Whether your child is 2 or 12, tantrums are just no fun, right?
Even though new parents have all heard of the terrible two’s, it still comes as a shock when your sweet baby turns into a raging monster. Parents both fear that their child’s violent reactions are not normal and are furious that this creature child is interrupting the flow of life so thoroughly. Pretty much the same scene repeats itself as kids hit middle school.
It helps enormously for parents at both stages to be able to take the stance that “This is a phase; it will pass.” Parents who understand that their child’s behavior is neither deliberate nor manipulative are able to bring more patience and empathy in dealing with their child’s emotional upset, which is precisely what their child needs to gradually learn to regulate his emotions.
Among behaviors that particularly push parent’s buttons, biting, scratching and shoving seem to top the list of triggers for parents of toddlers. There is something so primordially unacceptable about being bitten, for example, that parents react with anger when they themselves are bitten and with shame and embarrassment when their child bites someone else. For parents of teens it is usually backtalk, door slamming and yelling/screaming that feels like a physical afront.
Dealing with the 2 Year Old
For the toddlers, there is no easy fix. The toddler is stepping out boldly into the world, but that is a scary and overwhelming process. She has a lot of big feelings and very little ability to process them rationally. Instead, she processes them physically. That means that screaming, kicking, sobbing, throwing things are all perfectly normal methods of offloading the enormous tension that builds up as a result of the intense learning she is experiencing. It is hard for parents to imagine the stress of so many new physical, cognitive, social and emotional milestones to meet. The number one way to handle this stage is for parents to stay present and empathetic while at the same time establishing firm limits about not allowing their child to hurt themselves or others by applying enough restraint so that the child cannot bite another or kick her parent. Using meltdowns to identify the child’s feelings helps to both normalize them and to build the child’s emotional vocabulary. Studies have found that the more nuanced our conceptional understanding of different emotional states, the easier it is to regulate oneself. Reading pictures books like People Don’t Bite People provide a light hearted way for parents to teach their kids other ways of dealing with their big feelings. This is a process; it takes time and repetition.
Dealing with the 12 Year Old
The older a child gets, the more language and conceptual understanding he has to bring to the table. A parent can engage an older child with more problem solving. A good start is to set children up for success is to help them anticipate what is likely to be hard and to discuss strategies. For example, a 12 year old might have social anxiety about going to a birthday party. Before the party, you might help your teen anticipate who is going to be there? If it is a lot of kids, how is that going to feel? Ask, what are you going to do if you start to feel overwhelmed? Strategies might include taking a personal time out by excusing oneself to the bathroom or engaging with an adult. (I dealt with social insecurity by offering to help which is always welcome and is a good cover for getting away from the center of the action.) Let your child know in advance that you understand the situation is hard for him, and you still hope that he will do his best to be appropriately engaged. Of course, someone might say something snarky that causes your child to react negatively. The parent at the party might report that to you. Please meet him first with understanding that emotions got heated. Praise him for being brave enough to go in the first place. Ask him what strategies he used to stay calm. If he didn’t use any, ask him what he wished he had used. Does all this calm empathy condone his behavior? No. He will still need to make amends (apologize, share, do something for someone, etc.) after he has calmed down to make up for losing his cool at someone’s birthday party. But your understanding that he was doing his best and your faith that he will continue to work on controlling his feelings is exactly that which helps him, in fact, be his best self.
Dealing with Scenes in Public
Of course, it is embarrassing when a child has a meltdown in public. As a parent you get triggered in a whole different way because you have to deal with your own embarrassment and shame. I get that because as conscious as we try to be as parents, it really is hard not to see your child—and therefore your child’s behavior—as an extension of yourself. But really the only difference between being in public or not is that finding a quiet, safe place to ride through the tantrum is harder. A parent is still best served by staying calm and present and supporting the child through the big feelings until he is able to self regulate by providing a confident reaction to the scene.