Dealing with Tantrums

As parents, the question we face when dealing with tantrums is:

  • Do I clamp down on them?
  • Do I indulge them?
  • Do I ignore them?

Each of these strategies has its upsides and downsides. If I clamp down, I show my displeasure but my child will feel controlled and demeaned. If I indulge them, I may defuse the immediate issue, but I’m setting a precedent for next time. And if I ignore them, the tantrum may fizzle out, but they won’t feel heard.

What to do?

Perhaps the question of whether to clamp down, indulge or ignore tantrums is the wrong place to start. They are all methods for exercising control, and control-based strategies need to be used with discretion because they foster resistance. You end up with the ‘immovable object’ versus the ‘unstoppable force’. This can take many different forms. For example, if you exercise control, I can resist your control by:

  • Complying but resenting you
  • Withdrawing love
  • Ignoring you
  • Fighting back

Let’s consider a different approach:

1. Listen first. 

When a child has a tantrum, the precursor to negotiating, declining or giving them what they want is:

  • ALWAYS listen and acknowledge the issue.

In practice, it could look like this:

Child: I DON’T want to go to bed. I want to watch TV

Parent: I understand, you really want to stay up and watch your programme, rather than going to bed

This doesn’t feel natural and won’t come easily if you’re a sleep-deprived parent. However, tantrums are always code for a child saying something like ‘I’m frustrated’, or ‘I’m cross’ or ‘I’m really mad’, in relation to not getting their way. When you acknowledge what they’re experiencing, it allows them to feel heard and opens the door to a conversation with them.

2. After listening, you do have options.

You may have good reason to decline. Your child won’t be happy with your decision, but at least you’ve demonstrated that you’re willing to hear them out:

“ I know you’re really not happy about it. I’m sorry but it’s bedtime now.”

You may be able to negotiate a solution or a compromise:

“Let’s do a deal. 10 more minutes, and then it’s bedtime”

You may think it’s a reasonable request and accept it:

“If it finishes in 10 minutes, that’s fine, and then it’s bedtime”

It’s easy to think that negotiation isn’t possible with a young child, but in my experience this simply isn’t the case. Here’s a young lad who’s mastered the art of negotiation. Take a look.

On another note, a parent told me the story of how his daughter had a giant tantrum in the supermarket over not getting the treat she wanted. This was the cue for her to lie on the floor and scream. Having been pushed to the limit one-too-many times, the father put down his shopping basket and lay down next to his daughter. Mortified at his response, she jumped to her feet and told him to get up at once. Her supermarket tantrum never reoccurred. I never had the courage to try it.

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