If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I favour connection and presence in dealing with behaviour challenges.
The irony of tantrums and emotional meltdowns is that they’re the moments when our kids need us the most – and yet their behaviour is the most off-putting.
Kicking, screaming, yelling, crying, hitting, biting, and spitting – are all behaviours that we might see during a tantrum.
And they’re the very behaviours that make us, as parents, want to hide in a cupboard and eat copious amounts of chocolate.
The double irony is that our kids’ tantrums trigger our own discomfort – which makes it even harder for us to help them.
Here’s a typical scenario:
Child does something she shouldn’t. Parent says no. Child becomes angry and throws something. Parent gets angry and scolds. Child has a meltdown. Parent becomes furious and resorts to yelling, spanking, or time-out.
Which only make things worse in the long run.
The one thing that kids need the most, when they’re having a meltdown, is our calmness, strength, patience, acceptance, and understanding.
But, those are the very things that are most challenging for us to give, when we’re emotional.
Why is our response such a big deal?
Our response matters, because a child’s single greatest fear – is rejection.
In pre-modern days, rejection was tantamount to a death sentence.
Individuals who were rejected from the community had to fend for themselves – for food, shelter, safety, and protection.
For children (who are inherently vulnerable to their environment), acceptance is EVERYTHING.
And even though we now live in the modern world, our biology hasn’t changed a whole lot.
Our kids need acceptance. They crave it. They thrive on it.
And when they don’t feel it, they will do anything and everything in their power to get it.
It’s not something they do with malice, or even with conscious thought.
Just as we seek food when we’re hungry, kids seek reassurance that we love and accept them.
The problem with tantrums is threefold:
First, kids have young brains – which means that they are impulsive, self-focused, and often very literal about the world.
They tend to react, rather than respond, to the everyday experiences that shape our lives. For example:
- disappointment (like when it’s time to leave the park),
- anger (like when another child takes away a toy),
- frustration (like when the child is faced with a new and challenging task),
- envy (like when a sibling is getting attention)
- fear (like when there’s a change in routine or circumstances)
These emotions are often associated with a strong physiological response, like a racing heart, feeling hot or cold, or a sensation of butterflies in the stomach.
These sensations are scary and overwhelming to a young mind. When our kids feel discomfort, their first response is often a physical or vocal expression. Such as screaming, crying, yelling, throwing things, biting, hitting, and kicking.
Second, our kids’ ways of handling emotions can so often trigger our own discomfort.
When our kids express their feelings so strongly, or when they are defiant, or challenge our authority, or refuse to comply with requests – it can trigger our own feelings of anger, frustration, and stress.
Our kids are sensitive to our emotions, because they’re highly attuned to any possible threat of rejection from us.
And when our uncomfortable feelings of anger, frustration, or stress arise – it induces panic in our kids.
Because their young minds interpret our discomfort as possible rejection.
And third – this panic amplifies the unpleasant feelings that the child is already feeling.
A tantrum is therefore a culmination of big, scary, uncomfortable emotions – and our own response can be the fuel on the fire.
When kids experience an uncomfortable emotion, they often feel overwhelmed by what’s happening to them. They feel scared and alone – which heightens the feeling of rejection.
The solution is to break the cycle of panic and fear. Tantrums are the time when our kids need our strength, steadiness, and confidence.
Our kids need us to be the anchor in their storm.
They need to know that their feelings are normal.
That their feelings are ok.
That they’re not alone.
That we’re here for them, no matter what.
That we love them, no matter what.
That we’re not afraid of their feelings.
That they can express their feelings to us.
That, if they express feelings in an unsafe way (e.g. hitting), then we will guide them to a safer alternative (e.g. pushing against our hands)
Unfortunately, spanking, yelling, and time-out only serve to increase our kids’ feeling of isolation, at the very time when they need to feel connection.
From a child’s perspective, there’s only one thing more frightening than feeling out of control with big emotions.
And that is to feel utterly alone in dealing with them.
This is why it’s so important for us, as parents, to know how to manage our own emotions.
We can’t be the anchor in the storm -if we’re embroiled in the storm, ourselves.
We can’t teach our kids better ways of handling emotions, if we don’t handle our own emotions well.
We can’t give what we don’t have.
We don’t have total control over our kids’ behaviour. But we can influence it, for better or worse.
Each time we respond to tantrums with peace, patience, and understanding, we teach our kids to do the same. Our leadership is what guides them.
The way we manage stress, is the way our kids will learn to manage stress.
The way we respond to anger, is the way our kids will learn to respond to anger.
The way we act when we’re upset, is the way our kids will act when they’re upset.
(If you need a step-by-step guide for overcoming stress, frustration, and/or guilt – please check out my audio program Chaos To Calm.)