Children: Tantrums + Boundaries
1. What is a tantrum?
Both of my girls have always been a fiery force of nature. They are communicators, physical and determined. I never want to parent this out of them, but dang it can be challenging! When our oldest turned two, I called a close friend in tears, “she gets so angry! I can never make her happy. I try so hard and nothing works. I always feel like I am walking on egg shells.” That night my perspective shifted, thanks to this wise friend and her words. I learned about tantrums, and began to research more in depth as I did my own inner child work alongside raising my child. It isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible.
When a child is taken over by a tantrum, a little alarm goes off in their brain that signals to the body DANGER! Here they dive into the lower (survival/primal) brain that is meant to fight off a threat. That is why behaviorally you will notice clenching of fists, yelling, flailing, running away or curling up on the ground. Adults on the other hand, have a more mature and developed pre frontal cortex (higher brain) where they are able to rationally think and respond (with practice!) When you feel triggered by your child’s outbursts, it is because you are being pulled into your lower brain and must take a moment to calm, regroup, and then respond. Otherwise, you feel attacked at the same time that they feel attacked, which is a perfect storm for a not so pretty afternoon.
Notice it coming on. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Usually I can tell when it’s getting close to nap time, dinner time, or if we have been super busy that a tantrum is more likely to occur. When I can notice, I can better prepare and welcome it.
Calmly empathize. To them a spilled sippy cup IS a big deal. Do not dismiss or belittle their emotions. I like to use words like “I see you are angry, I would be too.” This is a powerful moment to give them words to describe how they are feeling. Validation is huge as a two year old or fifty year old.
Embrace their emotions. Give it some time and maybe a little space. I use minimal words and both of my girls are not a fan of physical touch until after the tantrum is over. I make sure they are both safe and usually continue what I need to while being mindful that my body language and tone is receptive to their needs. “I am here when you need me. You are safe. Take your time.”
Remember they are asking for HELP. This point is a big one for me. Whenever my child is having a rough moment, I tell myself this a lot. When I think of them needing my help to regulate, I don’t feel attacked by them and am better able to respond with calmness and love.
Don’t take it personal. That phone call with my friend shed light on this point for me. Before that, I was taking every meltdown as confirmation that I was a bad mom doing nothing right. This became a heavy weight of shame that really clouded my ability to grow as a mother. Now, I am more aware that their behavior and emotional expression has little to do with me, however it is my responsibility to model regulation and accept their wide range of emotions without controlling, fixing or preventing them from coming on because it makes ME uncomfortable.
2. Hold Boundaries:
Often when our children go into a tailspin, the first thing we want to do is give them that extra cookie they wanted, stay a few more minutes at the park like they asked, or give into just one more show. We HATE it when they are upset. However their anger is not to be feared. Remember, kids don’t actually want their way. They want SAFETY + STABILITY. They can sense when you feel unsure and not confident, and this leads to more anxiety in them, which perpetuates the behavior.
I shared in my IG LIVE session last week this example : How would you feel if you were going through a rough time and began sharing with your partner your trouble. Midway through they asked you things like, “well did you still want dinner? How about pasta? Let’s try to get your bath going, okay? Did you want these pajamas or these? Honey it’s time to stop crying and maybe we can brush teeth together?” (notice the tip toeing?)
All of those statements are very wishy washy. In moments of distress, I like to think of myself as the captain steering the ship. I don’t have to be mean, but I do need to be assertive and to the point. This would be more of a SAFE script I would use instead: “Here is your dinner, take a bite. Then we will head upstairs to brush teeth and bed.” The last thing children need in a challenging moment is another layer of undue responsibility burdening them like being in charge. You are the parent. You are the captain. They need you to steer.
When we had our first daughter, we tried our hardest to alter her behavior through time out. At first, it worked. We felt like super parents! But then over time it stopped working. She would laugh, or walk out of time out and we would start battling THAT instead of the original issue. We knew something had to change.
Over the years I have learned that punishing a child (or anyone) isn’t how change occurs. People do better when they feel better, kids included.
I never want my children to do things just because I said so. I want a home built on cooperation and not compliance. I don’t know about you, but motherhood isn’t fun when it becomes a role of dictator or just being boss. I seek to build intrinsic motivation, which really comes through a belief that one is loved, enough and accepted as is despite behavior or even accomplishments. Truth be told — children want to please you. They want to make you happy. They want to do the “right thing.” We as parents don’t have to make kids “good.” Instead we need to look for opportunities to remind them of their goodness, and work to lessen our expectation and increase our radical acceptance.
If we are busy punishing or forcing our children to apologize and do better, we miss a huge mark- CONNECTION. It never fails, after a big outburst or tantrum, my girls need snuggle time. It’s up to me to notice and make myself available. Sometimes, they need to just play. A puzzle, a book together, literally five minutes to reconnect. This reinforces safety, security and the love between us. Also, it’s important to build in connection time through out the day. Let them pick something that just you and them get to do. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be intentional.
I also try to remember that a tantrum is NOT the moment to teach. Children are shut down and in survival mode, therefore are not receptive to “why we don’t throw that in the house.” There is always an opportunity later to talk more about house rules. Don’t miss the more important moment of play and connection. Children will learn best when they feel safe and loved first.
The early years are hard. I can attest, because I am in the thick of it with you. When we are working towards our own awareness and healing, it can feel tempting to throw in the towel and give up. I encourage you to use these challenging times as an opportunity to become more aware and respond in the ways you know are powerful + necessary to break cycles.
Children need us to be predictable, emotionally available, consistent— and not afraid of their big emotions. Remember, when you get better, the whole family wins.
Yours in healing,