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Temper Tantrums

How to Handle Temper Tantrums

by Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
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A temper tantrum is an uncontrolled outburst of anger that usually arises from a child's thwarted efforts to control a situation. The tantrum says, "I have tried desperately to make the world go my way. Now I'm frazzled. I feel terrified, helpless, and powerless." Both children and adults have tantrums. Just watch the news, go to the mall, or take a trip in your car, and you'll likely see at least one. Last week I caught myself having a fit because the elevator in a hotel was stopping at each floor to let people on and off, and I was late to a meeting. My behavior was ridiculous for two reasons:
  1. That's what elevators do, they stop and let people on and off.
  2. I was somehow convinced that if I huffed, puffed, and looked at my watch enough, the elevator would get to the lobby quicker. I felt helpless and powerless to make the world go my way. I don't always become so upset with elevators, but that day I was tired, hungry, and felt I was missing out on something that was important to me. From this inner state of fear, I acted out my emotions just like a child.
How do you respond when the world does not go your way? When it is 7:30 a.m. and the children should be dressed, should have eaten, and should be walking out the door? When someone cuts you off in traffic? Do you take a deep breath and calm yourself down, or do you rant and rave, blaming others for your tirade? Helping children handle their temper tantrums begins with adults learning how to regulate their own emotions.

Usually, when the world doesn't seem go my way, I do the following: I take a deep breath and say to myself, "You're safe, Becky. Keep breathing. You can handle this." As you can imagine, this was not always my typical mantra. I have made a conscious effort to change my language, and accept life as it is instead of how I think it should be. Before, my inner speech would have been, "I can't believe this is happening. It shouldn't be this way. I don't have to put up with this," etc. By changing how I respond internally to my own fits, I have also been able to respond to children more productively.

How to Help Children Handle their Feelings and Control their Tempers

Tantrums are typical for children between fifteen months and three years of age. How we help them manage themselves during this period of life creates a blueprint for how they will self-regulate and handle stress for the rest of their lives. The fact that I am still having adult tantrums (fits of judgment and blame) at the age of 58 speaks volumes for the remedial work many of us need to do so we can help our children learn more effective coping skills. We must focus on helping children handle intense emotions instead of trying to stop, ignore, distract from, punish with time-outs, or just "get through" them. We must actively use times of upset to respond in ways that wire children's brains for future self-regulation.

Our response to their intense upset is the key. We can respond in a way that encourages more tantrums by giving into their demands. We can also respond by doing nothing, allowing the tantrums to evolve as the child grows older. This evolution of tantrums might go as follows: Young children throw themselves on the floor, yell and shout. Older children scream back at you using hurtful words. Teenagers slam the bedroom door and yell curse words. And I huff and puff, internally ranting about incompetent elevator designers and people who shouldn't be getting on and off my elevator! Alternately, we could lay the foundation for positive life skills by responding to children in a way that teaches them to self-regulate.

Redirecting a tantrum once it is set in action is impossible. At that time, our role as parents is to help coach our children through recovery. The following suggestions will get you started:

Always remember to discipline yourself first and your child second: Take several deep belly breaths before you begin to speak. Make your insides as calm as you would like the child's to become. Any time your child is experiencing a difficult emotion, it is helpful to breathe deeply and say to him/her, "You're safe. You can handle this. Breathe with me."

Use empathy and reflection: This will help your child become conscious of himself or herself, and begin the process of moving from a very disorganized state to a more organized state.
Step 1: Say what you see. "Your arms are going like this (demonstrate). Your face looks like this (demonstrate)." At this point, your child is likely to look at you. Take another deep breath. Due to the mirror neuron system in the brain, your child is likely to unconsciously take a deep breath with you.

Step 2: Reflect back the emotion you hear. "You seem (state the emotion)." Then state the desired goal. "You were hoping (state the desire)," or, "You were wanting (state the desire)." If you are truly calm and offering this from your heart, the child will become organized enough to handle making a choice.
End by offering the child two choices that are both acceptable to you: "You may (positive choice #1) or (positive choice #2). Which is better for you?" This will shift the focus to what you want the child to do.
Let's try it with a common example: You're checking out at the grocery store. Your child asks for some candy. You say, "No." Your child is obviously not pleased with your answer. Her face immediately contorts as she crosses her arms. Start the process quickly, as soon as you see the emotion begin to show in her body.

Say, "Your arms are crossed like this (demonstrate from a calm and loving state). Your face is going like this (demonstrate)."

As the child looks at you, take a deep breath. The child might now say, "I hate you, shut up!"

Your response is, "You seem angry. You were hoping to get some candy. It's hard to wait." Take another deep breath and say, "You're safe. Breathe with me. You can handle this."

Finally, offer two positive choices by saying, "You have a choice. You can have a snack in your car seat or have a snack when we get home. Which do you choose?"  
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Meet Our Expert
Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.
Creator of Conscious Discipline
Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, renowned teacher, and internationally recognized expert in childhood education and developmental psychology. Her workshops touch thousands of lives each year, and her top-selling books have over 100,000 copies in circulation. Dr. Bailey is the founder of Loving Guidance, Inc., a company dedicated to creating positive environments for children, families, schools, and businesses. She is also the originator of Conscious Discipline®.

Dr. Bailey has authored eleven discipline-related books, and will publish her twelfth, Creating the School Family, in the fall of 2010. Her core publication for parents, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, has received national acclaim and is available in eight languages. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline applies the Conscious Discipline® message to the family unit, offering the support and internal changes adults need to effectively parent their children.

In her passion to empower all people, especially those working with our youngest citizens, Dr. Bailey established the first early childhood education four-year university degree program in the state of Florida. She was instrumental in establishing a teacher certification program for Native Americans in New Mexico. She has raised over two million dollars for children's programs, including playing an integral role in the fundraising, building, equipping, and training of staff for a preschool in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka. She recently established F.A.C.E.S., a non-profit organization that provides free training and resources to at-risk families and teachers in memory of her mother, Frances Canipe Bailey.
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