If you haven’t done so already, you may want to start by reading Tantrum Management – Or Helping a Child Out of Panic.
Increasing Safety – Using the Straw
Stay! – When a child is kicking and screaming, it may be tempting to bring the child to their room and leave them alone to “not reward the behaviour”, or to “give them a chance to calm down”. What we need to remember is that the child has very little control over the exhibited behaviour, and if he did, he would choose otherwise. It’s not fun, or comfortable, and being left alone does not help the child calm down faster. In fact, it agitates the child more. We need to resist the temptation to isolate the child, which sends the message that the big feelings are not acceptable, the child can’t trust her feelings, and that she is even more alone than she already felt.
Assess the Distance – In the moment of overwhelm, the child may accept your presence or tell you to leave. He likely doesn’t want you too close just yet. If he tells you to leave, ignores your presence, yells at you, etc., that is the panic speaking, the part of him that thinks he’s in danger, and that you’re part of that all-encompassing danger. Honour his wishes by taking a few steps back and respecting his need for space, but tell him: “I’m going to step back and give you some space, but I’m not going to leave you alone with all those big feelings. I’m right here.” Ultimately, the entire goal is to reduce the distance until we are allies.
If he doesn’t tell you to leave, assess how close you can get with questions such as:
- “Can I take a step towards you?”
- “Can I come sit next to you?”
- “Can I hold your hand?”
- “Can I put my arm around you?”
- “Are you ready for a hug?”
If he agrees to the hug right away, the child already feels quite safe, and not completely hijacked by emotional overwhelm. You are done using the straw. In this case, you can skip ahead directly to Discharge the Emotional Overload – Removing the Lid.
Reduce the Distance – Keeping with the goal of inching toward safety, we communicate this intention with the child in the following manner:
- Talk Simply: Few words, clear, concise, repeated. Remember, we have very limited access to the left brain. Our verbal interventions need to be brief.
- Use their Name: Use their name a lot. We respond to our name far better than we do to other words. We can hear it even when we can’t hear much else. Have you ever been in a group of people, engaged in conversation with a group, while another group that you’re tuning out is having their own conversation? Suddenly, you hear your name in their conversation? You heard not a single word of their conversation until that moment. Suddenly, you’re completely tuned in. Your child has that power too!
- Watch Your Face: The child can read your facial expression and your tone (right brain stuff). So you may want to avoid looking neutral or completely unabashed. The child will likely conclude you just don’t get her, or that you don’t care. To her, you are trivializing what feels like life or death. Show genuine care and focus.
- Resist the Urge to Correct: If the child blurts out words like “You’re mean!” or “I hate you!”, don’t address it! No left brain, no reasoning! Save it for Rationalize/Teach/Explain/Share – Fill the Bucket.
- Remind of your Presence and Support: Keeping 1 – 4 in mind…
- “Harry, I’m right here for you. Right here for Harry.”
- “Right here when Harry is ready.”
- “Take your time Harry.”
- “I see it’s so hard for you right now Harry.”
- “I see you Harry. I hear Harry.”
- Name the Emotion: Connecting with what the child is feeling will
establish safety, and make them feel seen, heard, understood, and less
alone. Do not attempt to rationalize! Do not use logic. The part of the
brain that allows the child to reason is still closed for business. Being
a reasonable, sensible person is out of the question for now. Keeping
1 – 4 in mind…
- “Julia’s so scared.”
- “It looks like this feels so awful. So yucky! Julia feels yucky!”
- “Boy, you’re angry. Angry, angry, angry! Julia is angry!”
Evaluate Progress — Using the above six strategies, we reduce the distance between us and the child. Ultimately, the goal is for the child to accept us as an ally instead of seeing us as the enemy. We will know we have been successful when what looks like anger (but is really fear) turns into what looks like sadness (emotional discharge). So every minute or two, ask the child if you can get a bit closer (it will be your safety gauge).
If the answer is “no”, stay where you are and continue with the six strategies. One or two minutes later, try again. We want to reduce the distance following the person’s readiness.
If the answer is “yes”:
- If you are several feet away from the child, your next question might be: “Can I take one step towards you?”
- If you are standing near the child, “Can I come sit next to you?”
- If you are sitting next to the child, “Can I hold your hand?” or “Can I put my arm around you?”
- Ultimately, “Are you ready for a hug?”
Keep alternating between “Reduce the Distance” and “Evaluate Progress” until granted entry. Once the child agrees to that hug, the hardest part is done. She feels safe, she feels heard, she feels seen.
(If emotions aren’t typically welcome in your home, and this is very new to the child, it might take a while to get through this step the first few times, but you will be amazed at just how much shorter and non-explosive the tantrums will become. You’ll get there, your child wants few things more than to feel connected to you – A Well-Behaved Child Is A Connected Child).
