There is a point in every parent’s life when a complete meltdown ensues, which typically happens when we have run out of coffee, traffic is causing us to be late for work, and the boss is breathing down our necks. We then proceed to go about our day with all of the pent up frustration of a bad morning so that at the end of the day, we end up yelling at the kids and pets and proceed to zone out in front of the television or have a few glasses of wine…or both. This is a classic example of an adult temper tantrum. If adults have weekly and sometimes daily temper tantrums how can we expect children not to have one, especially if they are mirroring our behavior?
What causes a temper tantrum?
Temper tantrums are a build up of emotion, which causes the Amygdala (the center of the flight/fight/freeze response) to release large amounts of cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone into the muscles triggering a tremendous burst of energy. The chemical release can be exacerbated if the child perceives the parent as the threat because of how the parent is reacting to the tantrum. Believe it or not, children don’t wake up in the morning and make the decision to be a brat. “Tantrums are usually a response to the learned behavior or a result of built up stress,” says Melissa Schwartz, parenting coach and co-founder of Leading Edge Parenting. In her book Authentic Parenting, there are two basic types of tantrums: manipulative and stress induced.
Manipulative temper tantrums are a result of repetitive behavior that parents have contributed to without meaning to do so. For example, during a trip to the grocery store, the child wants a toy or a snack and the immediate reaction is to say, ‘No.’ The child will whine until they get what they want, which usually ends with the parent giving in because the parent wants to avoid an embarrassing situation in the store.
To prevent this type of tantrum, it’s important to have established rules and real age appropriate expectations and routines in place. An example would be to have the child understand when going to the grocery store he won’t get a toy. If the child asks for a toy, the parent can say, “That toy does look like a lot of fun. Maybe for your birthday.” If the whining begins, the parent can respond with, “I know you like that toy, but you know we don’t buy toys while we’re at the grocery store. Maybe we can come back when it’s your birthday, and you can pick out your favorite toy.” Even though the whining may persist, Schwartz recommends remaining consistent and understanding with the child and knowing that despite all efforts the child may still have a meltdown, which is typical for children between 1-3 years old.
“We can help prevent stress tantrums when we learn to read our children’s signals,” says Schwartz. These tantrums are often caused when a child is emotionally exhausted or frustrated. The best way to curtail these reactions is to assess your child’s day and ask yourself, “Do I really need to make one more stop?”
It’s important to recognize the first signs fatigue, hunger, and crankiness, as these are usually the first signs of a temper tantrum. The daily routines of school, work, and extracurricular activities have become so over-stimulating that it’s unfair to expect our children to just ‘handle it.’
Six tips to preventing a meltdown
Temper tantrums can be preventable, and The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following suggestions:
- Offer praise when the child is acting appropriately.
- Distract your child from an area you know will cause a reaction by singing a song, moving to another area or offering the child another option.
- Be consistent when accommodating your child and only do so when it’s appropriate.
Understand and respect your child’s limits.
- Redirect behavior that involves hitting, kicking or biting.
- Stay calm and take a break when you both need it.
- When there are signs it may be more than a tantrum
Children with Sensory Processing Disorders have a low tolerance for change, or lack of control of their environment and the way the sensory information is delivered to their brain is sent differently compared to typically developing children. “If a parent notices extreme behaviors are consistent with particular activities, this could be a warning sign that there is more going on with a child than the child just not getting their way,” says Amy Baez, MOT, OTR/L, pediatric occupational therapist, author and founder of Playapy and the Playapy Handwriting Program.
“The slightest thing can set a child off who has a sensory disorder such as textures on the skin, smells in the room, what the child is eating, lights in the room, movement in a vehicle, pressure from a hug, and these triggers can cause behaviors that lead a child to avoid activities and fall behind in developmental milestones,” Baez added. An occupational therapist can evaluate a child to determine if the behaviors are enough of a concern to qualify for services for children with a sensory processing disorder or can offer parents guidance to curb inappropriate behavior.
Seeking the Quick Fix
“We are embarrassed when our children don’t share, are uncooperative, throw a tantrum or behave irresponsibly. We are so hooked into fearing we might be judged; we have a knee-jerk reaction that entails making demands, threatening or punishing, rather than patiently teaching our children the skills needed to act differently,” said Schwartz. Schwartz points out that many parents want a quick fix for complicated issues. But, effective parenting isn’t about an easy fix because a parental response to a child’s behavior must meet both short-term and long-term goals. “Parenting can never be about clever techniques and tricks designed to control a child. Instead, it begins with connecting,” explained Schwartz.
Momma said there’d be days like this
The old adage rings truer than ever as parents. At some point, we realized we can’t control the actions or reactions of others around us, but we still try to enforce some control over our kids. Children need boundaries, and they need to learn how to act appropriately in social and private situations, which comes from allowing them to mirror our reactions of how to handle the obstacles life throws at us. We’re not perfect so we certainly can’t expect our children to be, but we can practice what we preach.
Rebecca Asher is a freelance writer, author and mommy of two. Her essay, Take a Breath is published in the Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It anthology by Elizabeth Gilbert, which debuts in March.