Temper tantrums. They’re one of the least favorite things most parents of young children deal with, and most kids have them at least occasionally. Tantrums are frustrating to deal with; they can set your day off and into a downward spiral. There are ways you can reduce the number of tantrums your child has. Most young children throw a tantrum or meltdown because they’re struggling to process emotion or explain something and feel that they’re not being heard. It’s possible they’re not able to articulate what they need or want because they don’t know the words yet, or they’re dealing with a big emotion that’s hard for them. If you can teach your child to process emotions, it will help them have fewer emotion-based tantrums. Let’s start with a biggie, how to teach your child to control anger.
Dealing with anger
Young children have a lot of things happen that can be perceived as unfair and cause them to be angry. Think about it for a moment; most of their playmates are their age, which means they are still learning how to play nice, share, not hit when they get mad. Their social circle isn’t very well developed or behaved just yet. They’re all learning. That means when one is angry, it can spiral quickly. If a friend takes a toy, a child is playing with without asking (and let’s be real, it happens, a lot with little kids), the child who had the toy first will likely cry or potentially hit or try to take it back. The child who was playing with the toy is naturally going to be upset. Some children process this as anger, others process it as sadness, but either way, the child has a big emotion to process, and unless we teach them how to deal with that emotion, they’re going to struggle.
When things happen, like another child taking a toy away, it’s our job as their guides to stop the behavior and have a conversation with both children. First, we need to address the incorrect behavior with the child who took the toy away without asking and teach them how to ask for a turn. Let the child know they can ask for a turn, but they can’t take it away from someone. Then address the response with the child who had the toy taken away from them. If they cried or were upset, then have them tell the friend who took it how it made them feel. They were sad or angry. If they yelled, then talk to the child about asking a grown-up for help or let them know it’s OK to let the other child know they’re still playing with the toy and ask for it back. If hitting, pinching, or kicking was involved, we need to let the child who had that behavior know that it’s OK to be upset, but it’s not OK to hurt our friends. Remind them to be nice to their friends, have kind hands, and ask a grown-up for help.
Explaining anger to young children
Young children don’t know what anger is when they feel it the first few times. They don’t have a word to associate with the feeling. It’s up to us to teach them that the word is anger. And help them understand how to process it appropriately. We always recommend teaching them to use their words and talk it out. Now, sometimes kids aren’t ready to calm down and talk about it immediately (as adults are we always ready to talk about something that made us mad calmly when someone wants us to calm down, no we’re not, and we need to remember that for our kids). If the child isn’t ready to calm down or talk about it yet, and you can tell that trying to ask them to do that isn’t going to work, it’s OK to teach them to take time to calm down. Sometimes empowering them to say, “I’m not ready to talk, but I’d like to later” is enough to help them be able to feel in control and start to process the feeling. Once they’ve calmed down a bit, then you can have a conversation about what made them angry. You must ask them what upset them and listen. Listen. If you did something that triggered the anger and you should apologize for it then do. If the anger was triggered because you did something after telling the child you would do it if X didn’t happen, explain why you did what made them upset. You can say to a child you’re going to do X if they don’t stop, and then what’s a kid do? They don’t stop, and then you do X, and they have a fit. You see it; kid, you didn’t do X, and I did Y, but they see you did Y and get mad. Explain why you did Y again and remind them. It’s going to happen a few times before they fully catch on.
It’s also a good idea to teach the child to say, “you made me so angry because” and let them know it’s OK to tell someone what they did that hurt them. It’s not OK to hit someone because you’re angry, but it is OK to say, “I’m angry because.” If you practice this with them and remind them to use their words (even after they’ve had a temper tantrum and calmed down) in time, they’ll start to do it naturally.
Using your words to prevent meltdowns
If you can see that a child is on the verge of a meltdown, try to avoid it by asking them what’s going on and encouraging them to use their words. So often, tantrums are due to the frustration of not being able to articulate their wants or needs. If you work with them to help explain what’s bothering them, you might be able to stop the tantrum before it starts.
We’re empowering our children by teaching them how to process big emotions and giving them tools they can use such as, saying I’m not ready to talk about it right now, taking time out, or using their words. As adults, these are a lot of the behaviors we use to process anger too. We had to learn it somewhere. We learn by watching those around us. If you struggle with controlling anger, your child likely will too. If there’s a behavior you have that you don’t want your child to inherit, try to consciously watch for that behavior and not display it in front of them. If you do use it, discuss with your child why it’s not ideal and what would be better. None of us are perfect; we’re just parents and teachers doing the best we can to raise the tiny humans the right way.
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