Once you discover those tells — or signals — you will find that trying to prevent a tantrum will eventually be easier than trying to deal with it once it has begun. Your first job will be to take the time to find the tantrum signals, sometimes called "triggers." Successful parents keep a Tantrum Diary so they can have a written record what of sets up the tantrum. Even though you may already know this information a Tantrum Diary may still help you discover some not-so-obvious triggers.
Plan ahead – Try to guess how your child is going to behavior as you plan your day. When you have an idea of what you will be doing during the day, you can compare it to the Tantrum Diary. For example, maybe you need to go shopping and course you will bring your child with you. Your Tantrum Diary tells you that your child has a tantrum in the grocery store about 50% of the time. You also found out that it is more likely to happen when your child is tired or hungry.
Knowing this can help you to expect your child to be unruly in the store. What to do? Make sure she is well rested and fed. You also discovered that certain items in the store attract her attention and set off inappropriate behavior. Since children love to be helpers, you will tell your child that you are going to play a game today (smart parents make a "game" of everything they want their child to do). The Grocery Game must be explained in such a way as to make your child interested and eager to play. There are so many way to do this. Being mommy’s helper can be part of the game. Letting her pick out items on the shelves from the grocery cart she will be sitting in can get her interest. Letting her actually take some of the items off the shelves is another option. As you can see, keeping her busy, away from boredom, and always interacting with you (attention) can often bring big rewards for you.
Sometimes the sameness of a place can begin to induce boredom in a child. What a surprise, because this never happens to us adults. If your Tantrum Diary tells you that playing or drawing or any other activity has about a 45 minute limit before a tantrum is inevitable, then you want to change the environment prior to this time limit so that a new stimulation will keep your child’s brain from turning on the tantrum switch.
As we mentioned above, physical situations can temper tantrums more likely. As adults we can also get grumpy when we are hungry and tired. Fortunately, not too many of us throw a temper tantrum in these situations. Remember, from last week’s blog, that your child may not have developed language or coping skills for these feelings. Your child has learned there is only one way to be expressive when frustrated and perhaps get you to help solve a problem.
Most parents know that tantrums often occur when the parent is busy and needs to finish what he or she is working on. Again your Tantrum Diary may show you that your child has tantrums when you are fixing a meal or on the phone or sending email. But it doesn’t happen all the time. The diary will also show that when you can engage your child during these times, the tantrum is less likely. For example, maybe you found out accidently that meal preparation can be easier if your child is with you and allowed to help or even snack and watch. Maybe phone calls will be more calm if your child can sit on your lap or draw a picture for you or your friend on the phone. Find out what works for your child. Ask other parents what they do. I have found that parents can be extremely creative when they put their minds to it.
Maybe your diary showed you that during an art activity, your child has a tantrum when he can’t use the scissors in the art box because he is not old enough to handle them safely. Maybe other objects in the house like certain papers, your cell phone or some kitchen utensils are also off limits for your child. Hide them so the child cannot see or touch them. Some parents get substitute items such as their child’s own "cell phone" (most people have old ones laying around) or a beat up kitchen utensil. Often your child is merely trying to imitate your behavior and can’t understand why you won’t allow this.
Your diary might show that visiting new places or spending time with people the child doesn’t know can create anxiety and uncertainty in your child. Children often do best when they feel safe (and well fed and rested — oh, yes, we already noted that). Explain everything to your child ahead of time such as what to expect when some unfamiliar events might take place. Ask your child if he has any questions. If you can anticipate any problems tell him what you can do if he feels upset. Help him feel safe and let him know you will be there for him.
Again, boredom is a trigger that makes most humans feel uncomfortable. How many times did you complain to your parents by saying, "I’m bored, there’s nothing to do." Our brains, from birth, are meant to be curious and explore the world. Always be on the lookout for something new that might grab your child’s attention. Then save it for those times when you need to interrupt your child’s boredom triggers.
