Tantrums can be so draining and disruptive to happy family life so in this hour of great need I’m going to talk about the emotion behind the tantrums, how to set up “calm down” time, and then how to brainstorm with our kids after the emotion of the tantrum or bad behavior has passed. The target for this is really parents of toddlers through elementary school so if you have a teen, I’d recommend that you listen to my second podcast called: Teens: Respect, Emotions and Brains.
Emotion Behind the Tantrums
The problem with a little one having a tantrum is that it often times sets us off turning us into angry, frustrated parents who are yelling and screaming, right? Tantrums often happen when we are most rushed or pressed for time – bedtime, getting to school, having to leave a party, getting off electronics, brushing teeth, having to do homework or practice piano. We are just trying to get life going in the right direction when, WHAM, another a tantrum hits and really set us off. Ugh… why me??? Why again? Why is my kid always doing this? What’s wrong with them? My other kids weren’t this bad. What’s wrong with me? So many emotions flying and they can send us into our own adult tantrum.
We need to help ourselves in these situations by remembering to KEEP CALM and LOVING. Yes, it will be hard to do when our kid is having a meltdown but you need to do just that. KEEP CALM and LOVING. When we get pushed into yelling ourselves it means that our thinking brain has turned off and we’re in our emotional, fight-and-flight brain which is never good when dealing with kids and tantrums. So, having ways to keep our anger under control is necessary and I’ll do a future podcast on that subject in the future but for now just keep the thought in mind that your child’s tantrum isn’t about you, it’s about them and their inability to control their world. It’s ok that they’re upset. Your child has very few skills especially under the age of five when it comes to letting you know their dissatisfaction with whatever it is they don’t like. They can yell, cry, scream, kick, fall on the floor like a wet noodle, and bite. That’s it! Later on when they’re teens they might verbally be able to spar with you but not too much when they are really young. So, you have to keep your emotions under control and just deal with theirs. Again, you need to be CALM and LOVING!
Calm Down Time – set the stage
Now that we know the tantrum is about our kids’ emotions and not ours, here’s what we need to do next. Have a safe place in your house that you can designate as a “calm down” location. You can even ask your child during a non-emotional time where they might like to calm down when they become upset. You need to set up a situation where your child knows and trusts you love them unconditionally and you tell them that when they get really upset you want to give them a safe place to be and time alone to calm down. This calm down area is a place you need to make sure they understand is not a place for punishment, it’s a time of love and understanding that we all need time to calm down when we’re upset.
Now that you have a place you might want to make sure it’s safe. Most of the time it’s a bedroom but, wherever it is, it needs to be a place that your child is free to roam around in. If you have a smaller child who is still in a crib you can use that but for a child out of a crib you would allow them ideally to have access to the whole room. They can have books and stuffed animals and things that can help them calm down. It’s all ok since this is a Calm Down place like I said, not a place for punishment. There might be a time you have to remove books if they throw them and wreck them but for now, let them have stuff to do. They won’t even see the stuff when they are in full melt-down mode but as they come out of it, it can help.
You should also explain to your child that as long as they stay in the room until they are calm then the door can stay unlocked and open. Once they calm down, you’ll set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes and as long as they can keep staying calm during that time then they’ll be able to come out. You love them and will be waiting for them to calm down so they can rejoin the family.
Calm Down Time – let it happen
The next phase after your child knows what Calm Down Time is will be to wait. Yep, you wait until a tantrum happens. When your child starts having a meltdown you’re going to ask them if they’d like some Calm Down Time. If they are small and under 5 or so, they can walk themselves or you can carry them. If they are older, you can help direct them or just ask them to go to the Calm Down location. You do this in a calm, loving tone of voice. No yelling. You say something like: “Wow, I can tell you’re really upset. It looks like you need some time to calm down. Let’s go head to the Calm Down Room.” They might not be in great shape but you make sure in a loving manner they get to the location. If you have older kids and they refuse to go then just let them be and say: “Ok, we’ll talk about this later. I’m going to go to a different location so that I can remain calm.” And then you get out of the way. I’ll talk about what to do with those rebellious kids in a minute, for now let’s assume your child made it to the room.
Now you’re going to let them choose whether or not they get to have the door open or closed. Keep in mind that the goal is to have them calm down, it doesn’t matter if their door is opened or closed as long as they stay in their room. I’d start with the door open and if they come out then it will be a signal that they need the door closed. Many kids will be crying and won’t even be able to think. If they come out with the door closed then you’re going to “lock” it which for a small child will mean that you take a towel and flip it over the top of the door. You aren’t going to leave them in there forever and really lock them in and you’re certainly not going to leave the house but one thing you really don’t want to do is stand there holding the door closed with your hands. If you did struggle with the door handle, the child would have lots of power of you and it would distract from this whole process. So, get the door closed and “locked” if you need to but don’t stay right next to the door. Go ahead and start making dinner or even read a book or watch TV with your other kids. Create a loving environment outside the Calm Down time that makes the tantrum kid want to go back to.
You now want to wait again. Wait until you hear no fussing, no crying, no yelling, no pleading. Once it’s all quiet you go ahead and open the door and ask if they are ready to set the timer. If they start fussing and crying then you go ahead and let them know with empathy and love that it seems they need a bit more time. However, if they can remain calm then you go ahead and have an egg timer or some other hand timer, not your cell phone, and leave it in the room or outside the room and let it run and beep. Your child can then open the door and come out. Then you give them hugs and kisses and say you are so happy they’re calm again. No need to go over why they went into the Calm Down Room, they already know that they hit their brother or threw something when they weren’t supposed to or wrecked their sisters poster when they were mad. Just let love be the result.
