Tantrums in School aged Children.
Tantrums and meltdowns are different kinds of emotional outbursts, and there are different ways to deal with them. Here are some strategies for each.
This Article is for taming tantrums in School-aged Children. For Toddler Tantrums, check out our “Terrible Two’s” Article.
School-agers throw tantrums for the same reasons they did as toddlers: because they're exhausted, hungry, or scared. But at this age, it's more likely because your child wants to test your authority or manipulate you. This isn't a knock on your parenting skills or a sign that he'll be a rebellious teenager; it's a normal part of his development and growing independence. By occasionally provoking you, he may be trying to learn more about how you respond to conflict, make decisions, and share authority.
Some tantrums are associated with developmental problems, such as delayed language skills or hearing or vision difficulties. Severe stress, parents' divorce, the death of a family member, or other emotional upsets may also prompt tantrum-like behaviour. A paediatrician can definitely help you assess these types of problems.
Could YOU be causing your child's tantrums?
You could be! But it's okay! We will work on recognizing it, and problem-solving below! Be kind to yourself. Parenting is all about trial and error. Even if you are helping your child have tantrums, your child still has to learn to control himself.
Unrealistic expectations and rigid rules can make children feel trapped; tantrums may be a sign that you're putting too much pressure on your child. But having too few rules and making up your child's schedule as you go can also create problems. When you're late with a nap or meal, he becomes uncertain and worried, and his anxiety bursts out.
If you ignored tantrums in the past or gave in to keep the peace, you're learning that the problem doesn't simply melt away. You have to deal with what's going on and teach your child how to express himself without exploding.
The years from age 3 to 6 are an emotionally turbulent time. Your child may swing between extremes: He wants more independence, but he suffers from separation anxiety. Now more than ever, it's important for you to be calm when things go wrong, consistent about how you handle problems, and compassionate when your child has an outburst.
Are there different types of tantrums?
Yes. Here are a few scenarios:
- Fatigue or frustration tantrums. He's hungry, tired, or confounded by something he's doing. The anger builds and eventually spills out in crying and kicking. Your response: Give your child a nap or a snack. If he's frustrated, try to calm him. Ask him to explain what's wrong, empathize with him ("Gee, that computer game sure is hard!"), and encourage him or offer help. If the task is too difficult, let him stop and do something else for a while.
- Attention-seeking or demanding tantrums. Your child wants you to play with him even though you have guests over for dinner. Or he tells you to buy him that giant stuffed dinosaur -- right now. Your response: Just say no. Your child may cry, yell, and pound the floor. Smile, and say you love him. Put him in a safe place, let him have his tantrum, and offer to talk again when he's calmer.
- Refusal or avoidance tantrums. "It's snack time!" you announce; your child says no. "Time for a trip to the store!" Again, no. Pretty soon you feel as though you're parenting a mule: No is the answer to everything you suggest, whether it's a bath, a babysitter, or bedtime. Your response: Go easy. Let your child skip his snack if it's not a big deal. Also, avoid yes/no situations by simply stating what's going to happen and giving your child a face-saving tip-off. "Time for bed!" is abrupt. "Sweetie, 10 minutes till bedtime" give him time to adjust.
- Disruptive tantrums. This shrieking and flailing exhibition may occur in a public place, such as a restaurant or store. Your response: Unless your child is having a rage tantrum (see below), place him in a room by himself and give him a time-out for two to five minutes. If you're not at home, take him outside. Don't allow your child the thrill of flipping out in a public place; teach him that he won't get attention from you or others by behaving badly.
- Rage tantrums. Your child loses control physically as well as emotionally -- screaming, kicking, and striking out. You think he could harm himself or others. Your response: Hold your child if he'll let you. Tell him that you will hold him until he "melts" and can get some control over himself. Some children are frightened by the intensity of their own feelings. Be your child's anchor; even if he's lost control, assure him that you won't.
How can I stop my child's tantrums without giving in?
First, get past the idea that your child's tantrum is about him squaring off with you. It's really about a frightening rush of feeling he can't rein in. Second, try to look at the situation from your child's perspective. After years of going to the park at 10 o'clock, maybe today he decides that he wants to say when you'll leave. Let him. Start giving him opportunities to make simple decisions. Don't worry about maintaining your power over him; think about a relationship in which you teach him how to make good decisions for himself. Far from letting him manipulate you, you'll show him that you are strong enough to share authority. Yielding gracefully now and then also tells your child that you value his opinions.
Hold a firmer line when your child wants things that aren't good for him. Letting him go without a bath once in a while is okay, but you wouldn't want him to give up baths altogether. The same goes for sugary treats and expensive toys; give in too often, and you won't like the results.