It is not a secret that tantrums often occur at the end of an activity your child is enjoying. Give her a 10-minute warning, a 5-minute warning or whatever time intervals seem best with your child. Portable kitchen timers are one of the best tantrum tools parents can have. "When the timer goes off, you only have five minutes to finish coloring." "Now, we’ll set the timer to let you know when you need to put away your crayons and books." "Your time is up. Let’s see if you can get everything put away before the timer goes off again."
We could do an entire mini-series on this topic. Attention is one of the most powerful motivators for young children. They are really good at getting our attention when they want it. It makes no difference that the attention you give them is "negative" because for young children, attention is attention. Our kids teach us to pay attention for misbehavior and then we basically leave them alone (ignore them) when they are behaving well. You want to reverse that. Remember the phrase "Catch them being good." In the paragraph above, each time your child is successful (you always manipulate things to increase the probability this will happen) before the timer goes off, you will reward her with hugs and kisses, verbal attention, stars, whatever turns her on. This is especially effective for managing triggers. In the presence of a potential trigger let her earn something important for behaving well. Be sure not to reward her for "not having a temper tantrum." You want to reward her for what she does rather than what she doesn’t do.
Try to set expectations and demands that match your child’s developmental level. A successful child is a happy child. You also need to know the difference between requests and demands. A request is something ask your child to do but you are okay if she refuses. A demand is something the child must do. Moms tend to be more inclined to ask questions, "Would you like to go and wash your hands now?" Although you mean this as a demand (no choices available) it sounds like a request and will confuse your child because you really meant to say, "It’s time to eat so please go and wash your hands."
When situations come up where several possibilities are okay with you, give your child choices. Having choices is important to us humans and your child is being more aware of this as she ages. Having control over the little things may help avoid power struggles over bigger things. Often, children engage in temper tantrums because it is the only skill they know. Identify replacement behaviors you want from your child instead of the tantrum behavior. Then teach these behaviors when he is pleasant and you are in a good mood. Practice the new behaviors until he is proficient. Make it fun – a game. Tell him how much more enjoyable this will be for both of you than feeling badly during a tantrum.
Sometimes we parents are so tired of fighting with our children and having to put up with their tantrums, we begin to draw mental lines in the sand. We start to see all minor indiscretions as places where we need to take a stand as the adult authority figure. This often becomes a no-win situation for you. There will be times when ignoring a temper tantrum is your best choice. Letting your child ride it out will also teach him that not all temper tantrums will engage you. Your Tantrum Diary might give you clues as to when, what, and where you can basically let the performance run its course. Ignoring behavior on your part means you basically make yourself invisible: no sounds, no eye contact, no physical closeness. Some time after the tantrum is finished and your child is behaving well, give him lots of attention (for doing good). Be careful not to do this right after the tantrum is finished because you will then teach your child he can get your attention by having a big tantrum followed quickly by doing something that will please you.
You, in addition to your child, also need to be rested and stress free. Ever notice how your child’s behavior will often match your well-being? The Tantrum Diary will give you a sense of control. Planning ahead will give you a sense of control. Managing the tantrum triggers effectively will give you a sense of control. Enjoying your child in formerly rotten situations will give you a sense of control. When you feel in control, you will have more tolerance for those small things that used to set you off.
To learn about managing your stress click this link. Then click on the link to the left that says "Downloads." In the window that pops up click on "Stress Management." This will lead you to a complete set of instructions for developing and mastering skills for dealing with stress.
Finally, learn to laugh at some of the behaviors that used to be so annoying. When some parents laugh at the tantrum it surprises the child and halts the tantrum. Be careful using this, however, because you want to focus on your child’s behavior, not his worth. Many parents will laugh with each other in private or with their friends. This can often make a tantrum more tolerable or manageable in the future. Here is a funny video that was taken of a toddler’s temper tantrum. Read again the importance of attention.