need space to breathe for a minute. What do you think?”
      2) Allow that child to choose a place that feels safe. “Is there a place you would like to go to cool off? The couch? Your bedroom? Where would you feel safe?”
      3) Allow the child to have control over the time. Remember that this isn’t punishment, and it isn’t about making the emotion stop. It’s about helping a child develop a coping skill and in order for it to become an internalized coping skill, they need to be in control of the process.
      4) In the beginning, stay with the child and help them through the “calm down” process. “Let’s see if deep breaths help your body feel different.” or “Let’s make a plan for how we can talk to brother.” or “Let’s count your fingers and toes”. This is important. Theoretically, the underlying purpose of “time out” is to have time to implement coping skills that result in problems solving and processing. But in reality, when we put a child in a room by themselves, we are not teaching them any coping skills. Rather we are just waiting for emotion to cease. Practicing these skills with them, in the moment, will eventually lead to them being able to do it on their own.

      At first, this way of approaching big emotion can feel like a lot of work and time. It may feel easier to use other approaches to try to just get things back to a calm and quiet place. But what most people seem to notice is that when they accept and support the emotion, rather than fight it, everyone feels better. Emotion resolves more quickly, children learn to understand and communicate emotion, and parents feel calmer and more connected to their children. It really isn’t more work in the end!

  4. I couldn’t disagree strongly enough with the statement that we disapprove of tantrums because we “can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.” I tolerate emotion just fine, thank you very much — when it is communicated in a manner that respects the rights of others. The reason tantrums are offensive is not because they involve strong emotions, it is because those emotions are being communicated in a way that is self-indulgent and inconsiderate. In babies and toddlers, that’s par for the course. In older kids, it’s just plain unacceptable. In my house, a tantrum gets you sent to your room. I’ll happily discuss the underlying problem and the emotions around it when the screaming stops.

    • Kate,
      Thank you so much for your comments. I totally agree that emotions need to be expressed in a way that is not disrespectful! I tend to use these occasions as times to practice expressing emotions in the moment. For example if a child starts to hit or call names during a tantrum, I would say “oh, I’m not going to let you use your body to hurt someone, but how can you talk about your angry feelings in a way that works for everyone?” I find, especially for younger children, that by staying with them, I can offer support, reflection, guidance and modeling to help them learn how to experience, express, and manage emotion in the moment. Of course the reality is that we cant always be 100% available 100% of the time and in most families, there are multiple people with multiple needs present at the same time (a older child with loud emotion may be conflicting with a younger child who is sleeping) so figuring out what works for each family, situation, and child is important.

  5. I really love this simplistic approach to tantrums. I will admit it is something I struggle with, so far something my 18mo doesn’t do much because I have tried to validate his emotions as he has them, etc. I admit to saying a few times “stop over-reacting, settle down” sort of thing, but try not to, this is more my frustration at not having the energy to deal with it myself.

    I would love to hear some suggestions for people on how they create a safe space for their children – particularly the 18mo or 2yo age where they are not really able to communicate the emotion / problem they are feeling, especially when this is happening around people who do not understand, and who are anti-tantrum. I am thinking particular my grandmother (who doesn’t give permission for anyone around her to feel anything – even joy half the time) who just wants the “spoiled brat” to “stop making that noise”. My grandmother lives with my mother (who is also pretty intolerant of tantrums/crying) and we visit almost daily, this will be an ongoing thing for me but I don’t want to have to remove my child every time he is processing his emotions, and I don’t want him to learn to deny them either.

  6. Very interesting. Some thoughts your excellent post stimulated:

    As a young parent, I did not react to tantrums and my children stopped having them after the first or second attempts as toddlers. I believe this happens because the reason for most “tantrums” is they want something they can’t have.