How can I cope if the tantrums are getting worse?
As children grow older, tantrums may become louder, more disruptive, and tougher to control. The best strategy is still the one you used when your child was a toddler: Take him to a quiet place and let him express his feelings; talk to him later about what happened and why.
Remind yourself not to get angry. If your child is going on his fourth or fifth year of tantrums, you may feel that showing him how fatigued and upset you are will help him realize how badly he's behaving. It won't. Physical or verbal aggression will only teach your child to be aggressive. There is simply no shortcut to the hard work of teaching your child how to manage his emotions and correcting him when he fails.
Also, don't argue with your child. Given your child's growing language skills, it's tempting try to talk him out of a tantrum. But you'd be wasting your breath. Your child is probably too upset to listen, and in any case, the issue isn't the candy bar he wants you to buy -- it's his uncontrollable anger. Talk to your child after the tempest has passed, pointing out what he could have done differently.
Seek professional help if your child's tantrums cause harm to himself or others, if your child holds his breath and faints, or if the tantrums get worse after the middle of the fourth year. If the outbursts are severe or happen too often, your child may have a medical, social, or emotional problem; your family doctor or paediatrician can help you figure out what's wrong.
Ways to Tame a Tantrum
Tantrums are usually something kids have some control over. So there are many ways to try to avoid them—or stop them in their tracks.
- Create a calm space. Find a place in your house that your child can use to calm down and feel safe. Explain this is a quiet space, not a punishment space. At first, you may need to help her remember to go there when she’s upset.
- Identify the cause. Knowing the source of a tantrum makes it easier to defuse. It can help you find an in-the-moment solution and help your child find better ways to deal with the situation next time.
- Have clear expectations and consequences. Let your child know what you expect in certain situations. Explain what will happen if the expectations aren’t met.
- Talk the situation through. Your child may not be acting appropriately, but that doesn’t mean her feelings aren’t real. Acknowledge what’s upsetting her and help her name the feelings. For example: “I know you’re angry with me because I asked you to turn off the video game. I get mad, too, when I have to stop doing something fun.”
- Ignore the tantrum behaviour. For some kids, the most effective reaction is no reaction. If your child’s tantrum is fed by the negative attention she gets as you’re trying to tame it, it may be better to give her some space and not respond at all.
- Reinforce self-control and positive behaviour. Praise your child when she’s able to gain control and calm down. Let her know specifically what she’s doing well. For example, “I know you were really angry and it was hard for you to stop yelling. You did a nice job taking some time to cool down. Now we can talk about this calmly.”
THE BRAIN SCIENCE OF TANTRUMS
One of my favourite books “The Whole-Brain Child” By Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson, helps us understand the brain in a simple way. It’s the upstairs and downstairs brain! I totally recommend reading this book!
You're a Here is a quick summary:
The downstairs brain is well developed at birth. It’s responsible for all of the basic functions (e.g. breathing), reactions and impulses (i.e. fight, flight and freeze) and strong emotions (e.g. fear and anger).
The upstairs brain is more complex. It’s responsible for sound decision making, control over body and emotions, self-understanding, empathy and morality. The upstairs brain is so complex that it is not fully mature until a person reaches mid-20’s.
Children have a greater tendency to ‘throw tantrums’ and act impulsively because they’re more prone to get ‘trapped’ in the downstairs brain. The goal is to help children integrate the upstairs and the downstairs brain with a metaphorical staircase. That way the upstairs brain can monitor the strong emotions and impulses from the downstairs and make sense of them.
Upstairs Tantrums Versus Downstairs Tantrums
Not all tantrums are the same!
“An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit … A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist … A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain … He’s flipped his lid.”
An upstairs tantrum is intentional, controlled and manipulative. This calls for clear limit set by the parent. A downstairs tantrum is more primitive in nature – the child appears to have “lost his/her mind” or “flipped his/her lid”. During a downstairs tantrum, the child is no longer in control.
Building A Staircase Between The Upstairs And Downstairs Brown
Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson suggest three strategies for integrating the upstairs and downstairs brain.
Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appeal To The Upstairs Brain
There are two keys parts to this strategy.
The first is giving voice – basically acknowledging a child’s feelings first (e.g.‘You sound angry’). The second is including the child in the compromise process and sharing the power (e.g. Maybe we can work out a compromise. What would you like?’).
By giving voice and shared power, we avoid enraging the downstairs brain and allow the child to engage the upstairs bring in the problem-solving.
Use It Or Lose It: Exercising The Upstairs Brain
This strategy is all about providing lots of opportunities to exercise the upstairs brain so it can be strong and integrated with the downstairs brain and the body.
