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Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Managing Tantrums

We’ve all been there… you’re in Spinney’s trying to do your weekly shop when your child suddenly spots something they cannot possibly live without. Maybe a toy. Maybe a chocolate. Or maybe their favourite sugary cereal.

“I want it!” they demand.

Now, they’ve already had a few treats today and you decide to not indulge them.

Cue the meltdown…

Your child begins crying, screaming and throwing things out from the cart. What do you do? Should you give in and give them what they want to quieten them down? Should you bargain with them and tell them if they stop crying you’ll buy them something later? Should you ignore them, or should you leave?
You just want the screaming to stop. People have started to stare and are giving you ‘that look’. What you do next is extremely important, but before we decide how to move forward, we need to look at exactly why this is taking place.

Children are learning how to manage difficult emotions and they need support as they learn how to do this. In this moment, your child is feeling some pretty strong feelings of anger, disappointment, frustration, and they might not have the language skills to express themselves clearly. But does that mean that we should fix it for them and make it all go away by giving them what they want?

In short: No.

Young children need to learn that they may not always get what they want. They need to learn to develop coping mechanisms to manage these feelings of anger and disappointment in the future. This helps them develop self-regulation skills that are important for later in life. However, this is not an appropriate time to be teaching these skills. Your child is currently upset and overwhelmed, and you need to let them know calmly (but firmly) that this behaviour will not get them what they want and then stick to it!

Make sure your child is safe and continue with your shopping. If your child becomes unmanageable, it might be best to leave with your child and return to do your shopping another time. Although this is not an ideal scenario, it will reinforce to your child that this behaviour is not going to get them what they want and will eventually lead to them learning to adapt their behaviour in these situations.

When a child has a tantrum they are communicating that they are unable to manage the difficult emotions they may be feeling, but when your child is calm it is a good opportunity to reinforce some coping strategies that they can implement with your help.

As we don’t want every trip out to result in you taking your child home for difficult behaviour, here are some strategies to help avoid a tantrum and to stop it before it happens:

  • Clear Expectations: If you are entering a situation that could possibly trigger negative emotions from your child, before entering the situation clearly explain your expectations to your child. E.g. “Today we are not buying any treats.”
  • Distraction: Maybe your child could be given a new activity or task to distract them from their negative feelings?
  • Attention: Give your child plenty of positive attention so that they do not feel the need to seek negative attention.
  • Control: Provide your child with some control over the situation. E.g. “Do you want apple juice or orange juice?” Sometimes a tantrum can be the result of feeling helpless, with a lack of control.
  • Consideration: When your child asks you for something, make them feel that their request is valued and carefully consider it. Is it an outrageous request? Is it something that could be accommodated? Learn to pick your battles.
  • Out of sight: Try to avoid things that are off limits or may put your child in a negative situation.

If your child begins having a tantrum at home, it is best to let them work through these emotions with an adult nearby for support. Here are a few things you should do to support your child:

  1. Remain calm: Your child is looking to you to see how you manage stressful situations. Keep your voice calm and your body language neutral.
  2. Make sure your child is in a safe place: Clear the area and make sure that there is nothing they can hurt themselves on, or throw or break. A clear, open space is best.
  3. Remember that your child is not going to hurt themselves: They may act aggressively but they are not able to cause themselves serious harm and will most likely be looking for a reaction from you.
  4. Be mindful with your words: Allow your child time to work through these feelings before speaking.
  5. Don’t indulge your child: They may be looking for attention or a reaction from you. Respond to your child only when they have calmed down.

Once your child is calm, offer them a hug – this is where they need your support. They do not need to be punished as they are merely trying to work through these difficult emotions. Think about how much better you feel after having a good cry and just letting your feelings out. Speak to them about how they were feeling and what made them feel this way. Remember, children may not have the language to express themselves and it’s important for adults to provide this for them so they can begin using it in the future.

“Did it make you feel mad when Sarah took your toy? It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. Maybe next time we could try talking to her about it.”

Above all, remember that children are still learning how to manage their emotions. They are not trying to act out or be difficult, they are simply learning to deal with their anger, frustration and sadness. They need to be allowed to work through these emotions and then have an adult support them to develop their self-regulation so that they can begin to manage these independently as they grow up.

Children will grow out of it, don’t worry, and every parent has been through this at one stage or another.

This blog was written by Ms. Starr from Jumeirah International Nurseries Downtown.