How to Survive a Temper Tantrum: Learning to Connect to Your Child Before You Redirect
Kids cry. A lot. Sometimes they cry for no apparent reason. Other times they cry because you have asked them to do something they do not want to do. No matter what the cause, hearing your child cry can feel helpless and overwhelming to parents. Knowing how to respond in the most appropriate and relationship-enhancing way can help lower the stress involved with crying and tantrums.
At HeadFirst Counseling, we teach parents to view crying as a distress signal. When children are in the middle of a temper tantrum and are crying uncontrollably, it is a way of them to signal to parents that they are in need of help and are unable to regulate themselves. When in this state, it is up to parents to regulate and calm their child. To do this, parents themselves must be in a calm and regulated stated.
When parents are able to remain calm and not have their own emotions escalate along with their child’s, the calming presence of the adult figure will help calm and regulate the child. Another name for this process is known as using mirror neurons. Mirror neurons show us that when a child observes and experiences another in a calm and regulated state, that the child’s own emotional state will match (or mirror) the others. This is also true for the opposite- when a parent escalates and becomes emotional during a tantrum, the child will also escalate further.
Another key factor to keep in mind during temper tantrums is that your child does not currently have access to the logical parts of his or her brain. When a child has completely lost control and is in the middle of a meltdown, now is not the time for reason or using logic- they simply can’t process the information. You must first connect with them on a more primitive, emotional level. After the connection is made and the child feels understood by the parent, then helpful redirection can come next.
You must connect before you redirect.
The next time your child is in the middle of a temper tantrum, try following these simple guidelines to decrease the duration and intensity of the meltdown and come out on the other side with the parent-child relationship still intact.
1. Remain calm and don't let your own emotions get the best of you.
This is where the work of the mirror neurons comes in handy. Parents are encouraged to remain in a calm state of mind, using calming voice and touch to help their child become regulated again. It’s easy to lose control and become just as angry and frustrated as your child, but it is important for parents not to follow their child’s lead. During a tantrum, the child’s developing brain needs help from the more advanced and mature brain of a primary caregiver to regulate breathing and begin calming the child. Tricks that help both parent and child get calm are deep breathing and soothing touch.
The one and only time I encourage parents to step away from their child or use any type of relationship withdrawal is when the parent is no longer in a calm, accepting state towards their child. This calls for some honest self-reflection and awareness on the part of the parent. If you are upset and feel angry towards your child, then taking a couple minutes to regulate your own emotions before engaging with your child is necessary. Sometimes children know exactly which buttons to press to make parents feel challenged or threatened, leading to feelings of rejection or anger. When this happens, do what you need to in order to acknowledge and let go of those personal reactions, and then quickly return to your child. The sooner you are able to return to your child and help your child feel safe, the better.
2. Communicate your understanding.
This is the connection part of the equation. Once you and your child have both taken some deep breaths and you have comforted your child through soothing touch (holding, rocking, embracing, rubbing his back), the child should now be physically regulated and is able to listen to simple words that you say. Once physical regulation is achieved, you can begin working on emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is achieved by communicating to the child that you understand his feelings and experience, and are able to communicate this understanding to your child. Reflecting the child’s feelings is a way of communicating empathy and understanding to your child. Letting your child know that you understand that he is angry (mad, irritated, lonely, etc.) allows your child to feel understood, and therefore decreases the need to continue the tantrum.
3. Redirect the behavior once the child is regulated.
After the connection is achieved through reflecting your child’s feelings, then redirection can come in. This is when parents can use simple language to communicate the limit to the child’s behavior and offer a solution. A good rule of thumb during this moment is that if you can’t say it in 10 words or less, don’t say it. Most likely your child is still de-escalating his emotions and can’t process long explanations about how what they did was wrong and what they should do next time. Simple alternatives, such as offering a different toy to play with or offering to help your child with a difficult task are more beneficial than lengthy explanations or trying to get your child to agree with you. The goal of the redirection is to allow the child to get his need met in an appropriate manner, with you right there to help him if needed.
Using these methods of connecting before redirecting will help your child feel accepted and understood, and thereby decreasing the frequency, duration, and need for future tantrums as your child is better able to regulate his own emotions.
While these methods to not guarantee that your child will never have another tantrum, or promise that the tantrum will only last 1-2 minutes, it does help ensure that the parent-child relationship is not damaged along the way. Connecting with your child during a tantrum will help strengthen your relationship and goes a long way in preventing future tantrums as you and your child are more in sync.
Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at www.headfirstdallas.com
Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org