Taming the Tantrum

Clueless as to how to handle your kid’s tantrums? Well, here’s how to maintain your cool in the midst of the tempest.

By Arundhati Swamy

Taming the Tantrum

So, your child is throwing a tantrum…again! The screaming, rolling, throwing stuff around gets to you, and you’re ready to flip your lid!

You’ve experienced these a hundred times before, and yet they keep coming back, no matter what you do – ignoring it, walking away, giving a piece of your mind, threats and bribes.

Here’s how you can step in without flipping your lid. No guarantees that the tantrums won’t happen again, but we can tell you a thing or two about why they happen, how to deal with the different types of tantrums, feel more in control and yes, be able to say, wow, that worked!

So, let’s see what works.

Did you know that when your kid goes into the tantrum mode, it means that something is bothering him? It could be that he badly wants to get something, or that he just doesn’t want to do something. Like a thunderstorm, he rumbles into an Intentional tantrum, where he is in complete control of his feelings and emotions. That’s his Thinking brain in action. His purpose is clear. He has to get his way, no questions asked! He tries hard, pushes you to your limits. He knows what your tipping point is and persists till he drives you there.

Or, he could be distressed about something, and rides the waves of an Emotional tantrum – he’s afraid, or frustrated, or disappointed; or he’s tired and hungry, needs your attention, is feeling upset and uncomfortable. His Emotional brain has taken over, and he has lost connect with the Thinking brain. No amount of reasoning will help at this point.

Well, now we know that there are two types of tantrums, and each needs a different type of handling, right? Well, that makes sense. No wonder that it has been such a struggle.

Let’s try to understand the two types of tantrums better with some examples.

The Intentional Tantrum

Four-year-old Lekha and her mother stopped by a shop to pick up some snacks before proceeding to the park. Trouble began when Lekha saw an attractive box of crayons and insisted on having them. Her mother promptly put them away and explained to Lekha that she had enough and more of them at home. That was it! All hell broke loose. Lekha fell to the ground, kicking, screaming and demanding that she be given what she wanted.

And, what did her mother do? She took a deep breath to calm her rising embarrassment. She observed Lekha and understood that her daughter’s tantrum was an intentional one. She looked at Lekha straight in the eye and, in a firm voice that meant business, addressed her Thinking brain. She gave Lekha two choices – if she continued to misbehave, they would return home immediately, but if she behaved properly, they could still go to the park where she would meet her friends and have fun.

The Emotional Tantrum

Hema was enjoying a long chat with her neighbour. Her little son Manu was engrossed in playing with his toy train. It was way past his lunchtime. All of a sudden, Manu ran to his mother crying and began tugging at her hand.

What did Hema do? She glanced at the clock, realised it was late and understood that her son was hungry and tired. Instead of reacting to his behaviour, she chose to connect with his Emotional brain. She gave him a warm hug to calm him down, and then quickly proceeded to serve his meal.

There’s something else we need to know about tantrums. Remember how angry and helpless you feel when the tantrum is at its worst? You are ready to hit the roof yourself. Well, don’t. Just take a deep breath and know that the worst is almost over. That’s right. A tantrum generally follows a pattern. There’s a build up with the screaming and crying, the behaviour gets increasingly uncontrollable with the rolling, flinging and headbanging as it reaches a peak, and then gives way to sobbing and whimpering as it begins to subside. This is the right time to step in.

Tips to deal with tantrums

Here's a bag of tricks to keep tantrums at bay:

  • Be aware of the triggers
  • Keep food or snacks handy
  • Stick to a routine and follow it
  • Don’t overschedule with multiple activities
  • Make time for your child
  • Split his tasks into doable chunks
  • Give him choices
  • Don’t give in, particularly to intentional tantrums; otherwise, your child will pick up the habit of throwing a tantrum to get what he wants
  • Don’t have rigid rules or unrealistic expectations

When should you worry about your child’s tantrums? When you’ve tried every which way, and nothing seems to work.

When to seek help

Here are a few guidelines that will tell you when it’s time to seek help:

  • There are frequent tantrums (10–20 a month or more than five a day, or multiple times outside the home)
  • The child inflicts self-injury
  • She shows extreme aggression
  • The duration of the tantrum is longer
  • She doesn’t know how to calm down

We may have no control over when and how our kids will throw tantrums, but now we know how to not flip the lid when the tantrums become full-blown ones. So, give yourself a thumbs-up!

Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.

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