Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


Preventing Tantrum Escalation

Using empathy to help your child with big feelings

Angry child

Here is the second installment in my series about tantrums/meltdowns.

Last week I posted the questions I ask parents to consider when their children are having lots of tantrums. This week's topic is how to de-escalate a tantrum.

Even if you have filled your child's attachment tank and have made sure to avoid situations that might compromise your child (hungry, tired, over-stimulated, overwhelmed), tantrums happen. This is normal.

Here are suggestions to try preventing tantrums from escalating while protecting the secure attachment you have built with your child.

Acknowledge that your child is angry—that alone might stop the tantrum! Before you give instructions or set a limit ("Connect first, instructions second"), put your commentator voice on and state what you see. For example, if you have cut the toast the wrong way, which I did yesterday, say what you see, "OH NO! You wanted me to cut the toast into squares not triangles. I made a mistake." Try to get a nod... "I did the wrong thing." After the nod, then you can set the limit, "It isn't okay to waste food, so your choice is to eat this now or a little later. Would you like to have your apple slices first?"

If you see that look in his eye that makes you want to lunge for the toast because you expect it to be sailing across the room, do an empathy statement like this, "You are mad. Having squares isn't what you want." If he hears this and is able to reel himself in, scoop him into a hug.

When anyone gets angry, please remember that anger is an "icing" emotion — it is a defence against more uncomfortable feelings inside (the cake) like vulnerability, sadness, fear, and hurt. If you can help your child shift back into the deeper feeling, the tantrum likely won't happen.

Try using more empathy like this, "You wish you had triangle toast. You are mad at Mommy." If your child is in the cake, tears will flow. Gordon Neufeld, PhD calls this "getting to futility." Your child has realized that the toast is not going to be cut into squares and connects with how sad he is that his preference didn't happen.

That is why it is so important to not try to "fix" your child's tantrum once it starts. Getting to futility is an important skill. This is where acceptance grows. If we prevent our child from reaching that point where he just will not get what he wants, he won't learn how to accept struggles and move forward.

You know your child has made it to futility when he crumples into a sobbing ball. This is the eventual state after the rage is done. If you skip this state by offering a bribe like toys, treats or electronics to get the tantrum to stop, you are not allowing your child to grow the skill of futility. 

If you have done everything to connect, prevent a compromised state, used limits and empathy and a tantrum still happens, maybe your child just needs a good meltdown to clear his subconscious mind. Think of the tantrum as something that is helping your child, and not hurting you.

If he has gone past the point of tantrum no return, go into tantrum tolerance mode, which is what I will discuss next week. To be continued... 

(If you have any questions, feel free to post them here or on my facebook page)

Photo from flickr creative commons Gerry T