“The upstairs brain is like a muscle; when it gets used, it develops, gets stronger, and performs better. And when it gets ignored, it doesn’t develop optimally, losing some of its power and ability to function”
Allowing a child to regularly make choices (e.g. Would you like X or Y?) strengthens the upstairs brain. As does playing “What would you do?” games and presenting a child with dilemmas.
Move It Or Lose It: Moving The Body To Avoid Losing The Mind
Moving the body directly affects brain chemistry. A powerful way to help children gain their emotional balance is to have them move their bodies.
“Research has shown that when we change our physical state – through movement or relaxation, for example – we can change our emotional state”
Deep breathing, stretches, yoga moves, pushing against a wall or jumping on a trampoline can help a child regain some sort of balance and control, which can remove blockages and pave the way for integration between the upstairs and downstairs brain to return.
For a more descriptive Article on Managing Meltdowns or Angry Meltdowns, check out this article!
Meltdowns are more extreme than tantrums, and handling them is more complicated. Knowing the triggers for your child and the signs of escalation can help you avoid a total explosion. But even if you can’t stop a meltdown, there are ways you can respond to help your child regain control.
Before the Meltdown
- Know your child’s triggers. They’re not the same for every child. For some kids, it might be sensory or emotional overload. For others, it might be too many demands, unexpected changes or pain and fear. If you know your child’s triggers, you can try to avoid them.
- Watch for and take note of patterns. It can help you learn your child’s triggers. You may notice that your child gets more anxious or has more trouble at a certain time of day. For instance, if meltdowns tend to happen close to mealtimes or bedtime, hunger or fatigue may be triggering. Or you may notice that where they happen to have something in common, such as noise or crowds.
- Recognize the signs of escalation. Your child may show warning signs that she’s having trouble coping. If you can catch them early enough, you may be able to help her calm down before she becomes out of control. Common warning signs include:
· Trouble thinking clearly, making decisions or responding to questions
· Repeating thoughts or questions over and over
· Refusing to follow directions or cooperate
· Trying to shut out sensory input or attempting to run away or hide
· Increased movements, like fidgeting or pacing
· Complaining of physical issues like dizziness or heart pounding
- Try to redirect from the trigger. For some kids, the escalation phase can be interrupted. See if it helps to try to distract her with something else to do or by redirecting her to another task or activity.
- Be patient. Your instinct may be to try to stop an escalation quickly, but talking fast and loud can make it worse. Give your child more space and more time to process what you’re saying. Use short, concrete sentences that take away your child’s need to make decisions.
During the Meltdown
- Do a safety assessment. When your child is screaming and throwing things, it may feel like an emergency. But that doesn’t mean it is. The question to consider: Is anyone hurt or going to get hurt?
- Be reassuring. It may take trial and error to know if your child prefers physical distance or a firm hug or touch during the meltdown. But keeping your voice and body language calm is helpful in either case. Make sure your child knows you’re there and you understand she may feel scared and out of control.
- Provide some space. If you’re out in public, try to help your child move to a quieter place. If you’re at home, see if you can get your child to go to the part of your home that is her calming zone. If it’s not possible to move your child, ask other people to give you both some space.
- Tone it down. Turn down lights, keep things quiet and try not to crowd your child. If you’re at home and your child isn’t able or willing to move to her room, try standing off to the side. (Standing in the doorway can make your child feel blocked in.)
- Consider your post-meltdown plan. Start thinking about how to re-engage with your child after the meltdown without reigniting it. You may need to abandon your shopping trip. If the meltdown was triggered by an emotional conversation, you may need to back away from that topic and find a new way to approach it the next time you try to talk about it.
After the Meltdown
- Take time to recover. Once your child starts to calm down, she may feel embarrassed or guilty about her outburst. She may also be physically exhausted. Give her time to collect herself.
- Find the right time to talk. You may want to help your child make sense of what happened. Right afterwards may not be the best time. But when you’re both calm, here are some ways to approach it:
- Give your child a heads-up. Let your child know you’re going to talk so she has some advance notice. Reassure her she’s not in trouble.
- Be brief. Talking about a meltdown can make kids feel remorseful and defensive. Say what you need to say, but try to avoid going over the same information repeatedly.
- Check for understanding. Ask your child to tell you in her own words what you talked about. Answer any questions she may have. If you’ve decided on an action plan, see if she can summarize it for you.
Keep in mind that managing meltdowns and taming tantrums take practice. Learning to recognize the signs and teaching your child coping skills can help you both find ways to respond more effectively in the future.
Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, PhD, Sidney M. Baker, M.D., Child Behavior: The classic childcare manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. HarperPerennial 1992.
American Academy of Pediatrics. HealthyChildren.org. Temper Tantrums. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/pages/Temper-Tantrums.aspx