I can honestly say that prior to becoming a parent (even as a child therapist), tantrums appeared quite straightforward.
Tantrum = Negative behavior + correction/consequence
Improved Behavior = Ignoring said negative behavior+ temporary increase in child screaming/physical tantruming until child tires him/herself out and falls asleep.
As a reasonably new parent, I have grown to appreciate the nuances of tantrums. I now understand that a tantrum not only stems from a child not getting his/her way, but also teething, itchy clothes, saying goodbye, tummy troubles, fear, anxiety, and just about anything a child might need to tell us but lacks the capacity to do so in words.
It makes so much sense intellectually, but for most parents and for whatever reason, it’s difficult to understand tantrum as a language. Just as play is a primary mode of communication for children, tantrums (however annoying and frustrating) are also a means for children to express themselves.
Please don’t misunderstand these statements to mean that tantrums should be met with indulgence and lack consequences or redirection. It is possible that tantrums can be developmentally appropriate communication and also require guidance toward a more effective way of communicating and self-regulation.
What to do, what to do……
I think as parents we sometimes find ourselves at a loss in situations when our children react with tantrums, which can often feel like an atomic bomb of a reaction over simply spilled milk. First and foremost, no matter what, we need to take a deep breath and assess the situation as well as our feelings about it. If it is not an emergency (as in our child is in danger of harming his/herself or others or setting the house on fire) we can take a moment. We can even remove ourselves from our child (presuming they are in a safe and contained environment). The child can scream, cry, pound the floor, yell mean things, until he or she is able to re-regulate.
We, as parents, are then able to regulate ourselves through the use of mindfulness, yoga, relaxation techniques, a phone call to a trusted friend, even for as little as 2 minutes (or let’s be serious…. 30 seconds in some cases), in order to be able to more effectively address the situation. After all, our children take their cues from us, see: “Monkey See…. Monkey Do… (Your Kids are always watching (and listening) to you.”
Once the maelstrom of a tantrum has passed and both you and the child have calmed down, you can then address whatever issue triggered the tantrum. There is no point in trying to have a conversation with a child or exact consequences during a tantrum because the child’s emotions (and sometimes body) are out of control. They are unable to think logically or converse. If you must speak with them, use short sentences that get to the point. Save the soliloquies for another time.
Keep in mind that these tactics work regardless of your child’s age. Teenagers frequently throw tantrums, and while the behavior and language may look different, the emotional dysregulation they experience and the approach you take remain the same.