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Tantrum Triage

When our child falls apart, it can leave us feeling baffled and helpless. If it happens in public, it can bring up our own feelings of anxiety, shame, insecurity, even anger and we struggle with how to respond. Tantrums and meltdowns are going to happen. We cannot prevent them. They may shape shift, but until middle childhood your child is probably going to have times when they almost literally lose their minds.

The good news is we can reduce the number and shorten these episodes significantly. We can feel better about our competence as a parent and feel empowered to respond to others who offer advice. Best of all, you and your child can come out the other side of a meltdown with a sense of relief and a deeper, more loving connection.

What do we know? Chances are you already know what doesn’t work!

  1. Ignoring doesn’t work.

  2. Threats don’t work.

  3. Cajoling doesn’t work.

  4. Fixing doesn’t work.

  5. Appeasement doesn’t work.

These approaches are ineffective because it is never just about the blue sippy cup or that we can’t build an actual fire inside a tent (my 3 year old grandson’s recent disappointment). It is not even about the broken toy, the sibling spat or that you ran out of their favorite fruit. Sometimes any of those unfortunate realities may be met with a pout, a whine or even (Ugh!) a spontaneous shoving match. But when something that seems insignificant or totally ‘fixable’ to us adults prompts crocodile tears, flailing or dead weight limp bodies and seemingly inconsolable wailing, it is because there is something else going on. Whether it’s a tantrum (generally arising from disappointment or frustration) or meltdown (arising from overwhelm) using force or fixing is not going to help restore pre-cyclone calm. If we address only what we see going on in the moment, our attempt is probably going to fall flat or even ratchet up and prolong the agony; theirs AND ours!

One thing that will help us put these dysregulated episodes into perspective, allowing us to be more understanding and ultimately more effective in minimizing these episodes, is to know (science fact here) that unless we are talking about your teenager, your child is NOT attempting to manipulate you. Their brains are quite simply not capable of the kinds of self control, language skills and planning necessary to deliberately act out in order to bend our will to theirs.

So what IS going on? Your child’s mind and body are working together to heal. Tantrums are biologically and socially very effective ways of using the few things a child has at his disposal to meet legitimate needs, mainly the need for safety and connection. They are expelling hurt and seeking the attention and connection of the people who care most for their well being.

If it isn’t the tragedy of the moment; what is the hurt? The disappointment, pain or sadness of the moment is just the last straw. Let's face it; learning to navigate the world is tough for a toddler! Being away from home and parents at daycare is huge for a four year old. Managing all the skills necessary to do 6 or more hours at school is monumental for a 6 year old. When we think of how we need a release or recharge after a day of training for a new job or stressful social situations, even happy ones, we can start to get a feel for what our children are dealing with every single day. We have the developmental maturity, social skills and language to express and release some of that tension. Our child has none of those sophisticated coping skills. They absorb all the stress and frustration of a hundred steps (or stumbles) into uncharted territory with their environment and other humans every day. Their best defensive guard against overwhelm, that loving connection and presence of their people, may have been benched. Active play and rest play a big part in releasing and recharging that stress. A lot of it has nowhere to go and it builds.

What possible good does a tantrum do? It is hard for us to see what could possibly be healing about throwing yourself on the floor and screaming. Our bodies are really pretty awesome in the way they protect themselves from extremes that can be harmful. Sweating and shivering come to mind immediately as ways we regulate our temperature. We don’t think about it but as adults we can plan and adapt our clothing or shelter to reduce the need for chattering teeth and misery. Likewise, crying, laughing and shaking are also ways we manage highly emotional experiences. We cannot completely control those responses, even in adulthood. They happen for a reason and we suffer physical pain even illness when our emotional safety valves are stuck. Kids have a lot less control over their environment. Most of us have seen a child almost literally bouncing off the walls when over stimulated before bedtime. They are not ‘fighting sleep’ but rather trying to release energy so they can sleep. Meltdowns are a way of protecting our child from an overwhelm of frustration, sadness, anger and excitement they simply cannot bear any longer.

The other half of the story when our kids seem to fall apart is that we humans are hardwired for safety in the form of connection to other humans. For a child that means their very survival depends on the nurturing adults around them. When their body explodes in an avalanche of release, they are incredibly vulnerable. They need our calm, our reassurance, our presence. It is our job to provide a safe environment for their brain and body to do its job. Children need to feel their feelings and experience the connection of our welcoming presence through them. When that support is absent, when that safety valve is not released, in the words of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, the “brain is equipped to defend against a vulnerability too much to bear”. Those defenses can close us off from our authentic self and interfere with the joy of healthy relationships in adulthood.

The difficulty is that this biologically necessary response may not always be convenient for us adults. I have yet to hear a four year old say, “You know Mom, ordinarily I would love being strapped into my car seat and then sitting in a grocery cart for a half hour, but I’ve had a really rough day and I just don’t think I can manage keeping it together for much longer”. If we make it through those times when we kind of sense our kid is teetering on the edge and adapt accordingly, we can be grateful we dodged a bullet. When we miss the signs or we just don’t have a choice and it happens, the best we can do is help them get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. How?

Tantrum Triage: Shelter, Stay, Support

The reality is that the feelings are there. We are witnessing the tip of the iceberg. Once launched, we cannot change or undo whatever led up to that meltdown moment. What we can do is acknowledge that they are in pain and not in control. Much of their brain is offline. They need us.

  1. Shelter them from the storm. Keep them and those around them safe. Only physically restrain or reposition when absolutely necessary.

  2. Stay nearby. Your touch and words are probably too intense for them at first, but make sure they can see you are near and attending to them. You may wish to silently begin calming breaths yourself. If you are at home, you might even model a calming yoga pose.

  3. Support them with simple, repeated, gently reassuring sounds or words. "I know this is hard." "I am right here". "It's okay to cry". This is not the time to explain why the sky cannot be pink or that a toy purchase is not in the budget. Their brains simply do not have the bandwidth at this point to receive or process that much information. Even offering alternatives or redirecting can prolong the meltdown. We have to communicate at our most basic emotional level. Your quiet and calm in the moment is what they need most.

Once the physical signs of storm of emotional release seem to be running their course, be alert to signs your child is expressing a desire for physical closeness and respond with a warm welcome. If they do not actively seek it, they may not be feeling confident of being accepted and welcome in your presence. Offer a place closer to you, a place in your lap or a hug and gauge the response. If they decline, let them know it is available when they are ready. It is common for the tears and upset to re-emerge once they feel connected and safe, but you can almost feel the vulnerability at this stage. That is a good sign.

When we understand the root of our child’s tantrum and appreciate the healing power of the release itself and of our reassuring presence and support, we can see why the controlling responses listed at the beginning do not work. On the contrary, many of the ways adults deal with meltdowns actually add to the overwhelm or threaten the very warm connection and safety our child so needs in that moment.

Our children develop the ability to regulate emotions with time and maturity. We cannot ‘teach’ it. We cannot expect young children to be calm in the face of overwhelm any more than we can expect a one year old to execute a climbing wall. To assimilate healthy and socially acceptable responses to their emotions it is crucial that our children witness them demonstrated over and over again by the adults entrusted with their care.

Far from encouraging future tantrums, the more we can show our child the permanence and availability of our loving presence and our acceptance of them in their most raw moments, the sooner their need for connection and safety will be satisfied and healthy, developmentally appropriate, coping behaviors can blossom. What a gift if your child grows up knowing that if they have to fall apart once in a while, they can fall into you.

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