Parents may observe their children have “temper tantrums” in many different contexts. You could see your child have a tantrum before school when they are asked to get their backpack ready. You may see your daughter become upset when she can’t figure out how to fix her hair in the morning. You could also see your son throw a “temper tantrum” in the grocery store when he is told that he cannot buy the candy bar he is eyeing by the counter.
For a child, learning about their emotions is similar to learning how to tie their shoes or play sports or how to write their name. They need someone to model what they are supposed to do and then practice, practice, practice until they master that task. Yet as a child is learning and trying to handle their feelings and how to express them, their parents see these emotional outbursts as “temper tantrums.”
In today’s blog, Christie Stiff, MSMFT, explores temper tantrums and how parents can work through them with their child.
Children often have emotional outbursts when they lack – or are still learning – certain skills to address the situations that cause them anger, frustration, sadness or anxiety.
So what can parents do?
- Parents can model how to effectively calm themselves down, make compromises with others, communicate their needs and problem-solve ways to receive attention rather than responding with behaviors that are unhealthy or ineffective (ex. hitting, kicking, screaming).
- Parents can identify and empathize with their child’s feelings of sadness or anger while communicating that some of their behaviors are not acceptable.
- Parents can begin by attempting to notice the child’s triggers to an emotional outburst. If you notice that your child acts out when something specific happens, try to plan ahead and problem-solve early before the tantrum happens.
- Parents can connect with their child by validating their feelings of sadness, distress or anger. It is helpful to validate, or support, the feeling, not the ineffective behavior (hitting, kicking, throwing things).
- Parents can address the behavior by giving the child effective and healthy coping skills for dealing with distress (talking to someone about it, deep breathing, taking a time out in a calm spot, asking for help, etc.) and praise the child’s efforts to practice these new skills.
- In addition to verbal praise, parents can create a sticker chart to positively reinforce the child’s effective coping.
Decreasing ineffective behaviors
Parents can attempt to decrease these ineffective behaviors by simply giving them less attention during a tantrum. The more reactive a parent gets about a tantrum, the more attention it brings to the negative behavior. When a parent ignores or disengages from the undesired behavior (as long as the child is safe), they can practice managing their own feelings in response to their child’s outburst, showing the child that they are allowed to feel upset while also teaching the child that their tantrum will not get them what they want.
A child’s outburst can often trigger an emotional response in the parent. For example, if a child has an outburst at the grocery store when they are told they cannot buy a candy bar, the parent can feel angry, anxious or embarrassed at their child’s emotional expression. It is helpful for parents to be kinder and more open to their internal reactions, focus on their own feelings and focus less on changing/controlling their child’s behavior. Instead of attempting to change the child’s behavior, it is helpful to validate the child’s feelings of sadness, offer a replacement behavior and then look inward to manage your own feelings of distress. When a parent becomes more open to their own reactions, they can positively model emotional awareness for their children.
When we become more aware of our own reactions and are able to soothe ourselves, we can help to avoid habitual patterns of control and power and learn to authentically grow alongside our children.
Christie Stiff, MSMFT, is a Clinical Program Fellow at The Family Institute. She has a special interest in and significant clinical experience working with child anxiety and young children with behavioral issues. She is the Coordinator of The Family Institute’s Rainbows program. Ms. Stiff also has training in utilizing Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) techniques and exposure-based therapies to treat anxiety, depression and emotion regulation issues. In addition, through the Parents in Charge program, Ms. Stiff has experience with parent training for children under 7 with acting out behaviors, challenges due to the regulation of their emotions or academic concerns.
TFI’s Child, Adolescent and Family Services includes therapists who are dedicated and passionate about helping children, adolescents, young adults and their families. They are trained to work with a wide range of child and adolescent issues including anxiety, depression, and grief and loss, among others. They work with families from a wide variety of backgrounds including diverse ethnicities, income levels, educational backgrounds and sexual identities.
If your child is in need of mental health services, please reach out to a member of TFI’s Child, Adolescent and Family Services for help by calling 847-733-4300, ext. 263.
The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. Learn more about our services on our website.