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From tantrums, to words.

Who hasn’t been in that desperate moment when one of your children is throwing a massive tantrum, going crazy, making you feel absolutely powerless and why not, also embarrassed? - I’ve had.

Children throw tantrums and you know what? We do too. Think about it. We do it in different ways, but we still do. Tantrums are normal. They are a physical expression of disagreement or disappointment. Something happens, we don’t like it, we feel that we need to express our overwhelming feelings and so we do. The big challenge with children is that they tend to recur to “physical explosions” instead of using socially acceptable ways and words. Why? Because developmentally they might not be ready yet to express their feelings through words and/or they might not have the right words to express those feelings, and/or from their experience they have learned that they have a higher chance of the adult changing his/her mind and providing what the child wants if he throws a tantrum, and/or from their experience of emotionally receiving from the adult something that they really need and have proved to get only when a tantrum is posed. Many options, I know.

When children are born, they have no ability to use words. Therefore, when in need or discomfort, they cry. To the sound of the cry (a naturally very upsetting one), caregivers run to them and try to find a way to soothe them. They try and try, all different kinds of things, until they find the one that works. There is now calm.

As growing and development happens, children start to realize that whenever in need or discomfort, crying is the right tool to express themselves and ensure that comfort is on the way. The challenge comes then, when the crying and physical expression of a need or discomfort keeps on happening even though the child has developed and is therefore perfectly capable of using words.

To avoid this, a caregiver should start voicing interpretations to a child’s cry from day zero and encourage him to use those words as soon as he is capable of doing so. For example: “Oh honey, are you hungry? Let me feed you.” Or “I see that you are tired, let’s help you fall asleep.” Or “Oh, I can see that your tummy is hurting, let me help you with a massage.” Talking with our children and voicing their (apparent) needs and feelings, starts building their vocabulary which is the number one tool to avoid tantrums in the future.

On top of caregivers talking feelings and enriching the child’s vocabulary, children need to be encouraged to use those words to name their feelings once capable. Naturally, it is much easier to “physically explode” than to take a breath and use words to express frustration and disappointment and because of that, the caregiver should gently and lovingly insist in the child using his words. How? Let’s take the example of a fluent 4 year old throwing a tantrum because he can’t get the cookie that he wants. He is screaming and physically exploding. I could even add to that, that you are at the store, and it feels that everybody is looking at you. What are you going to do now?

Here is an option. The first thing that you can do (and this is what I personally do) is stop for a second. Literally, stop and observe your child. Become aware that crying and tantrums are “designed” to make grown ups react and decide that you won’t do so yet, that you will analyze the situation first since immediately reacting normally brings undesired results.

Now look at what your child is doing. Just observe and say to yourself: “My child is disappointed because he wanted a cookie and I told him that he can’t have it. He therefore feels powerless and as a consequence is very upset. MAKES SENSE” And it does, it really does. Your child is now expressing his disappointment. He is not putting this whole thing up to embarrass you or upset you. Nope. He is plain and simple expressing himself and as long as you can keep this in mind, you will be able to deal with the challenge in a fast and effective way. Oh, and the observers around you? Let them mind their own business. This tantrum is not it. Our kids’ tantrums don’t make us bad parents. They just mean that our children at that specific moment are overwhelmed and this is the way that they’ve chosen to express it. Just that.

Ok, and now what? Now that you are looking at the situation in a more objective way, leaving your ego aside and not getting emotionally involved, approach your child and help him voice his feelings in an empathetic way - empathy is the best tool a parent (or teacher) has. In this case, it allows the adult to approach the child in a humble, human way, opening the door to an honest exchange and as a result, help the child calm down and accept the unpleasant situation -.

How? Approach your child, make physical contact with him and let him know that you understand how he feels, that not getting what one wants is indeed disappointing.

Offer a hug.

Be open to talk about the subject. Not to negotiate but to discuss feelings.

Offer comfort.

For example: “I hear you buddy. It is very disappointing not to get what we want. I feel just like you when it happens to me too. Would you like a hug?” At this point your child will probably feel understood and relieved and will stop his physical outburst.

Feeling heard works like magic no matter how old a person is.

Yes, I know, you are probably saying “Ok, but this doesn’t work for me because my kid is kicking so badly that I can’t even approach him.” There are many kids who react this way and I don’t want you getting hurt. In this case I invite you to try the following: after you’ve stopped and reminded yourself of the function of a tantrum and have separated your ego and feelings from the situation, safely approach your child (look for a safe distance where you won’t get hurt but your child will still feel that you are there with him) and proceed to be empathetic without incurring in physical contact. If you find that your child is not listening at all, stay there anyway. Show your child that you are not afraid or feel rejected by his behavior. Tell your child that you are there for him. Even if he is not listening.

The situation got so bad that is uncontrollable? Stay there. Say nothing, but stay. Show your child that you are there for him. He will eventually calm down and then you’ll be able to empathetically approach him.

Believe it or not, your child is now calmer and this is a great opportunity to have a short conversation about those feelings that he is having. Encourage him to express them by using his words, be empathetic (not judgemental) and provide him with feedback on how awesome it is that he can tell you how he feels so that you can understand him better and faster. You may even suggest him that the next time that he feels that way or in any other way, he can choose to use his words to be understood better and faster. - Notice at the beginning of the paragraph the word short, please. Many times, children are looking for attention and they find that when misbehaving or throwing a tantrum, they get a lot of it. When this learning happens, the child tends to recur to the use of tantrums and other forms of unpleasant behavior as a way to assure himself that he will get the emotional attention that he needs, when he needs it. Therefore, it is important when attending unpleasant issues, to do so in a short manner so as not to send out the wrong message “throw a tantrum and you’ll get tons of attention.”

Being empathetic and helping our children use words, teaches them a better option to physical outbursts. This takes some time (sorry, no instant here) but at the end of the day it happens and it’s a great life skill for any person to have.

Remember, tantrums are a natural form of expression and they can be exchanged for words. It takes some empathy, patience and work on the caregiver’s side, and it’s very much worth it. Go for it!


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