    I understand there are times that a meltdown is just an emotional response. Maybe I just didn’t identify those times as tantrums? (So my saying that they stopped having them doesn’t refer to this type of meltdown.) This article doesn’t differentiate the two types. If emotional melt downs are also tantrums, then we do need to differentiate between a melt down and a manipulative tantrum. I’ve seen parents give in to children’s requests during these types of tantrums. “Okay, I’ll buy that toy” or “here’s the potato chips” kind of thing. And then the tantrum stops. This type of parental response does feed this type of tantrum and they will happen again when the child wants something the parent doesn’t want to give them or that is unsafe for them to have or do. This increases the stress of parenting!

    A calm and measured response, validating the emotion involved as you describe is a healthy response to any tantrum. In the case of what I’m calling “manipulative tantrums” it would be better to validate with a bit more info. “I understand you’re angry that I can’t buy that toy. We can talk about ways you can earn it when we get home.” or “I know you really want that toy, but there are better ways to ask for it” or “I know you really want that toy but we don’t have the money right now. I know that makes you feel angry and disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about it today. Let’s talk about it more at home.” “I know you want those potato chips, but they are not good for your health. We can make baked “fries” at home! They taste even better and you can help me.”

    These responses can be given with hugs and kisses too which communicates unconditional love. But I do believe that giving in to stop the tantrum most times teaches the child that manipulation works. And this leads to what many people refer to as “spoiled” behavior.

    On the other hand, there are times when the child’s request is reasonable. As parents in the moment, maybe worried about what other people are thinking, we may neglect to recognize that. Both validating the emotion and giving in during those times without feeding future tantrums is an art. “You’re right. There’s no reason we can’t stop at that park and play for a little while, especially if you promise to pick up your toys when we get home. So let’s go! Next time, let’s negotiate instead of screaming. What do you say? Think you can try?”

    I do appreciate the concept that you describe of allowing the tantrum to run its course and then validating the emotion involved. Be default you are telling people not to give in to the tantrums. I guess I just wanted to verbalize some caution you might have been saving for a future post! And just to add, meltdowns for children with autism are totally different situations. I have only respect for those parents who have children with autism.

    • Absolutely Christiane! Tolerating and supporting feelings does not mean giving in to the request! I don’t think that it is helpful for anyone to give into requests during tantrums. When the request itself is reasonable, I may even say “You have some good ideas. I would be happy to discuss the options with you when you’re ready to communicate. How can I help you calm down so we can talk it through? Yelling doesn’t help us work together.” That way, we still aren’t giving the message that the tantrum was the deciding factor!
      Thanks for your comments!

  7. Great article! I have an 11 year old boy who tantrums any time he feels that something is unfair. Here’s my question though. How do I empathize without sounding patronizing? When he’s in the throes of it, he gets quite loud and obnoxious. Saying, “You are so angry!” just doesn’t sound right. I haven’t been able to come up with something that doesn’t feel patronizing to say. If I say, “I’m sorry that you can’t play with friends” or whatever it is, he will shout at me, “NO, YOU”RE NOT!”

    • Cheryl,
      Two thoughts come to mind. First, I think it can be awkward when we start to communicate differently. Sometimes, it just takes practice and repetition before it becomes normal for a family to use this kind of communication. If it feels patronizing to you, try something like “I get it.” “I hear ya,” “I would be angry to.” “It makes sense you would be angry about it.” “What can I do for you?” The more you practice, and the more he feels validated, the less it will fell awkward and patronizing to both of you.
      Second, I think sometimes we struggle with feeling like we have to have the last word. We don’t always have to respond to anger, or to the things kids say when they are angry. We may say something like…”I know you want to play and you cant. I get it, I might be angry if I were you. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you.” If the child then yells back “No you’re not. You don’t care!” and stomps off….it is okay to take a deep breath and let them go. We don’t have to respond anymore. If we say anything, saying “I’m here if you need me” may be all that is needed. After all, we just validated that it is okay to be angry. And the fact remains that he cant play. We may have boundaries regarding respectful communication, even when they are angry, but we can also remember that it is okay to let some things go. Often times, if we take a breath and wait rather than respond to the conflict, the child will work through the emotion and be ready to process the deeper issue, rather than getting stuck.
      Let me know what you think!

