It was supposed to be a fun outing for 5-year-old Arav and his parents. The three had gone to a mall to spend their evening. And then, Arav spotted the toy store. As he passed the tempting store front, he tried to pull his mother into the store. She held him back saying that they could come back later. But Arav became upset. He started pleading and whining. This soon escalated into weeping, shouting, throwing himself on to the ground and kicking. A full-blown, classic temper tantrum was on display!
Arav’s parents looked as if they wanted to disappear, as people walking by looked at them – some disapprovingly and some pityingly. And then they did what they usually do – they gave in! They hustled Arav into the toy store. Round one to Arav! What Arav’s parents had unwittingly done was teach him was that if he wanted something, all he needed to do was shout, scream and cry. Eventually, they would listen to him and give in!
So the question, what should you as parents do differently to deal with a temper tantrum more effectively?
Step 1: Understand the psychology behind the child’s temper tantrum
Remember, anger, like any other emotion, is normal and part of the human experience. But your goal has to be to teach your children to manage their anger in a safe way.
A child’s anger is usually a defence against a deep sense of hurt, frustration, shame, jealousy or rejection. For example, a child gets angry with his sister because she refuses to share even though their parents have forced him to share his toys with her. He feels hurt and frustrated because he believes he is being treated unfairly.
Step 2: Identify the different ways in which a child expresses anger
As you learn to manage your child’s anger better, you need to identify the different ways in which a child expresses anger.
Children show their anger in two ways – externally, turning into ‘Exploders’ as in the case of Arav – where screaming, hitting, throwing things or biting are common; or internally, becoming ‘stuffers’ – where they cry, hold their breath or clench their fists and teeth while simmering with anger. Depending on the child’s personality or situation, they might show both behaviours. For example, at school they might express anger internally – but at home, they could explode. You may recognise these behaviours in your child.
Step 3: Keep your cool
Impossible as it sounds, the starting point for you to effectively discipline your child is to remain calm. What this means is that, as you try to respond to your child’s temper, you first have to be aware of your own heart-condition (which is your emotional state). Are you getting angry, frustrated or upset? Responding to your child from a negative heart condition will only result in raising noise levels, hurt feelings or generate a sense of guilt. Remember, you are the role model!
So your first response to your child’s anger should be a loving one. Connect with your child by making eye contact, hold or hug him and acknowledge his anger by saying “I know you are angry and upset.” This makes him feel heard. By showing compassion, as your child struggles through these emotions, you strengthen the bond of love and understanding. In fact, once you connect with the feelings under the anger, you may sense some vulnerability or even tears.
Step 4: Applying the STOP Sign
Now to apply a strategy to deal with your child’s anger! Sit down till you’re level with your toddler, make eye contact and, using a calm but firm tone of voice, tell her to stop. Tell her to close her eyes and imagine a STOP sign in her mind. This stop sign acts as a symbolic visual that she has to stop and break this flow of negative emotion. For a younger child, help her label her feelings. You could say something like, “Radha, you're getting upset. Mummy (or Daddy) is here to help you. We can make this better. Let us first stop and calm down. Take a deep breath or count to ten.” This often distracts the child and redirects her disruptive flow of emotions to respond to your request.
Step 5: Here’s what to do if they don’t stop
If they don’t respond to your firm requests to stop, you may find yourself getting frustrated or angry. Fight it. Take a ‘Parental Timeout’ at this time. What you can say is “I love you and I want to hear what you have to say, but I am not going to listen to your angry voice any more. I cannot understand you when you shout and scream. I am going to my bedroom and I will wait for you there. When you are done shouting, come and talk to me. I am waiting for you there.”
It’s important to remember this should not come across as your ‘great escape’! Walking away in disgust or anger will send the message that you don’t care for your child’s feelings. So be conscious of your body language and tone as you walk away.
It may be difficult in the beginning as the shouting and whining might get louder. But trust us, once they learn you are serious – they will reach out to you. And as you see them coming towards you – hesitantly perhaps – you should respond positively. Welcome them with a big smile, open arms and a tight hug.
Children younger than three sometimes just get into an anger rut. The solution then is much simpler. You may just need to pick them up gently, take them to another place and distract them.
Parents, remember that changing parenting habits and the behaviour of your child takes time. So, be patient with yourself and your child. More importantly, know that you have to use your love for your child as the basis for discipline – not your anger, frustration, embarrassment or a need for control!
So, starting today, make the time to understand your child’s anger. And practise these tips to make sure your toddler doesn’t throw a temper tantrum ever again. Here’s to bringing back the Joy to Parenting!
Aparna Samuel Balasundaram – Award Winning Clinical Psychotherapist, Parent and Child Expert, with 10 years of experience in the USA.
She is the Founder of Life Skills Experts that enables parents and teachers to raise happy, confident and successful children. www.LifeSkillsExperts.com
She is also the Founder of ‘A Flourishing Me’, that offers contemporary Counselling and Parent and Life Coaching [www.AFlourishing.me]