Tantrums!

You're wandering the aisles at the grocery store. Then, it happens. The tantrum. 

By Nathaniel Strenger, M.A., Doctoral Intern | Mar 16, 2017
Tantrums 1

Mayday!  Secure your Oxygen Masks.

This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Scenario: You are lost among the sea of aisles at your least favorite grocery store, having long forgotten what dang item you were looking for in the first place.  You are tired and unkempt, and that little version of you by your side (that you used to call “bundle of joy”) is becoming restless.  All the familiar signs are there: She’s got that furrowed brow; her voice is taking on that slimy, whiny tone; and that once cute little smile has given way to almost rhythmic waves of eye rolls that are wearing your patience thin.

Then, it happens.  She asks for a box of the teeth-rotting, definitely-not-a-part-of-any-complete-breakfast cereal that she knows you never buy for her anyway.  You immediately know what lies ahead.  You have to say “no,” as you always do.  But this particular denial will hit Little-Bundle-of-Joy like lighter-fluid hits a pile of smoldering embers.  You clench your fists and brace yourself: “No, honey, you know we don’t buy that cereal.”  Little-Bundle-of-Joy unleashes a fury so public and so loud that it turns all the heads in the produce section your way.  “Oh great.  My child hates me and now everybody knows it.  I’m a terrible parent.”

This feels like one of those crisis moments we see in the movies.  It’s like when the commercial airliner starts to bounce violently, the overhead bins fling open and luggage comes spilling out, and the emergency oxygen masks drop down from above.  Mayday, we’re going down…

But what do the flight attendants, when preparing us for these emergencies, always tell us?  Before you put on your child’s oxygen mask, you must put on your own.  So, Step One: Stay Calm.  Do whatever it is that you need (e.g., a deep breath, a count to ten) to keep your cool.  Not all tantrums are entirely deliberate misbehavior.  They are often at least equal parts intentional and impulsive overreaction.  And especially since you are far more advanced in the impulse control department (hopefully, thanks to your matured prefrontal cortex), there’s no sense in adding your own impulsive reactions to the mix.  In that scenario, spoken in true Momentous Institute language, the glitter has hit the fan.  And don’t worry; it is possible to be calm and firm at the same time.  But as L.A. child psychologist Enrico Gnaulati writes, “Remember, when your kid starts to lawyer up, you’re not another lawyer; you’re the judge!”

Alright, so you’ve reached your calm.  Namaste.  Now it might be time to get an oxygen mask on your child.  This can be difficult, as he or she will likely struggle in all the upheaval.  Thus a possible Step Two: Calm your Child.  Thinking in terms of neurology, Little-Bundle-of-Joy is not going to comprehend a word of your sagacious lecture about good behavior (or whatever rants you might be tempted to level) until her amygdala (the emotional brain) has calmed down and reached a balance with the  prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain).  There are many different ways you can do this:

(1) Impulse control and emotional regulation can be negatively impacted by environmental overstimulation. If you are in a loud part of the store or a crowded room in the house, move the child to a location with a little less sensory stimulation; perhaps this is a dimmer corner or a quieter aisle.  You don’t even need to say much (yet).  A lot of children might calm easier in the simple presence of a single, non-lecturing, non-scolding adult. 

(2) At this phase, punitive reaction will likely just escalate things.  Instead, offer some simple empathic and reflective phrases. “This is so upsetting to you.” “You are so angry that we can’t get the cereal you want.” “Alright, you are not crying so loudly now.”  These types of phrases serve a number of purposes.  First, they prevent you from reacting in ways that make your child angrier.  Second, they promote calm by promoting understanding.  And third, they expand your child’s emotional vocabulary.  Do this last one enough and your child will begin using their own words (rather than their shrieks) to communicate with you.

(3) If you do need to challenge your child at this point, you might consider challenging the intensity, rather than the legitimacy, of their feelings.  Our feelings are things we use to define ourselves pretty intimately.  We’d rather tell our kids that they need to find different ways of expressing those feelings rather than they are wrong for having them.

Now that you have both reached neurological homeostasis (your glitter has settled), you might move on to Step Three: Follow-Through.  This is where “firm” joins “calm.”  All children must conquer a significantly difficult developmental milestone.  They must eventually learn that their internal states do not always exert omnipotent control over their surroundings.  You can trace this idea back to some of our earliest psychoanalysts.  And now that your child has reached a level of more thoughtful calm, he or she can better accept the fact that you did not “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” in reaction to their exertions.  Instead you courageously stood firm, without losing your empathic attunement and parental attachment.  So now you might gently reiterate that, no, you will not be taking a box of that cavity-inducing cereal home today.  You might also gently provide a logical consequence for their actions (or you might wait to do this until you get to the car!).  Sometimes you might find yourself needing to dip back into Steps One and Two, which is alright and should likely improve with time and repetition.  However, you might be able to sneak by if you jump quickly to step four.

Step Four: Praise.  Here you can tie a little ribbon on things and do a little repair work.  If your little one successfully overcame the tantrum and survived the follow-through phase without further meltdown, you might layer on some praise and gratitude.  Regularly working this part into your crisis response may provide some incentive to prevent tantrums (or at least shorten them) in the future.

Getting into this routine is, of course, easier said than done.  It takes creativity and tenacity from any parent to implement it effectively and enough to promote change.  But you need to remember: Your child is always a work in progress.  The more the two of you can work through these tantrums successfully, the more solidified those efficient regulatory brain pathways will become.  Hang in there, and keep your oxygen mask at hand.