I’m not one for sports analogies. My parents pulled me from t-ball because…well I was really terrible at it. But if the last post was about defense (preventing tantrums) then I guess this post is offense. But the main thing here is that it is not you vs. your child. This is about winning together. It’s about joining with your child to help them regulate their emotions and behaviors, and not being upset with them if they can’t do that on your time table.
Instinct for most people is to try and lift their child out of the unpleasant feelings of a tantrum ASAP by exuding the emotion they want their child to take on. [ex: being cheery or silly] This is actually not very helpful. On occasion, if you’re willing to put dignity aside, you can do something funny enough to make your child laugh and pull them out of the tantrum spiral. But most of the time it fails…why?
It fails because it is perceived as disconnection by your child. They are showing an unpleasant emotion (anger, frustration, sadness, fear etc…) and you are displaying the opposite. If you were crying and someone was making a funny face, you would intuitively feel that they did not understand you at that moment, which can be even more frustrating and disconnecting.
So go there with them. If your child is pre-verbal, mirror their feeling with facial expressions and tone of voice. If they have kind of good receptive language, verbally empathize with them:
- “I know it’s [sad, frustrating, hard] to…
- have to sit in the cart this long
- not get that really cool toy
- Then try and end on something they can look forward to that somewhat relates to what they are bummed about
- …we can skip in the parking lot when we’re done.”
- …we can pick out your favorite toy at home and play with it when we get back.”
Going there emotionally with your child is like climbing down in the hole with them to pick them up. Just trying to cheer them up is like yelling from the outside of the hole for them to find their own way out. Connection is key to co-regulating your child’s behavior with them. Make eye contact, stop what you’re doing and take the time.
Touch is also helpful if your child wants it. Some kids hate being touched when they are upset. Offer it, but don’t force it. Touch and any other thing that engages the 5 senses is very grounding and brings them back into focus and the ability to be present in the moment and not an emotional tornado.
The game plan also starts before it’s needed. Coaches call plays from the sidelines that the players have already practiced. Same for your toddler. You can practice some basic emotional regulation at home:
Identifying emotions and associated body sensations
- When they are feeling slightly emotional, either give them an emotion word to put with that feeling or ask them what emotion they are feeling (depending on age and abilities)
- Empathize with them. We all feel that way sometimes.
- Ask them where they feel that emotion in their body (it’s called a feeling for a reason).
- Ask them how characters in their favorite show or book might be feeling and why they might be feeling that way.
Practice relaxation skills
- Sit down and teach them these skills then practice them when the child is not upset so they can switch into them quickly when they are upset.
- Deep breathing– here’s a video on YouTube that you can watch together
- Color breathing–this is just belly breathing only when you breath in have them imagine a calm or pretty color filling their body and when they breath out they imagine a yucky color leaving their body with all of their unpleasant feelings
- Clapping: you can clap or tap rhythms then have your child repeat them. This focuses their attention on you in a simple, but effective way. It is also grounding, which is helpful when they are switching into emotional brain.
- You can also practice with your child by having them pretend to be a character they love when that character is mad, sad, happy etc…
Also, remember that the basis of the tantrum may be in one of the prevention methods that got skipped. Just this weekend we went to THREE different grocery stores in a row (bad idea) and little man got hungry. So we did the only thing I could do…I opened some crackers and fed him…MAGIC! He was just hungry.
When the tantrum keeps happening
Sometimes you do all the right things to avoid a tantrum AND all the right things to handle one. But the toddler just keeps going! This is when we need to make sure the child is safe (not about to fling themselves out of a shopping cart or dart off in the parking lot) and just not worry about all the judgy looks.
If that last part is difficult for you, be on the look out for next week’s post about cognitive coping (think weight lifting for the mind) and mental boundaries (the fences that keep us safe).