Nine hundred and eighty-seven. That’s about how many temper tantrums Judy Arnall, a Calgary parent educator and mom of five, has weathered — so far. Some have been epic — like the time her youngest was six and they clashed over a big bag of chips. He wanted them immediately; she planned to save them for later. He spirited the bag away to his room, emptied it onto the floor, and smashed every chip into his carpet. He was very thorough.
Kids — big and little — sometimes melt down. Toddlers and preschoolers are old enough to want to do something interesting yet not big enough to manage it, and not equipped emotionally to deal with the resulting frustration. When bigger kids (also striving to do things their way) have tantrums, it plays out differently: not so much going limp at the mall, more door slamming and yelling. Mike Boyes, a child psychologist at the University of Calgary, explains why older kids may lose it: “They’re dealing with complicated issues of independence. They’re moving to a more sophisticated way of thinking, but they’re not quite able to manage it yet.”
Taking their temperament
At any age, how well a child manages discomfort, disappointment or confusion is partly a matter of temperament, the measure of personality characteristics she was born with: how persistent, sensitive, adaptable she is, how intense her reactions are, how predictable her sleep and eating patterns, how negative or positive her mood.
In small or bigger doses, these traits can add up to a kid with a short fuse. “A child might have trouble switching from one activity to another,” explains Arnall. “He might have a tantrum when it’s time to leave the video store.” A last-minute change of plans can cause a similar reaction. Persistence, meanwhile, is a good trait, she says, but it also means you can’t pull your child away from an activity and a tantrum might be the result. “When a child is sensitive, he may take offence very easily. And if a child is intense, when he gets mad, it’s over the top.” Still, no matter how sensitive or persistent a kid is, everyone has to learn to restrain the urge to kick and scream.
Our experts offer these soothing suggestions:
When your child is small:
Love him as he is. “Temperament is just something we’re born with,” says Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais, “and it’s easier to accept it rather than wish it was different or try to change it.”
Measure your response. If a little child is having a tantrum, Desmarais suggests, “stay close by so he feels safe — his rage is uncomfortable and confusing to him.” (At the same time, she cautions against heaping attention on a child in a fury. “You want to assure the child he’s safe without sending the message the tantrum paid off.”)
Target triggers. You may be able to predict, and pre-empt, tantrums in a susceptible child. “Get to know your child’s natural rhythms,” urges Desmarais. “When is he likely to get overtired? How often does he need to eat?” And because frustration so often leads to tantrums, be sure that your child gets to make some of his own decisions — within reasonable boundaries.
As your child gets older:
Don’t take it personally. Recognize that your child is expressing her anger in an immature way, says Arnall.
Be calm. “It’s hard, but parents are the models of self-control and we need to teach our kids what it looks like,” says Arnall. “Yelling or threatening provides fuel to a kid in a tantrum and it doesn’t help.”
Hug her. Yes! “She will probably push you away, so let go,” says Arnall. “But you are offering a diversion — a distraction. Offer comfort, and if it’s not accepted, walk away and let the tantrum happen.”
Let natural consequences reign. Arnall suggests that if a kid makes a mess or trashes his room, it’s his job to clean up (after everyone has calmed down). “Don’t do it for him because then he won’t learn what his actions bring. After a while, he’ll get it.’”
Debrief. Boyes says, “Kids who have a short fuse aren’t like that 24/7, so you can find moments when they can be reflective. Help them think a bit about the situation and problem-solve.” As you’re talking together about how she might try things differently next time, focus on the issue (the curfew, the cellphone bill), not the kid’s tone of voice. Boyes explains, “If she has a style typical of adolescents — sort of abrasive and overly dramatic — ask yourself how much it matters,” says Boyes. “It’s easier to take a deep breath and deal with the issue, rather than the tone of voice.”
Connect — later. If your child is yelling or swearing at you, Arnall suggests saying, “I don’t like to be spoken to in that way,” and walking away. “Leave him with his anger, but connect later. Do something together or go for a drive and talk about how you feel when he yells,” she says. “Kids will get it, but they need the message when they’re calm and it can sink in.”
Practise peace. Help your child learn how to switch gears from mad to calm in healthy ways: She might try deep breathing, going for a walk or other exercise, listening to music, calling a friend. None of these skills come effortlessly — they all take time and repetition.
Appreciate him! Desmarais urges parents to acknowledge when a kid has kept his cool in a stressful situation (“I know that was hard, but you handled it well and stayed calm”).
The upside of meltdown
There are positives about having a child who’s extra expressive with his feelings — really! “Children who are intense, energetic and dramatic are also very intense in their love for you,” says Arnall. “They’ll often shower you with physical affection like hugs and cuddles — they have a great capacity for love and affection even into the school-age and teen years.” She adds that these kids are emotionally intelligent. “Their sensitivity helps them become more tuned in to how other people are feeling; they act on those feelings with comforting and caring behaviours.”
Having some tantrums is a normal (though not charming) part of growing up. Still, Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais suggests that if you’re struggling with your child’s tantrums, a parenting coach may be able to offer a fresh perspective and new strategies to try. If you sense your child is out of control — having multiple tantrums in a day, for example — or if you feel something is not quite right with his behaviour, talk to your doctor. She may offer a referral for an assessment or, if nothing else, reassure you that the behaviour is normal.