When children are tantrumming often, parents just want it to stop. Part of stopping tantrums is working to prevent them in the first place. Teaching your child emotion language and knowing their triggers and cues can go a long way towards prevention.
Children need emotion language to better express their upsets. When they can label their emotions and talk about why they are feeling that way, they are much less likely to fall on the ground kicking and screaming. When they can say, “I am mad! I didn’t like that!” in the moment, they are less likely to tantrum. There are MANY ways to teach children emotion language.
- Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
- Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
- Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
- Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
- Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
- Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
- Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
- Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
- Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
- Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
- Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
- Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
- Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
- Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
- Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
- Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to my workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.
Triggers are what sets your child off. Tantrum triggers fall into three categories including situational triggers, social triggers and parent stress level. Knowing what sets your child off, allows you to see it coming in the moment and to teach your child how to better manage out of the moment.
- Situational triggers – Situational triggers include the child being hungry or tired. As a parent, this one falls on you to stay ahead of or fix. If you child tantrums from hunger, carry crackers in your bag and feed them healthy snacks more often. If your child tantrums from being tired, look at their sleep in the 24 hour period, check their nap schedule and build quiet time into their day.
- Social triggers – Social triggers are harder. This is a child that tantrums over having to share toys, being told “no” or not being first at something. The answer here is to teach your child how to better move through these moments. If the difficulty is over sharing toys then read and discuss children’s books about sharing, role play taking turns, tell stories or give puppet shows about sharing and taking turns, draw pictures of it going well and then coach them through it in the moment. Avoiding the trigger doesn’t work. If you end all playdates because your child falls to pieces over sharing, then your child loses the opportunities they need to practice.
- Parent stress level – This one can be hard to see. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more. It may be that they are reflecting the level or tone of emotion they feel in the house. It may be that because you are stressed, you are preoccupied. When you are preoccupied, you might not be as in touch as you usually are, and they have to get bigger and louder to get your attention. When you are stressed, do you seeing them rubbing their eyes, or do they have to be dragging on the floor to see they are tired? Do you recognize their frown, or do they have to be sobbing to get you to see they are sad? If they have to be dragging or sobbing, they will likely tantrum more because you are just not paying attention. This can often be tied back to your stress level. I’m not saying be super-parent and never feel stressed, just recognize when you are and the role it might play.
Cues are signs your child is about to lose it. Some kids do go zero to sixty, they are walking along and then BOOM, they are on the floor in full-tantrum. Most kids though, do give you a warning or a cue. Sometimes they are generous and give you a few minutes notice, other times it’s just a few seconds. The trick is to recognize your child’s cues and then intervene when they happen, before the tantrum. Some kids get fidgety, others get whiny or loud. It could be as slight as narrowing their eyes or their shoulders getting tense. There are several ways to intervene that may avoid the tantrum.
- Distraction – Distraction, before the tantrum, is fine while it works. For most kids, at some point, this just doesn’t work. While you are using distraction in the moment, you still want to be teaching emotion language and teaching them ways to better manage when the triggers happen.
- Empathy – Giving empathy means you validate your child’s emotions, even when you disagree with those emotions in the moment. Let’s say your four-year-old loses at a game and throws the pieces across the room, denying their emotions (what you want to avoid) would be saying, “you shouldn’t be so angry, it’s just a game.” Giving empathy (what you want to do) would be saying, “wow, you are angry! You didn’t like that game.” This validates the emotions, and lets them know you understand how they are feeling. There are so many beneficial reasons to start with empathy here, at the top is that it helps many children start to calm.
- Positive Intent – Giving positive intent is giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing the good reasons behind the bad behaviors and validating their motives. When children are called for snack and are now knocking each other out of the way to get there, they are “really excited for snack,” rather than “rude and careless.”
- Choices – In this case, choices are a distraction away from the tantrum. When children are making choices, they are being cognitive, and when they are cognitive they tend to be less emotional. Choices are two positive choices about how, when or where they can do something. Choices for a child who’s upset about not being able to get his shoes on might be, “do you want me to try, or do you want to try again?” or, “do you want to sit on the top step or the bottom step to try again?” or, “do you want to put them on in the car, or when we get there?”
If you don’t know your child’s triggers or cues, you might want to chart their behavior. Charting behavior can be helpful anytime there is repeat behaviors such as lots of tantrums or many aggressive acts. Charting is easiest if you keep a notebook. Give each tantrum one page and on each page make a template. This includes noting where it was, when it was, who was around, what seemed to set it off, any cues they were about to lose it, what happened during, how long it lasted, how they found their calm and what happened after. Once you have notes on several tantrums, you might be able to read through the notes and find patterns. You might realize that your child is always tantrumming around 11:30am, maybe it would help to move lunch earlier. Maybe your child is tantrumming when other children are playing together, and he feels left out. You might role play or read books about joining play.