How To Deal With A Tantrum

Welcome to another episode of Full Frontal Fatherhood. My name’s Julian Redwood and today I’d like to talk to you about How To Deal With a Tantrum.

The moments when my daughter was having a tantrum were some of the hardest moments of parenting. Her on the floor, kicking and screaming. Yelling at me. I felt so powerless, angry and frustrated, and I would often make the moment worse by responding poorly.

Fortunately, I learned a bunch of skills that make dealing with a tantrum much easier for both parents and children alike.

Believe it or not, tantrums are great experience. Tantrums are a chance for our kids to get their feelings out. Being a human is upsetting. Being a kid is even more upsetting. They’re controlled constantly, limited, told they’re wrong and scolded. Overall it’s just inherently upsetting to be in a small limited body.

If we, in response to their tantrums, are telling them that they’re bad and trying to get them to stop tantrumming, it gets even worse. They get even more overwhelmed in that moment. Kids don’t have the nervous system, brain, or coping mechanism that we have to help themselves calm down in the moment. As a result they get overwhelmed and they find themselves on the floor kicking and screaming.

What can a parent even do in response to that? If we don’t like our own bad feelings, we’re definitely not going to like our kids’ bad feelings. The reality is that we all have bad feelings. We as adults, try to soothe ourselves with coffee, alcohol, our phones and a variety of other distractions in difficult moments. Kids try to soothe themselves too. They’ll reach for a book, your phone, a computer game, a lollipop or some other way to make themselves feel better.

The reality is that in those moments, as an adult or kid, we need a chance to get our feelings out. We need a chance to be in the sadness, insecurity, fear or whatever’s eating at us emotionally. If we can sit in it, just for a couple minutes and let ourselves be all of who we are, life gets easier. We’re not running around trying to resist that “bad” feeling.

If we teach this to our kids from a very young age, they’ll have a much smoother life. If we teach them that it’s okay to feel bad and give them the tools to be able to move through those bad feelings, they won’t have to have the same kind of struggles that we have where we’re constantly trying to make ourselves feel better.

Strangely enough, if we support our child to actually have a complete tantrum, they’ll tantrum less. By supporting them to get their feelings out they’ll have less feelings to get out all the time. If we’re constantly stopping them from having tantrums then eventually something else will be trigger another tantrum. If we can actually get in there and  support that complete expression of feelings, they can come to a place of resolution and then there’s not something eating at them all the time.

Unfortunately, we often stop our children from tantrumming. We pull them out of the moment and tell them they need to stop and that it’s not okay to be so upset. We make them wrong in very little or big ways in those moments.

We need to shift our prerogative from getting them to stop having the tantrum to supporting them to have the tantrum by giving them a container within which they can express the feelings that are too overwhelming for them to handle on their own.

Normally, if we’re telling them that they’re bad or wrong, not only do they have the bad feelings from the tantrum, they also have the bad feelings of hearing our expression that they’re doing something wrong and possibly their anger at us for telling them they are wrong. This makes the moment a lot more overwhelming for them. If we can shift to being a receptive container for their intense feelings, it makes it simpler for them to work through those feelings and come to a place of resolution.

So how do we change ourselves from being this rejecting parent to becoming a receptive and safe container for our children? There’s five steps that you can do that are all simple. Difficult at times, but simple.

1st Step: Stop Making it Worse by Keeping Your Mouth Shut
Just by being there, being quiet and not being a negative force, actually has an immensely different effect. It’s hard to be with a kid in that moment. It’s hard to take in their pain and their suffering.  If you can just be quiet and be right there with them, that will make a huge difference. Even if you are really struggling on the inside, if you can keep it contained it will be much easier for your child to navigate their feelings.

2nd Step: Get Down on Your Kids’ Level & Find Empathy
Actually bring your eyes to their level or even below. See if you can take in their suffering. Take a few deep breaths and feel how intense it is to be in that moment when they are feeling so bad. It’s hard as a parent to be close to our kids when they’re feeling that intense anger and frustration, and not have a defensive reaction that ends up causes us to get angry, frustrated or withdrawn. If we can be in our own feelings and not get defensive, we can then start to become a container where we can receive their feelings. So, breathe and receive what’s happening for them, and just notice how intense it is for you.

3rd Step: Validate their Feelings
Rather than negating their feelings like we’re inclined to do, and tell them they’re silly for being so upset about a popsicle, we need to validate what is happening for them.

Say something like: “Yeah, you really wanted a popsicle and you can’t have a popsicle and I get how mad that makes you.”

Then they’ll go on with their anger. “Oh, I hate you. Why can’t I have a popsicle? There’s nothing wrong with a popsicle. You’re such a bad parent. It’s my body. Leave me alone. Let me have a popsicle.”

Then we can validate them. “I get that you’re really mad at me. I’m right here with you and I love you and you really want that popsicle and I understand.”

That can go on for literally an hour, but if you stay in that experience for that length of time with your child and allow them to get all those feelings out you’ll see that it isn’t just about the popsicle. It’s about so many things. About the kid that teased them. About the teacher that told them they should do it differently. About how you scolded them. About many things that aren’t even verbal.

This is just the reality of being in a young little body like that. All those feelings can come out about a popsicle that have nothing to do with a popsicle. Validate whatever they’re saying and wherever they’re going with it. Just say “yeah, you’re really mad and I’m right here.”

4th Step: Help them to have a Bigger, Longer, Tantrum
They’re already in this juicy moment of emotional expression and openness and we need to milk it for all it’s worth so they can get all their feelings out.

When they calm down, remind them “yeah, you really wanted a popsicle, and I’m not letting you have a popsicle and it made you really upset.” They may go back in and feel more of their anger or more of their upset, more of their sadness. Let them do that. Stay with them, breathe and validate.

I know this seems really wrong, but it’s so easy for our emotional defenses to come in and move us away from the hurt. That just leaves it there unresolved. By giving a gentle reminder, our child can work it through more completely.

5th Step: Stay with it Until it Comes to Completion
Completion is when the child has moved to a place of natural playfulness. You’ve reminded them of the original trigger and they start to not care anymore. They start to giggle or laugh or look at you with a little smile. You can see that they’ve moved through it and there’s a lightness and ease in them.

If you can take an hour with your kid occasionally and give them that kind of attention, they will tantrum less often. They will have less backed up feelings to get out that are constantly brimming. Doing this occasionally with them as a parent will actually put you in an easier position that ultimately requires less energy in the long term.

In Summary
Move from being a parent that’s telling their kids they’re doing something wrong in those hard moments to being a parent that receives their intense bad feeling by using these five steps.

Particularly as a father, it’s amazing for you to feel empowerment in these very hard moments for your kids. So often it’s either left to the mom or we’re expected to bring in force and strong consequences in attempt to get the kid to stop which usually doesn’t work.

If we can find empowerment by:

  • Not making it worse
  • Keeping our mouth shut
  • Getting down on our kids’ level
  • Finding empathy to validate their feelings & helping them get it out
  • Triggering them again so we can really take advantage of the opportunity

And staying with them until they come to a place of ease where they are laughing and giggling and smiling.

You’ll see it in their whole being and it’s a truly remarkable experience for us to realize that these tantrums that we hate so much can actually be a source of healing and connection.

Thank you for joining me for another episode of Full Frontal Fatherhood. This is hard stuff and I would love to hear your ideas and comments about it, so please leave note below. If you liked the video, please share it with your friends!