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Prior to having kids of your own, have you ever passed by an exasperated parent with a screaming kid and thought to yourself, “That will never be me.” Fast forward a few years and you find yourself in the exact same situation, but this time you’re the one struggling to keep your head above water.
Temper tantrums are one of the biggest challenges of parenthood. They can be difficult to prevent and even harder to respond to effectively when they happen. Tantrums start to manifest in our darling little angels when they turn one and really heat up during their terrible twos. However, when they occur past that developmental age, it can be a huge problem for both parents and children.
An Emotional Explosion
To handle tantrums effectively, parents must first understand them. Children usually face frustration when something is being deliberately withheld from them, as mother-of-two JJ Wee learnt when her eldest son threw a tantrum in public. “My boy wanted a particular toy, and when I said no, he threw a temper by hitting the floor and lying face down.”
Dr Joel Yang of psychological consultancy Mind What Matters explains that such tantrums are a learned behaviour kids pick up from infancy. “When we were newborns, we cried and yelled for food, comfort, and attention,” he explains. “We learn that this helps us get what we want and when we grow up, we continue to employ the same strategy.”
Temper tantrums are also symptoms that a child is struggling with overwhelming emotions she cannot regulate. It’s not an intentional plan to frustrate you, but the only way she can express herself in such a tightly-wound situation. After all, children still haven’t learnt to handle their emotions by talking it out and reasoning the way adults do. Sometimes, we adults can’t even do that ourselves when we get mad, so how can we expect that level of maturity from a six-year-old?
Calm Parents, Calm Kids
The way parents respond to tantrums is crucial as it affects a child’s future behaviour. The golden rule is to never lose your cool. Not only do children feel safer when parents don’t get emotional, Dr Yang explains that children learn to behave socially in part by observing and imitating others. “Although a parent may successfully stop a child from throwing tantrums by yelling at him or her, it is more than likely that children will adopt this strategy in future in an attempt to stop others, including their parents, from doing what displeases them,” he adds. Similarly, by dealing with the situation calmly, children will emulate your behaviour and learn that it’s possible to stay calm during a stressful situation.
By addressing tantrums calmly, it enables you to focus on teaching the child why their behaviour is problematic. JJ agrees that while staying calm is hard, it is indeed effective. “When he acted out, I told him very firmly that I would leave him there if he didn’t stop by the count of five. By the time I got to five and walked away, I heard familiar footsteps running after me. Later, I explained that his bad behaviour should never be repeated and that no means no.” Since that incident, JJ never had to pull an ultimatum like that again.
Sidestepping The Next Meltdown
While it may seem impossible sometimes, there are many ways to handle tantrums without getting riled up yourself. A simple way to head off a tantrum is to give your kid a brief time-out. By sending her to her room, she no longer has an audience (i.e. you) to get attention from. By taking that motivation away, your kid will be able to collect herself and let the wave of anger pass. While this may work at home, there are other methods of calming your kids down when they start to lose it in public.
Anita Yong, 48, discovered early on that punishment did not work on her strong-willed son, Samuel. “My son was born with a temper,” she says candidly. “When he was just a baby, he would cry till his face started turning purple. We had to slap him on the thighs in order to get him to take a breath and his temperament didn’t get better as he grew older.”
Instead of dealing with the problem directly, the mother-of-three found that distracting Samuel was the best way to prevent him from going nuclear. “I am very grateful that my eldest, Ben, is sensible enough to help me distract him with jokes and riddles when he starts to lose it. After a few laughs, Sam would forget why he was angry in the first place!”
Another way to handle tantrums is to use positive reinforcements. Dr Yang suggests that children generally respond well to the promise of rewards. If they know being on their best behaviour will get them an ice cream or extra television time, it will make them think twice before they blow their top. However, Dr Yang advises that all deals should be made on your terms, as this is the only way to establish control over the situation.
What Won’t Work
When it comes to tantrums, there are some parenting tactics that don’t work at all. Parents who try to rationalise with their bad-tempered children will find themselves fighting a losing battle. When the human brain sees red, the limbic centres of the brain are fired up and high on emotion, overshadowing the high cortical centres which are responsible for reasoning and logic.
No matter how much your kids rile you up, don’t resort to yelling. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that you have to be the adult. Losing your cool only proves to your kiddo that yelling will help them get their way. When it comes to stamping out tantrums, consistency is key. Don’t make empty promises or threats. If you warn him that he will lose his iPad privileges, be sure to follow through or your little one won’t take you seriously.
Some experts believe that because kids throw tantrums in order to get attention, it’s best to ignore their episode completely. However, Dr Yang points out that this is likely to make them feel emotionally abandoned. “Your child may be throwing tantrums for other reasons, and you would want to clarify with them so that they do not feel emotionally unsupported. It is important to explain your rationale for not acceding to their requests before ignoring them.”