Here’s the scene: Your child has made a poor choice. After a stern scolding, your child has been put in timeout, or something has been taken away. A temper tantrum ensues, and it escalates into sobbing, screaming, and yelling. Perhaps he or she is hitting the wall or throwing stuffed animals in your direction even though you are yards away. You ignore the behavior, believing the intensity will soon lessen. After a few minutes, your child is not calming down. Instead, his or her voice becomes raspy as the screaming continues. Big gulps of air are swallowed between heaving sobs. Although the timeout is serving as a punishment, it is not helping to calm your child. What do you do now when the time out is over?
It took me a while to learn with my oldest what could calm her storms and disappointments. She is a fantastic temper tantrum thrower, and she has a flair for drama in all things. Unfortunately, my anger and frustration with her behavior choices kept me from discovering what works sooner. However, no amount of ignoring, timeouts, or stern lectures could stop her hysteria once it began. (She doesn’t have these fits often, but when they occur, they are epic.) I knew my approach wasn’t working, so I decided to try something different.
If your child makes the kind of a choice where a punishment is needed, go ahead and get the punishment out of the way. If you are taking away a toy, take the toy away. If your child is going into timeout, put him or her in timeout for your regular amount of time. Whatever the circumstance or punishment, go ahead and get that out of the way first.
Often, this is where the hysterical behavior will begin. Once your child is in tantrum mode, there is no reasoning with him or her. Usually, this only escalates the tantrum. You will have to wait until he or she is completely calm and relaxed to talk about what happened in a productive manner.
When your child enters into hysteria, all control is lost. Your child is furious, and he or she knows that you are mad too. Remember that although you cannot control your child, you can control YOUR response. Now that the punishment is over, it is time to start healing.
At this point, I go to the timeout place, and I pick up my daughter. I might rock her in a chair, or I might hold her on the couch. I hold her so that she is facing me and can put her head on my shoulder. The key to this is that I hold her tightly; I want her to feel secure.
I have found support for this idea in all kinds of unlikely places. On Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Daniel learns to hug himself tightly when he feels really upset. At school, I was sent to a training on how to safely restrain young elementary-age students who were acting out in such a way that they could hurt others or themselves in a tantrum. Part of the restraint is crossing the child’s arms tightly around his or her chest and pulling the child securely against your side. One of our dogs is terrified of thunderstorms. We bought him a Thundercoat. It is a special wrap-around shirt for dogs that makes them feel like they are being held securely. Security can calm fear and anxiety. It can ease the hysteria.
As the tantrum begins to come down and I don’t have to hold as tightly, I will begin calming her. Sometimes, I rock, sing softly, or smooth her hair. I like to whisper sing “You Are My Sunshine” when she is upset. It helps remind her that I still love her even though she has made some bad choices that day. (Poor choice + massive, epic tantrum = a really bad afternoon for everyone). At this point, she is usually still crying softly or working to regulate her breathing. I will continue to calm and soothe until her tears have stopped and her breathing is steady. (Note that this may take a while. Sometimes, the security and calming portion of this process can take 20 minutes or more depending on how upset she is about the situation. However, this stage is really important. You cannot progress on until your child is calm enough to talk about what happened without starting the tantrum all over again.)
“The talk” comes in two parts. Part one is assurance. In this part, I softly and calmly remind her how much I love her. I remind her that nothing she could ever do would make me love her any less. I remind her how happy she makes me and that I love spending time with her. I remind her that I need her to help me make cookies, play games, and do puzzles. I also remind her that everyone makes mistakes, and we are all just learning. I acknowledge her feelings of anger and disappointment in the event.
Hey, I feel those feelings too sometimes when I don’t get my way! Again, this part in the sequence of steps is really important. Your child is now looking to reestablish your connection. He or she is not only feeling disappointed by what happened but guilty too. You can soothe fears with assurance. Calmly remind your child how much you love him or her and that you understand how he or she is feeling.
Often, my daughter perks up hopefully during this part of the process. She loves going over the things we do together. She is comforted to hear that I love her no matter what. She brightens to be reminded that everyone makes poor choices from time to time, and she is encouraged to know that I understand she is a child. I understand she is still learning.
The tantrum has ended. Your child feels secure, calm, and has assurance that you still love him or her. It is time for reasoning. You can now revisit the events and explain why you took the toy away or why you put him or her in time-out. You can talk about alternative ways to deal with anger and disappointment instead of throwing a tantrum.
I suggest having your child be an active participant in the discussion. It will make “the talk” feel more like a friendly conversation and less like a critical lecture. Try to connect the event to a time when your child has been on the other side of the coin. Perhaps someone destroyed his or her craft at preschool. Perhaps a cousin or sibling snatched a toy out of your child’s hand and refused to share. How did your child feel then? What should have happened to the schoolmate, cousin, or sibling in that circumstance? Should the same thing happen to your child too? At this age, children cannot reason this out on their own. You will have to guide your child through the reasoning phase in the hopes that he or she will eventually learn how to be kind, share, and deal with disappointment.
That’s it. That’s how I learned how to calm the storm with my oldest daughter. I followed the steps of punishment, security, calm, assurance, and reasoning. Although we still have epic tantrums from time to time, they do not last nearly as long. Actually, I feel that my reaction turns a bad situation into a loving and learning opportunity.
Share with us! What do you do to help calm your hysterical child?