Discharge the Emotional Overload – Removing the Lid
We have put just enough information into the straw to help the child feel seen and heard. Between our facial expression, our tone, and the few words we carefully chose to put into the straw, our child no longer feels alone. We are no longer part of the danger. We are no longer the enemy. We are now an ally. The child is now ready and able to remove the sealed lid and reclaim his left brain! Yes, that means he will soon be able to reason again!
So, once the child agrees to that hug, there will be an instant shift from “panic” (I’m in danger, I’m dying, kicking, screaming, hitting, scratching, throwing, hiding) to safety and release – most likely crying, or sobbing, which will release the built-up biochemicals…a completely natural and comforting reaction when moving from fear to safety.
Welcome the sobbing and keep reminding the child that he/she is safe, that you are there, and you know it’s so hard right now, and that he/she can just cry, cry, cry. Don’t prompt the child to “stop crying”, don’t tell them not to cry, no matter how gently. That only invalidates their feelings. It teaches them to ignore their feelings, to stuff them and to diffuse the unaddressed feelings with maladaptive behaviours. It makes the child believe they can’t trust their feelings, and that they aren’t “okay” as a person.
Don’t rationalize yet. Don’t use logic, don’t explain. Don’t ask for an explanation. Don’t teach! Be there. That’s it!
Once the tears have subsided, if addressed in the above-described manner, you will be amazed at how much your child looks and acts like nothing has happened. Once diffused, the bucket is fully open again. The lid is off, ready for information.
Rationalize/Teach/Explain/Share – Fill the Bucket
NOW! Now it’s time to explain, rationalize, teach, find solutions, fix, repair, discuss, etc. You can take your turn at describing how you felt when x happened. And if the tantrum began from something hurtful, like having hit his sister for instance, it’s only now that you bring it up and talk about how we can “fix” it and what we can do differently next time.
Not only does the child that “misbehaved” deserve the connection, (s)he needs it so desperately! All feelings are okay and natural and acceptable. We deal with those first. We’re not “letting them get away with it”. We’re connecting, making the child feel seen and heard, establishing a communication channel so that our child sees our behavioural suggestions as beneficial to him/her.
Once we get to the “talking” part, the child will be much more receptive to our suggestions, will want to “fix” their mistakes, and will be open to learning.
Three year-old Paul takes a toy from five year-old big sister Gina.
- Mom: “Paul, Gina is playing with that. You can ask for a turn but no taking from hands.”
- Paul: “Gina, can I have a turn?”
- Gina: “Not right now, I’m playing with it.”
- Paul: “I want a turn NOW.”
- Paul hits Gina.
- Mom: “Paul, hitting hurts bodies.”
- Paul begins to tantrum.
What does my instinct tell me to do?
- Accuse and judge. “That’s bad! Hitting is bad!” (Paul hears “You’re bad” and begins to believe that he is bad – and kids who feel bad act bad!)
- Raise my voice. “No! No hitting!” (Paul can already barely hear me, he lost access to logic, I look like the enemy, and he’s convinced I don’t get him. My comment is not helping.)
- Order and invalidate. “Stop crying!” (Paul would if he could, but he physically cannot. He feels out of control so he begins to tantrum more. Also, I send the message that feelings aren’t okay, that they should be ignored.)
- Isolate. “Go to your room!” (Paul, who felt alone with his big emotions, now feels even more alone, and like he can’t trust his feelings.)
- Rationalize too early. “Paul, taking toys hurts feelings. How would you feel if I took your toy? Hitting hurts bodies. We respect other people’s bodies…” (Paul sees my lips moving, sees my empathic but corrective facial expression and hears: bla bla bla. He doesn’t feel understood.)
Even though I don’t agree with his actions or his words, I recognize he’s lost access to his left brain. I put the entire event on hold, and proceed with the bucket. Once we’ve connected, established safety, and discharged the emotion, we’re on the same side; we’re a team of allies, and my child has access to his entire brain.
Now, I am free to address with him the parts of his behaviour that need some guidance/reminders. We can have a calm discussion about consideration, compassion, empathy, and respect. We can talk about how Gina might have felt having the toy taken from her, the importance of waiting your turn and respecting other people’s turn/time/space, and perhaps explore how he would have felt if Gina had taken a toy from his hands. We can discuss strategies. Even though he wants a turn NOW and that it’s really frustrating, there are other things he can do in the meantime, etc. We’ll also address the hitting. We’ll remind ourselves that hitting hurts bodies, and hitting isn’t respectful to other people’s bodies.
Those topics aren’t off the table because I chose to connect with my child and helped him feel safe despite his big emotions. In fact, it is crucial that I address them! But it is senseless and even counterproductive to attempt it when he is in emotional overwhelm. By using the bucket, I can honour his feelings, create safety, and become an ally. Once he is perfectly calm and happy, then we’ll talk, and he’ll likely be very responsive, eager to apologize, and eager to learn.
So if there is a secret to tantrum management, this is it! Helping the child reclaim the left-hand side of their overwhelmed and frightened brain.
Try it and send me your stories! email@example.com.