How to Handle Tantrums?
Q: My 2.5 year old son is having tantrums, laying on the floor, thrashing and screaming. I feel like something is wrong! Is this normal? What do I do?
A: Yes, this is something “normal.” Tantrums are without a doubt something you will face as mom, and every single one of my children has tried to pitch a fit, throw a tantrum, scream and fuss, whine and holler, stomp, and/or lay down and thrash on the ground (well, not Theo yet, but he’s only 8 months old… give him time, and –sadly– he will too).
It’s part of living with a little sinner who wants to go his own way.
He thinks he knows better than you, but needs you to be firm and not let him do things like ignoring what you say, screaming, and throwing tantrums.
The very *SECOND* something like that happens, everything in his world should come to a screeching halt until he adjusts to mom’s way of thinking and acting. However long that takes. No more playing, no snack, no “first let me ____,” no psychobabble/excuses. Definitely no bribing him to stop.
First things first. Use a firm voice: “Stand up and stop acting that way.” See to it that he stops. When he realizes that you mean business and will not allow anything else in life to happen until he complies, he’ll muster up some self-control.
Really. So keep at it however long it takes, until he stands up (on his own two feet– don’t allow any of this pull-up-the-feet-and-refuse-to-stand business) and stops.
Many women I encounter stop me at this point and say, “but you don’t understand. My child is so stubborn/strong-willed/angry/physically strong.” Yes. Yes, I understand. (See the comments for more specifics on this point.) But yes, I mean you. And yes, I mean your child, no matter how willful, difficult, or strong-willed.
Persevere and do not let your child do anything else happen until the tantrum stops.
[The only time I do this differently is if we are out in public, and thus subjecting others to the drama. At that point, I stop whatever I’m doing– yes, even grocery shopping– and either move to an out of the way place where we can talk face to face (me kneeled down at face level, or out to the car) without distractions. Do not subject others to your child’s foolish, annoying, loud shenanigans. Regardless though, everything stops and we deal with the tantrum, UNTIL. Until normality of attitude is resumed.]
At that point, life goes on, pleasantly.
COACH WITH SHORT, OBEY-ABLE SENTENCES
You coach him to do whatever it was that frustrated him, but in the way he *ought* to do it- “Ask mommy nicely for your snack,” or “Ask mommy to help you put the train track together,” or, “We are not leaving the store right now. You need to wait just a little longer until we finish shopping,” or “You may not go outside right now. Sit here and snuggle by mom and look at books.”
Do not get into long explanations or psychoanalytical feelings-type language. If he’s throwing a fit because he wanted a particular book on the store shelf, it’s OK to say, “I know you wanted that book.” But then move on.
Use short, obey-able sentences, like:
- “Look in mommy’s eyes.” (Wait for him to look. Boys can be particularly bad about this, and work fiercely to look anywhere else but your eyes. Outlast him. Block out other perspectives and direct his chin to where his face is looking at you. Do not do anything else until he looks and holds your gaze.)
- “You must not fuss that way, yes ma’am?” (I’m from the south. We say “yes ma’am.” Insert the phrase of your choosing, but something where he is affirming your authority and his intention to obey. “Yes mom,” “Ok, mommy,” etc. are fine alternatives.)
- “Now, stop fussing.” (Expect that he does. You are his right and loving authority, and he can stop himself, truly.)
- Sometimes follow-up sentences about posture/facial expressions are necessary with this… “Pick up your head. Open your eyes. Uncross your arms.” Etc. Many children display physical characteristics that let you see exactly what is going on in their hearts. Coach them to physically change their posture or facial expression from a state of grumping and slumping to an attitude and appearance of facing the world cheerfully.
Then I help them wipe their eyes/nose/face if they need it, encourage them to take a deep breath, and then I sometimes redirect their attention to something pleasant (“Look at that kitty cat!”). Not at all in a coaxing way, but in order to help reset their minds.
Any HINT of the return of fussiness merits the same response. Everything stops until the grumping stops.
BE AUTHORITATIVE AND FIRM
Honestly, if you are firm and direct, every single time he does this, these outbursts will almost entirely end very soon. While my kids continue to try to have tantrums from time to time, they are shut down very quickly, and we move on to pleasant things.
In my opinion, advice like “ignore it” or “put them in their room” allows these miserable emotional (not to mention LOUD) displays to go on and on indefinitely… for minutes, or even hours at a time… and then for days upon days of walking around on eggshells, waiting for the next episode of emotional volatility or dramatic eruptions. All the while the child is developing a habit of raging about the things they want, and an unhealthy, emotional fixation on the things that irritate and bother them. These are not attitudes I want to be reinforced or unaddressed in my children’s hearts and lives.
Just stop the whole thing as soon as it starts. Train your child in the way he should go– not at all in an ugly way– just straightforwardly. Teach him how to behave. Show him what he ought to do and do not allow dramatic nonsense to carry on and on. Within a second or two of the eruption, stop him. See that he stops. Then move on pleasantly and enjoy the day together. You may even find that by watching your children carefully, you can begin to tell when a tantrum is oncoming, and help them to stop it before it starts by coaching them through how to handle disappointment or frustration.
This is all about having firm, no-nonsense consistency. Our culture has a real authority problem, but kids recognize when someone in the room knows they are the authority. We’ve all seen and experienced it, where the kid who’s a real pill pushes everyone around until he meets the hard-nosed teacher who won’t put up with it. She’s the authority and they both know it.
So, be the authority. Not in a bullying, ugly, angry way, but in a firm, “I’m 5000% serious, and there is absolutely zero chance of this continuing to happen.” sort of way.
AFTER you deal with the immediate issue of the tantrum, then you go on and parent as usual. No grumping, shock, or bitterness on your part. Be pleasant and enjoy him.
He is still your sweet boy, but he is (like the rest of us) a sinner who will fight tooth and nail to have things his own way if he possibly can. Some children absolutely put up more of a fight than others, but make no mistake– they all want to have their own way, regardless of personality.
Galatians 6:9 tells us not to grow weary in well doing because there is a harvest to be reaped in due time if we don’t give up. You are doing well to your son when you take time to stop him, require that he stand up, stop lashing around like a foolish child, look you in the eye, be respectful, and obey your voice. You are teaching him, by the way you follow through and see that he listens to you, how he should respond to the authority and voice of God.
REMEMBER: IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY
Instead of seeing tantrums as a horrible, embarrassing thing, see it as an opportunity to address something in your child’s heart that desperately needs to be dealt with.
When your child erupts into a tantrum, God has given you a BIG moment where you can teach your child to listen to you, to trust your instructions over his/her feelings, and to have self-control in the midst of disappointment, frustration, rage, or uncertainty. This is an investment in your child’s future– you are teaching him/her to be emotionally stable and not fly off the handle into rages or controlling emotions because of life’s disappointments. You are training him/her how to respond to challenges and difficulties.
This is a golden and rich opportunity for you as the parent!
Every kid tries it.
But it doesn’t have to continue.
It’s a learning opportunity for you both, and an opportunity for him to grow in maturity and self-control. It’s one of the many ways that God has put you as an influence and authority in your child’s life in order for you to guide him in the way he should go.
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