How to react when your kid's having a tantrum & the one thing you can do to stop itAugust 24, 2021
FROM the terrible twos to the troublesome threes and ferocious fours, tantrums evolve over time but they’re all equally unpleasant.
Whether you’re dealing with a child who screams and cries, lashes out physically or gets nasty with words, there are foolproof strategies to put tantrums to bed.
Fabulous spoke to Sophie Giles, parenting and behavioural consultant and founder of the Gentle Start Family Consultancy, who says the worst thing you can do is fear them.
She says: “Children have tantrums, it’s a natural part of child development.
“They don’t have a way to express everything and they’re trying to work out how to manipulate the world and get what they want.
“So you have to help them to see that having a meltdown isn’t the way to do that.”
To know how best to react, it can be helpful to identify the type of tantrum your child is having.
There are three basic types:
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Sophie says: “This is when a child has no other way of dealing with their emotions, it all gets a bit too intense and they just have a meltdown.”
“This is a manipulative kind of tantrum,” explains Sophie.
“The kind of tantrum where they’re threatening, ‘I will scream and yell until you give me what I want’.”
Similar in cause to an emotional outburst, but with a slightly different solution, is the sensory overload.
Sophie says: “This is when things are too loud, or too bright or there are too many people.”
So what should you do next?
With a sensory overload, Sophie says the child may need attention and calming and for you to give them a deep pressure hug (provided they’re not flailing around and trying to hurt you).
With an emotional outburst, it’s important to give them space to work through it.
“They need to get it out of their system,” says Sophie.
“If there’s a really shrill screaming going on, that’s telling you, ‘Get out of my face now, I’ve had enough of you’, in which case leave them to it – but you have to make sure they’re safe, obviously.
She also advises limiting your words as much as possible.
“A child under the age of five can’t really process language and heightened emotion at the same time,” Sophie explains.
“Try to use five words or less – that’s pretty much all they can compute.”
The language you use is also very important with behavioural tantrums and you should think hard about what you’re going to say before you speak.
Sophie says: “The more words you use, the more angry they may get, or worse, they think you’re backing down and you’re about to concede because you’re using a lot of words, or you make yourself look weak.
“Then when the positive result they’re hoping for isn’t forthcoming, the tantrum is just going to start all over again.
She also advises to avoid using any trigger words.
For example, telling your child, ‘we don’t kick’ repeatedly when they’re having a meltdown and kicking, tells them you’re emotionally invested in them not doing it.
Therefore, if they want to annoy you, kicking will probably become their first port of call.
And when it comes to your reaction, less is more.
“A child who is having a behavioural tantrum is looking for your reaction – they will probably have frequent pauses where they look at your face to gauge whether they should escalate or de-escalate.
“If you seem very calm and completely unbothered by it and say things like, ‘let me know when you’re ready, let me know when you’re done,’ then you don’t fuel the fire.
“If you’re constantly asking, ‘What’s wrong, what’s the matter, is it this, is it that?’, all you’re going to get is screaming.”
Sophie points out that we only repeat a behaviour for as long as it works for us, so the key with all tantrums is to let them play out and let the child realise for themselves that it’s not an effective way to act.
For this reason, distracting them is another big no-no.
Sophie says: “If you try to distract a child over the age of 18 months, that can become a positive reinforcement.
“They don’t learn to self-regulate because you’re constantly interrupting them and not letting them work their way through it and get the job done.
“If they get something positive out of it – even just you distracting them, giving them something nice, moving them on – then the tantrum is serving its purpose in a way.”
If you only do one thing… keep a tantrum diary
Ultimately, as with all aspects of raising children, there is no one-size-fits-all, but Sophie has one piece of advice to give to all parents, regardless of the age or behaviour of the child: Keep a diary.
She says: “Have a look at when your child is having a tantrum, why they’re having a tantrum, what happened and what the result was, and you will probably see a pattern.
“If it’s low blood sugar, it might always happen in the morning.
“It might always happen before nursery and actually they’re having problems with social peer skills or something like that.
“It may always happen when you’re under time pressure. Children have some really great tantrums when you really need to get out of the house!
“Or you’re in public, they know you’re under pressure and you’re more likely to cave.”
Once you’ve identified the pattern, you will be much better equipped to pre-empt and tackle the behaviour.
As children get older and master language, they are more likely to tantrum with words, which many parents find harder to deal with than the child who was hurling themselves on the floor and screaming in the middle of a busy shopping centre.
Who would have thought there would come a day when you’d miss that?
Sophie says: “Four and five year old will fling horrible things at their parents – ‘I don’t love you any more, I love daddy more than you, you can’t come to my party’ – all that kind of thing.
“You have to be emotionally prepared and cut it off so you don’t look shocked when your daughter says, ‘I don’t love you anymore’.
“You say, ‘Well that’s a shame, because I love you’ and move smoothly on as if nothing had happened.
“It takes the power out of it and they don’t bother trying it again because it didn’t have much of an effect.”
Showing that you are hurt or delving into it only reinforces that it’s a weapon to use against you in future, encouraging the behaviour.
It’s also worth considering some of the more tangible aspects of behavioural and emotional regulation.
Sophie says that often children who act out for no identifiable reason are actually dehydrated.
“Loads of children don’t drink enough and it can really impact on their ability to control their behaviour and their emotions,” she says.
“Unless you’re meeting your basic liquid needs, you’re not going to be able to focus very well.
“It’s a bit like having a kiddie hangover.”
You should also make sure your child is getting plenty of physical exercise, natural daylight, good sleep and food.
Sophie’s top five tips for tantrums
Sophie shares her top tips for averting tantrums
Use as few words as possible
Allow the child space to work through it
Do not distract them
Make sure they’re getting enough exercise, sleep, food and (especially!) water
Meanwhile one mum on Tiktok reveals a strategy for how to stop tantrums in the supermarket.
Plus here's how to stop meltdowns in children below the age of reasoning.
And one woman discovers a surprising way to get a newborn to sleep – using a heavy metal anthem!
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