Ask Nurse Judy: Temper Tantrum Help
Written by Judy Kivowitz
Photography by Photo Via Parentdish.Ca
The seen-it-all, treated-it-all Nurse Judy Kivowitz of San Francisco’s Noe Valley Pediatrics shares her advice on common child health and behavioral conundrums. This time, she takes on temper tantrums!
When you are a parent, imagine that you’re the coach of a football team. Keep in mind that most of the coaching takes place before and after the games. Your team may win big or they might completely screw up. During the game you are mostly just a spectator. Leading up to the game you strive to prepare your players the best you can. After the game you can be the Monday morning quarterback and identify ways to improve.
I have found it very helpful for parents if they can recognize the difference between “game time” and “coaching opportunities.” If we follow my theory, transition times, mealtimes, getting out of the house in the mornings, and bedtimes are considered game time. You can’t do any effective coaching or teaching during these moments. Hopefully you have created a “game plan,” so that generally things go smoothly. When you encounter a situation that sets off a tantrum, do your best to just get through it as calmly and creatively as you can. If you notice that you are stuck in a rut and you can identify routine behavioral issues, you need to work on creating a new plan.
Here’s an example of a “game time” situation. Many years ago I was a solo parent on a flight, returning home from grandparent visits and the like. My sister Marjie had bestowed each of my daughters with a My Little Pony gift to entertain them on the flight. Alana, the 2-year-old, had chosen the pink one, and Lauren, the 5-year-old, was happy with the blue one. Mid-way through the long flight, Alana wanted to make a trade. Meanwhile, Lauren wasn’t interested and quite within her rights, she soundly refused. Alana was usually a fairly mild mannered child, but I could see the tantrum brewing and she was about to cause a serious disruption. I did a quick negotiation with Lauren: “Hand over the blue pony now, and when we get home they are both yours.” Lauren took only a second or two to recognize the value of this and gave Alana the blue pony. Crisis averted. This wasn’t the moment to teach about sharing, or fairness. This was game time. Get off that plane intact. If we had been at home, I may have handled it quite differently. It is absurd to think that you will handle a tantrum in the middle of a crowded public area the same way you would in your home. Home field advantage?
Watch for clues and do your best to ward off an impending tantrum if the warning signs are clear, but once your child has entered the meltdown zone, it is time to change tactics. There is a popular parenting book that counsels parents to get down on the child’s level and loudly evoke their inner caveman by chanting, “You are mad, you are mad, you are mad mad mad!” When that book first came out, I would routinely hear parents out in our waiting room making more of a racket than the fussing kids. I must confess, that when I still hear the occasional parent grunting “you are mad” I do roll my eyes a little bit, but the premise is actually a solid one. When your kid is having a tantrum, acknowledging that you are trying to understand what is going on is the first step.
“You seem mad, sad, frustrated, etc.” are often exactly what your child needs to hear. If you told me that you have a headache and I responded by discussing the weather, it would not be very satisfying. Distraction is all well and good, but not until they get it that you are trying to understand what has them so upset. Validating a feeling is not the same thing as giving in to an unreasonable request. Try to hold them close, get them on your lap and wrap your arms around them so that they can’t thrash around. Make shushing noises. Keep it simple. This is not the time for lots of words. Those come later.
If your child has frequent tantrums, see if you can figure out what is setting them off. Look for patterns. Many parents realize that kids get more fragile when they are getting hungry. Try having little snacks on hand and pay attention to any cues that might be leading up to a meltdown. Are they tired? If tantrums are routine, you need to examine your child’s nap/sleep schedule. Are they frustrated by something? In a calm moment, if your child is old enough, help them work on their problem solving skills.
Problem solving activities work very well after a situation has happened. Talk about what went wrong. See if they can help plan a better way to deal with it the next time.
-Step one is always identifying the problem. Break it down to a small but manageable issue. Rather than the diffuse “fighting with sister” get down to a very specific issue, such as “sister won’t share yellow crayon.”
-Step Two is talking about some choices one might have in that situation. Some are good choices, others not so much. They all make it to the list. Adding a silly one is just fine and makes this feel more like a game. Choices could include: Using a different color; Using words and asking sister nicely to share (may need to wait a minute for her to finish coloring her own yellow parts). Asking a grown up for help; Start screaming; Grabbing the crayon; Draw a frowning face on your hand with a black crayon; Use your “walking away power” and take some deep breaths. Hopefully with some gentle guidance they can identify the more positive choices.
Problem solving exercises are very empowering for your child. The age range for when kids are able to take part in these is fairly variable, but they will all get there.
For kids over 3, see if they can recognize their own warning signs before losing control. This is a tool that will serve them well for their entire life. Perhaps create a song together that they can sing when they are approaching tantrum stage:
I am mad mad mad
I want to stamp my foot
I want to clench my fists
but I am going to shake out my hands
I am going to take 3 deep breaths
I am going to use my words
Any time that you see your child get calm without losing control, give them loads of positive feedback.
Kids can also get a lot out of a well told story. Create two little children that you can tell tales about. They are the same age as yours, with very similar family circumstances. One tends to make good choices and the other gets into trouble often. Allow your child to chime in and talk about why these children had a tantrum and what they ended up doing about it. Kids do much better talking about these very relatable characters than they do about their own actions. Once they come up with a plan for the made up child, you can bring it back around: “Maybe you could try that also.”
Remember: Even the best kids have occasional meltdowns. All tantrums can be turned into learning experiences for you and your child. Stay calm and be consistent.
Find out how to sign up for Nurse Judy’s San Francisco-based classes and workshops here.
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