When a baby cries, their tears express real life needs. I am hungry/tired/need to be changed/cold/hot/really sick of you. Their wails are less about emotional breakdowns and more about actually crying out for help. Once your infant becomes a toddler, they will no longer cry solely because of their basic human requirements. They will also cry because their socks are floppy, they don't have magic powers like Elsa from Frozen or their pizza is too flat. At the point where your child enters into the stage of tantrums, having a strategy for how to deal with their outbursts will help keep you sane until they outgrow them -- anywhere between the ages 4 and 63.
Unlike parents of the past who often dealt with their kid's emotions by saying "toughen up" and then feeding them shoe stew, modern moms and dads strive to be sensitive to the feelings of their offspring. A lot of discipline techniques of previous generations are frowned upon, and there is a common effort to have a more democratic, rather than tyrannical, approach to childrearing. Yet within this intention to be compassionate and sympathetic, how do we avoid becoming emotional punching bags for our kids?
When your young child starts to have a total breakdown, it is hard not to participate psychologically in the chaos. If someone is screaming at you and stomping their feet because they wanted the purple Popsicle not the orange, it can be a challenge to maintain your Zen. Yelling back at your kid, however, is not the best way to teach them not to yell. You have to be the mature one, even when your child is being a big, yucky poopy head.
Of course, children have the capacity to make their parents as angry as the angry emoji face. To help keep your composure, start disciplining right when the behavior is beginning to get on your nerves, not after it has already severed them. When I have let things go too far and am truly angry at my daughter, she feels unsafe. That sense of insecurity makes it hard for her to listen. Instead, if I talk to her in a stern voice, but feel emotionally stable myself, it is much more effective. I use my special discipline tone to make it sound like I mean business, but inside I feel pretty calm -- and am wondering what is going to happen next on Game of Thrones.
Here are four steps to take when faced with a tantrum:
1. Ask what is wrong and try to encourage them to talk about their feelings rather than yelling/kicking/being a jerk. (If they are still in the throes, then move on to step two.)
2. Ask if they have an idea what the solution would be? If not, suggest a solution you think might work. (If they continue to be driven my their tiny rage, move on to step three.)
3. Remove yourself from their presence. Explain: When they are ready to talk about what is going on, they can come find you.
4. Give them space to work through their emotions. Once you sense a lull, or they seek you out, take a moment to process what happened. Have a cuddle, talk about how they felt, explain how you felt and discuss what could be done differently in the future.
Approaching tantrums with consistency will help your kid know what they can expect out of you. The ultimate goal of managing a tantrum is to allow your child to feel their feelings authentically, but for you not to be held hostage by their manic display of discontent. There are times when it is appropriate to participate actively in getting your child to a better place, but there are also times when they could use a moment to themselves to work it out. We want to encourage our children to face their emotions fully, but at the same time not be ruled by them.
With my daughter, at first we would always travel through all four steps. Eventually, because she knew where things were going, she would often start to settle down at step two. She would come up with a solution for her problem, and we could move on. Fine, Mom, I will put my pants back on before we go into the store, but then I get to take them off again. Most recently, my daughter has begun to articulate her feelings before the tantrum even begins. She will explain how she is feeling cranky and frustrated because she is hungry, but then of course, her proposed solution is to eat ice cream.
Being able to understand, identify and process your feelings is one of the most important factors in life, both for children and adults. Existence is fraught with complications, disappointments, failures, sadness -- and how we deal with these complex emotions is the key to finding internal balance. We can't solve all our children's problems, so empowering them with the strength to realize that they can jump over inevitable emotional hurdles is the best gift we can give them.
(This particular tantrum was about wanting more glasses of water.)