Michelle Barratt Psychology - Brisbane Child Clinical Psychologists
Managing Your Toddler's Tantrums
When your child has a temper tantrum, it can be difficult to handle at the best of times. But when you are trying to do your weekly grocery shop, and your ‘dear’ child decides to ‘lose it’, over what seems to be, on the surface, your refusal to buy him a toy truck it is disconcerting at the best of times.
Dealing with the fall-out of setting boundaries, and saying “No!” to your child can be even more challenging, especially when all your efforts to put a stop to the tantrum, seem only to be escalating it.
At this point – and consequently at the stage of ‘no want of trying’ your child has resorted to laying on the floor, kicking and screaming at the top of his lungs and you possibly most likely be left feeling at a loss at what to do next – and all the while people are most likely staring on.
For most parents in this situation, the primary goal is to calm the child down so that you can get on with what you have planned for the day, and to do so in a way that avoids stares, tuts, and shaking of heads from onlookers – thus temper tantrums simply lead to feeling completely embarrassed.
What It Can Look Like and What it Can Feel Like – As a Parent
Temper tantrums in public can bring up those uncomfortable feelings of shame, failure and inadequacy. Usually arising from your own ‘stinking thinking’ about being a “bad parent”. For example, your child’s temper tantrum can trigger worries that you are being judged negatively by those that insist on staring on. Consequently, you may start to think that others are thinking “Oh my gosh! What a terrible mother, why can’t she shut her child up?”, “That kid is out of control”, “What is she doing?” Or “A grown women cannot even control her own child”, or “What a spoilt brat”. Or worse onlookers coming over and intervening, telling you to “Control your child”, who incidentally at this point is lashing around on the supermarket aisle floor like he’s been temporarily possessed by something you cannot even describe. However it must be noted, that most of the time, onlookers, especially those who have their own children, are more likely to sympathize or empathize with you, rather than judge you.
At this point, when you have tried to unsuccessfully calm your child down, only it continues to escalate, you are faced with a dilemma….
Relent (surrender), thus your resort to buying the truck, to silence your child. Give him what he ‘wants’. This may, in the short-term be effective, but in the long-term will negatively reinforce your child’s behaviour. That is, your child learns ‘When things don’t go my own way. I throw a tantrum. Mummy can’t handle me, so I get what I want”.
Punish (Fight)…attempt to regain control by shouting at your child. Telling him to “Get up”. Threat to or actually smack your child.
Abandon shopping mission (Flight)…. Drag your child off the floor, ‘frog march’ him back to the car and flee home. In and instant, your child has won. He got out of doing the boring task of grocery shopping (again negative reinforcement), or
Freeze, do nothing as it feels like you are rooted to the spot.
These effective responses are a result of our innate pre-historic survival mechanism (known as the Fight, Flight (flee) or Freeze) responses when our ancestors had no houses or shelter to protect them. When we feel threatened, an automatic response is triggered, and our best chance of survival is to Fight, or Flee or Freeze or surrender.
In these instances, most of these innate automatic responses are ineffective. Unfortunately, at these times, we are less able to attune to our child, because as well as within our child, many emotions have arisen within us. Consequently, we are probably not thinking clearly - especially in regards to what our child ultimately ‘needs’ and, or are we able to identify what underlying, unfilled need is causing the problematic behaviour/ temper tantrum in the first place.
Unlike many things we receive these days that come with a manual for guidance, our children do not - Rather they are the manual. We have to learn how to read them: Identify their needs (for food, safety, boundary setting, nurturance, support, to be delighted in, help to organize their feelings) and fulfill those needs.
What a child doesn’t need in these moments is a parent who is too weak and gives in, indulges wants rather than needs and doesn’t set boundaries. Nor a parent who is too mean, and is punishes or dismisses their feelings or needs.
During temper tantrums – a child needs help to organize feelings. They need a parent or caregiver who can take charge by being Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kinder (not mean or weak). To be these things to your child, you need to be in control of your own emotions and thinking - otherwise things are really likely to get out of control and before you know it, you will look like your child having a tantrum.
If you are experiencing similar issues with your child or are having trouble controlling your own emotions, or trouble working out what the underlying needs are beneath the tantrums and problematic behaviours, it would be strongly recommended you consider speaking to a psychologist for ways in which to support you control and manage your emotions. Psychological therapy, to support you manage temper tantrums have proven to be extremely helpful in enjoying your child again and under goes a long way to understanding what’s underneath the negative behaviours they are exhibiting.
Fundamentally, psychological support and or counselling will help you to be with your child in their tantrum, and to choose to sooth them by helping them to organize their feelings. Therefore, you and the Psychologist may be able to work together to gain a better understanding of what could be causing the tantrums, and develop more effective ways of handling them.
Author: Michelle Barratt