Name THAT Tantrum!


All kids have emotional break downs. We spend nine months or even nine years dreaming of butterfly kisses, giggles and hugs but nonetheless, our children will still behave like children. Putting fits into categories is one way to differentiate the unique qualities of a child’s meltdowns and adjust our “battle” strategy accordingly. But it is not a battle against them. It’s actually our own battle to stay sane, hopeful, and helpful.

Tantrum #1 “Neither one of us knows why I’m crying”

This is the signature tantrum of the Level One child (Easy Child), though it is quite popular with all children. Level Ones are usually so “easy” because they are more sensitive and observant than other kids. They keenly recognize your emotions and other’s and they prefer things calm and predictable, so they behave well. Innately these kids think more, sense more, and observe more so they are also the most easily overwhelmed by their environments. But all kids experience those moments when they don’t have a clue why they are upset.

Prevention: These tantrums can be reduced by managing the sensory input, especially for the Level Ones. Too many people, too much noise, too many activities can quite suddenly overload a child. Schedule breaks and changes in pace. Check in to see if the child needs a “quiet” break. When a new situation is going to occur, prep your child about what to expect. “We are going to an Easter egg hunt. There will be lots of kids trying to find eggs all at once. Some kids might get a little wild and bump into you so just pop up and keep going. I’ll be nearby if you need me.”

Early Tantrum Stage: Once you begin to see signs that something is brewing, (random whining, uncharacteristic behavior, frustration) you have a small window to minimize the impact. Remain calm and kind. If YOU react with frustration or anger, that might be the very thing that increases the likelihood of a full blow-up. People don’t smoke while pumping gas, so don’t add your negative emotions onto a child who is trying to keep it all together themselves. Try to be encouraging and maybe offer a hug. “You seem like you are getting upset, do you need a hug?”

Mid Tantrum Stage: Despite your calm demeanor, some situations are just overwhelming. Your child needs you to simply be with them in their emotional mess. Don’t ask too many questions. They don’t know why they are crying either. Try to speak calmly about your best guess, “There were a lot of kids grabbing Easter eggs and that got a little crazy didn’t it? I’ll hold you for a little bit.” Don’t try to make normal conversation because this can simply lead to, “NO! I HATE candy! I DON’T want to see Daddy. I HATE Daddy. I HATE you!” This is usually a child who simply needs to be carried to a place to collect themselves. For the tantrum gawkers looking at you for the cause of the chaos, “She’s OK. She’ll feel more like herself soon.”

Post Tantrum:  Not much follow-up is usually needed. “You sure had a hard time coming home after playing with your friend all afternoon.”  If harsh words were exchanged, recognize those in case the child or you is carrying guilt.

 Tantrum #2 “I’m hungry/tired/uncomfortable”

Prevention: These tantrums are the easiest to prevent in the first place by keeping snacks on hand at all times, keeping predictable bedtimes, and bringing extra clothes everywhere you go.

Early Tantrum Stage: When you begin to hear the first fusses, try to meet the physical need but don’t look or sound panicked. It’s better to be nonchalant about getting the need met rather than tearing into anything at the grocery store you can find to stop it. “I know you’re hungry. You can have these Cheerios from my purse, but we are waiting until we get home for the rest. You’ll be OK.” (IF they reject Cheerios and insist on the new box of cookies, then this has morphed into an “I don’t want to” tantrum to be discussed next week.)

Mid Tantrum:  Life happens and the exciting day at the amusement park or zoo can inevitably result in an emotional breakdown before bedtime. After a big day of summer fun, bedtime just can’t come soon enough and the child collapses before the 7:30PM finish line. A tantrum caused by being tired can be navigated by the repetition of the powerful phrase, “I know. You’re tired. We will get you in bed soon.” No engaging in any crazy-making conversations. Prevent destruction of people and property. “You’re tired, but I won’t let you hurt people.”

If you have work to do and the tantrum is lingering, IGNORE them. Get your work done. They don’t get to hold you and the family hostage by their breakdowns. Live in freedom: “I know you’re tired/hungry/uncomfortable, but I need to make dinner right now. I love you.” It’s actually scary for a kid to see their parents getting out of control because of the child’s lack of control. Let the child see that a confident, competent leader will empathize with their pain AND step over their flailing body so that dinner still gets prepared.

If hunger or being uncomfortable is the cause, this is a great opportunity to reinforce the life-long skill of “dealing with it.” It sounds like this: “I know you’re hungry. Mom’s hungry too. It’s OK to sometimes be hungry. I’m grateful for the food that we will have later.” “I know. You’re shoes are wet. That must feel yucky. Sometimes when I’m uncomfortable I just try to think about when I will feel better.” For the Target Gawkers: “He’s OK. His shoes are just wet. He’s learning how to deal with tough stuff like this!”

For the Level Four (Challenging Child), DO NOT try to talk them out of their pain. DO NOT engage in logical thought patterns. They will grab onto those and negate, argue, and escalate. During lifeguard training, guards are taught to stay on the edge of the pool and reach or throw something to help before going in. The panicked swimmer can drown their rescuer. Stay on the edge of the metaphorical pool! Do not enter in to a Level Four’s tantrum. Rather, picture the child who you saw first thing that morning when the sunshine was beaming and all was right in the world. That child will return. Wait for them. They always come back.

Post Tantrum: Not much to process. They had a physical need. They learned to deal with it without dying. Perhaps a brief, “I think that fit was shorter than last time you were hungry. You’re really growing up!” Reject guilt that you should have prevented it. You WANT your kids to learn to deal with hard things. So embrace these learning opportunities when they happen.

Stay tuned for the final two tantrums to be dissected next week: “Tantrum #3 “I’ve been wronged” and Tantrum #4 “I don’t want to”


Name that tantrum!


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