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Learning to talk tantrum

Not all tantrums are created equal. Understanding your child’s reason for acting out can give you strategies to help your child manage their feelings and put a cap on tantrum-induced chaos.
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The two types of tantrums

Many experts believe there are two distinct types of tantrums: manipulative and spill-over. A manipulative tantrum is one your child uses to get his way and gain control over you. These tantrums often take place when your child wants something and you say no. Your child then throws a tantrum to force you to change your mind.

A spill-over tantrum, on the other hand, happens when your child becomes overwhelmed by a flood of feelings, senses and stimuli that he can't control. These tantrums are unintentional and nonmanipulative. Children who are highly emotional, ultra-sensitive and easily over-stimulated tend to have spill-over tantrums. Both types of tantrums can occur in children of different ages, but they need to be handled very differently.

Manipulative tantrums

Your first step is to determine which type of tantrum your child is having. If your child is yelling and screaming because you won't let him have ice cream, this is probably a manipulative tantrum. In that case, ignore it. Walk into another room and leave your child alone to yell without the benefit of an audience. If you're out, take your child to the car and let her scream there.

Most importantly, don't give in to the tantrum or you'll just encourage your child to have one the next time she wants her way. After the tantrum is over and your child is calm, explain, in no uncertain terms, that her behavior was absolutely unacceptable, then give her a consequence like taking away her favorite toy for several days, or removing a special privilege. Firmly tell her that she is not allowed to behave this way, and if she ever does again, there will be an even stronger consequence, like taking away her favorite toy for a week or more, or perhaps losing it completely.

Tell your child that you expect better of her and that you were extremely disappointed in her behavior. During this whole discussion, use your firmest voice and demeanor and look her square in the eye, but maintain your composure.

If you yell and express extreme emotions as you're telling your child how you expect her to behave, you'll be giving a mixed message: do as I say, not as I do. Hard as it may be to remain calm, doing so is essential. If you need to go into another room and take deep breaths before speaking, do so. Get a drink of water, breathe deeply and make a calming statement in your head like, "I can handle this." Then talk to your child.

Remember, you are the model for your child's behavior. One more caveat. If you say you're going to take away a favorite toy if your child throws another tantrum, do it. Not following through will only reinforce the fact that your child can manipulate you with tantrums.

Spill-over tantrums

Spill-over tantrums are entirely different. If your child fits the earlier description, he may very well be caught in the syndrome of feeling overwhelmed by his own emotions and losing control without wanting to.

Imagine it's been a really stressful week and your child has had a long and over stimulating day. It's past his bedtime and as he walks toward his bed he accidentally knocks over a Lego airplane he just put together this morning. He starts wailing uncontrollably, gets louder and louder, and can't seem to calm down. Before long, he's flailing around, completely out of control. This is a spill-over tantrum.

Here are some suggestions that will help you handle it and soothe your child at the same time:

  • Do what you can to quell the flood of emotions. In this case, helping him put together his broken airplane might work. Try to rectify the source of the problem if at all possible.
  • Stay close to your child if you can. Let your presence be a calming influence while he's experiencing such intense emotions. Sometimes leaving the room will add to your child's upset in moments like this, so take deep breaths and try to keep your own composure. If you can't, ask your partner to stay near your child instead.
  • Give your child space if he needs it but don't leave him completely alone. If you sense that being too close is only making him react more intensely, move away but stay nearby, at least where he can see you.
  • Touch your child gently if he allows it. Try hugging or stroking to calm him down. Let him put his head in your lap or lean against you and whisper soothing words to him like, "Mommy's right here. You're going to be OK." Try to remain calm even if he keeps crying.
  • Use a firm but gentle voice and tell him to stop after about 10 to 15 minutes. Have him take a series of slow, deep breaths to regain his composure. Breathe together if you can. This might be enough to calm him down.
  • Don't allow him to do anything destructive during his tantrum, no matter how upset he is. Make sure he knows ahead of time what is acceptable and unacceptable. Hurting himself, others or property are all unacceptable behaviors. After he calms down, give consequences if he has broken any rules.
  • Talk afterwards and help your child identify the feelings that brought on his tantrum. Help him devise a plan for next time, like letting you know when he's feeling overtired or in need of a break. Be on the lookout for situations that could trigger him, and do what you can to stop things before they get out of hand. Know when to seek professional help. If you do all these things, and the spill-over tantrums continue, try keeping a journal and noticing what tends to set your child off.

If all interventions fail, you might want to consult with a professional who can offer further guidance. Sometimes emotional and/or physical factors can be the source of the problem. Early intervention can be a big help.

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