Friday, March 29, 2013

Taming Tantrums

If you think only toddlers have tantrums, think again. Tantrums can start before the child turns two and can last well into the young adult years. They may look different but they are tantrums none-the-less. How we react to them is the key to minimizing their length and occurrences.

Toddlers - 15 to 30 months - are the most common tantrum age bracket. They are focused on building autonomy, learning new skills and stretching their boundaries at an amazing rate. This can lead to frustration, lack of control and stress - all ingredients of a melt down. Tantrums at this age vary from crying jags to the full nuclear fusion variety of lying on the floor kicking and screaming. Typically they will last from a minute to several minutes in length. However, on occasion these can take a life of their own lasting far too long.

Preschoolers - 30 months to 5 years - are the next group of children who can have fairly frequent tantrums. Because this age bracket is more verbal, their ability to talk about what is bothering them may help parents and caregivers deal with episodes more quickly. Often their outbursts are crying, screaming and refusal to do anything until either they can deal with their feelings or an adult intervenes.

Older children and teenagers can have some of the most explosive tantrums. While typically few and far between they usually come out when the child who has been holding in frustration, anger, stress, disappointment and the like, until they simply cannot manage it any more. Then outbursts are more likely to be yelling, stomping feet, door slamming or personal verbal attacks. Often these verbal attacks are focused on the person who could probably help them the most. I've found they frequently are yelling about a subject which has no relation to the real issue, so some detective work is going to be necessary when they are at a calmer place.

No matter the type or length of a tantrum, how you respond to it will make a huge difference both for you and for the child. In all cases you will want to remain calm during the tantrum. Escalating the energy level already in the room does nothing to help the child get out of the tantrum cycle.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1) Keep Calm - while tantrums are upsetting to everyone, and sometimes embarrassing, it's important that you keep calm and not add to the energy. Take a deep breath and when you are ready to talk with the child do so in a mellow voice. Lowering the tone of your voice helps as well to bring down the energy level and calm the child.

2) Speak to the Issue - all discussions with the child should be about the behavior or feelings and not about the child as a whole. For children who have limited verbal skills try to interpret their frustration, providing understanding while being clear that certain behaviors are unacceptable. Older toddlers and preschoolers will be able to verbalize their concerns which offer you an opportunity to listen. Ask open ended questions about the problem to get more insight. Older children and teens should be able to express to you other options for bringing their concerns to you other than having a melt down.

3) Melt Downs Happen - admittedly we've all had them - we may call them by another name but they are simply emotional expressions of our frustration or disappointment or loss or some other very real feeling. Children don't have an adult’s ability to control themselves and it's up to us to help them find other avenues of expression. An emotional release is very therapeutic, as we know, but having the ability to put parameters on those releases are important . . . and this is where adults can help the child.

4) Talk about Options - this is best done when there are no issues at hand. When everyone is calm, with no immediate pressing concerns, that’s the time to do some brainstorming and talk about options. Discuss appropriate ways to express frustration or stress or anger. How do they recognize those feelings before they overwhelm them? This can be very helpful, because then they are able to begin to anticipate when they may need help. Using role playing can be a fun way of practicing skills – the adult can be the child and the child can be the adult.

Just remember we have an opportunity to redirect, teach, encourage and support children as they grow and develop. It’s not surprising the there are struggles along the way, so our attitude and approach are vital to moving forward.

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