  8. My child is prone to a tantrum easily. Taking a bath, going to bed, coming home from an outing. The triggers are not predictable. If we try to empathize, she just wails louder. IF we try to hold her, she would kick us. She can go on for hours. Also if we ignore her, it doesn’t get any better. One reason is she is tired but would refuse to go to bed. In her mind, she never wants to sleep. ‘I don’t want to go to sleep’ is her mantra. Until she decides to go to sleep, even if we are on bed with the lights off, she just can’t sleep. It’s a vicious cycle.
    Distraction works but again to find the right thing that distracts her is not always easy. And there are times she would get distracted and start where she left off (tantrum-wise)
    I have to resort to telling her that she cannot cry for two hours. Before giving her a bath, if I have time, I have to tell her how happy everyone is and how nice it is if she wouldn’t cry. That works but it’s hard to predict every trigger and talk to her beforehand.
    In short, regardless of validation, I would rather have her not cry. It just saps our energy and rattles our nerves. She is 3 by the way.

    • Sleep is so tricky. It’s so good that you recognize that being tired is a trigger for your daughter. It can be very exhausting as a parent to try to get a busy three year old to take time to sleep! Sometimes looking at the overall rhythm of our days can be helpful, slowing things down, cutting out media completely, decreasing outings….basically finding a slower, quieter rhythm to the week can be helpful.

      • We don’t have a TV. Computer/tablet time doesn’t exceed 1 hour a week (few youtube snippet videos) but she wants to be active all the time. She spends a good 6 hrs in school and wants to go out even after that. I would like a slower rhythm. She is ready to go all the time!

  9. I’ve read a couple of your articles and they are helpful. My husband and I have tried similar things with my oldest who has developmental delays (8 yo functioning at about 4-5 with the emotional maturity of 3-4ish) and a hard time with verbal communication and it usually seems to end in frustration for both of us. He is easily frustrated by very little things, and would prefer to be totally dependent on others for everything from basic hygiene to emotional regulation to homework. We have tried teaching him to name his emotions and he is getting better at saying what makes him sad or happy, but that’s about it. When he gets frustrated he totally shuts down and refuses to think for himself at all, preferring to pretend he’s incapable when we know he’s not and have someone talk him through step by step. We are super consistent about not doing for him what we know he can do for himself, but that often ends in LOONNNGGGG tantrums because if we give him slack when he’s tired or sick, he wants slack every day so we feel like we can’t give him slack at all or he’ll never learn banything. I feel like any statement over 5-6 words is too much for him to understand and results in him getting positive attention for negative behavior with no emotional growth. We try to tell him “_______is hard but you can do it” kind of things and when he really screams, sometimes I tell him “you’re mad, I’m mad, lets scream together… AAAAAHHHHHH… Do you feel better? No? Me neither. lets take a breath instead…” Every time I have let him choose how he wants to deal with frustration he always wants to shut down, quit all together.
    He seems to waste so much time and energy in defiance and playing dumb that it really would be easier just to live up to his potential. I hate punishing him for shutting down but we seem to burn through positive reinforcements faster than I can think of new ones and I don’t have the energy to constantly reteach him what I know he already knows how to do himself when we get into these 3 steps back and 1 step forward situations.
    Suggestions?

    • Sounds like he is getting overwhelmed by his emotions pretty easily. I wonder if you are working with a therapist or have thought about it. It may be worth it, even if it is just to get support for you and your husband! As far as your son’s emotional processing go, realizing that once he gets overwhelmed it is likely very difficult for him to process is important. It may be more helpful to try engaging him in emotional work when he is calm or when very small emotions creep up. You may have better luck if you can catch it early in the process (which sounds tricky since it sounds like he escalates very quickly). If we want kids to use breathing as a coping skill when they are emotionally overwhelmed, they have to have practiced and practiced when they are calm.

      Also, if you are on facebook, there is a great group called The Parents Breakroom, hosted by Gina from the Twin Coach. It is a place to share resources, process and get support from other parents with children who have developmental issues. I recommend you check it out.

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