Brainstorming and Special Time after the Tantrum
Now that the Calm Down time is over it means that your child’s brain has turned back on to their thinking brain. Lots of the time this Calm Down time accomplishes what it needs to especially for really young ones. Our kids’ emotions boil up inside and they just need to safely let them out and know that we’ll love them when it’s over. However, there are some situations or some kids who just keep having tantrums and we need to spend some time brainstorming with them that I call Special Time. This is time where there aren’t other siblings and is with only one parent, time that the parent can set up that is without emotion and isn’t right after a tantrum. You will also use Special Time with those older rebellious kids who refused to go to the Calm Down location when you asked. I would wait ½ day or maybe a full day or two after a tantrum to try Special Time. You might need to coordinate with your spouse to take over with your other children or even send the other kids to a friend’s house or grandparents. But you need to create an environment where you won’t get interrupted.
Now, when you start the Special Time you can be cuddling at home on your bed, on their bed or a favorite couch, it doesn’t have to be some place exotic, just some place that is relatively soothing and without too many other distractions. Tell your child that it’s Special Time as well so they can come to look forward to special time with you in the future.
Next, you’re going calmly and lovingly say something like: “Wow, the other day you sure were upset. Can we talk about that? I want to brainstorm with you and figure out what we can do to help so that you don’t have that issue in the future.” Then you talk about what you might do, be a team. For the most part these special brainstorming sessions are going to be for kids about 4 or older but feel free to try them for littler ones too, you be the judge as to when to start them.
Ok, that’s the learning part of the podcast.
Now I want to tell you two stories of parents who attended the Parenting the Love and Logic Way class that I’ve been a facilitator for for many years. One story is about a parent of a 3 ½ year old who really needed Calm Down time and the other has a first grader who turned out needing the Brainstorming session after some particularly bad behavior. In the first story it mentions Love and Logic Institute’s toddler specific technique called the Uh Oh Song that is amazing and I’ll put some references into my podcast notes if you’d like more details and examples to use with your toddlers. I can’t recommend it enough.
Ok, so that first story, here’s what the mom wrote me:
My oldest son is 3.5 years old. Before I took this class, we did a variation of Time Out for when he had temper tantrums where I'd just put him in his room, but get him after a few minutes and ask him to calm down before he could come out. Basically, I would then help him calm down by holding him, etc.
So a few days ago, I decided to apply what we learned in class about the Uh Oh Song and followed the steps, specifically leaving him in his room until he calmed down on his own. Well, he screamed and screamed on and off for 1 hour and 15 minutes!! It was agonizing listening to him and so many thoughts were going through my mind. But I stuck with it and followed through with the 3-minute timer after he had calmed and then invited him to come out. He was like a new kid, super grateful to be out and so helpful with such a great attitude afterwards.
I can imagine that the key to this technique is being super consistent so that he really learns that the quicker he calms down, the sooner he can come out. I'm looking forward to it hopefully taking less time next time. I keep thinking about that example you shared about these investments we make now during parenting (even though they can be heart-breaking and challenging) will really pay off later.
Such a cool story. Now, for the second one here’s what the mom wrote me after reading my monthly newsletter:
I love reading your emails and still value so much what I learnt on your course. I won’t say I always do it perfectly but I do try. So I have an example of a situation that I am finding difficult right now. I am a scout leader at my 6-year old’s Girl Scout group. At the meetings I lead a lot of the activities which means I need to focus and ensure I am fair to everyone. My 6-year-old acts out a lot at the meetings. She demands more attention than anybody else and constantly interrupts me. I try to explain nicely that she needs to wait her turn or stop messing around, but she doesn’t hear me and starts to be nasty to me and others around her. It is extremely distracting and as I am leading I don’t have the option to remove her from the situation and have a chat about it. I end up annoyed by the end of the meeting and embarrassed as there are other parents there too. I have tried to explain calmly when we are at home that I love her very much but cannot give her special attention at Scouts. I explain that she needs to view me as if I am a teacher in this situation. The next meeting is coming up soon and I am dreading it. Do you have any suggestions on how to avoid a similar situation? Thanks, Nancy
Nancy’s issues of a child behaving badly in public certainly aren’t unique but coming up with some ideas that would best fit her daughter’s situation was. She was able to continue explaining to me how her daughter is really hard on herself, that she gets really upset when she isn’t doing something perfectly and feels even worse when others notice when they are in public. It seemed to me she was getting the impression she had to be perfect all the time, that she wasn’t getting enough grit training in her life. We decided Nancy needed to sit down with Jenny and have a heart to heart before the next Girl Scout meeting to try to sort things out. My advice was to make sure she used lots of open-ended questions and not lecture Jenny on what the outcome should be. Her daughter needed to know that she was loved no matter how she behaved and help her learn how to have grit and know things can get better even if they go badly sometimes. She’s only 6 so she’ll have plenty of time to practice grit if they start now.
Nancy also thought there might be a complicating factor with her daughter reacting to the very sugary snacks that families brought to start off each scout meeting. We decided that Nancy should do the same brainstorming with Jenny on this topic as well.
Here’s what Nancy wrote back:
I had a chat with Jenny this afternoon about the meeting. We sat on the beanbag in her room and I gave her hug and told her that I love her always no matter what. Then I said you know how I chose to lead the scouts this year, just wondering if you like that I do that or would prefer I didn’t? She said she really liked it and loved spending time with me there. I then asked ‘How do you think the last meeting went?’. She replied, ‘Not too good’. I asked ‘what do you think was not good?’. She replied: "I acted out and was mean to you and others." I asked her how she felt at the last meeting. She said: ‘angry, frustrated and embarrassed because I was being bad’. I asked how it made her feel when I corrected her and asked her to stop doing something. She said that it embarrassed her and she felt like she was being bad. I asked her what she would like to do at the next meeting if I need to say something to her. She suggested to go outside to talk. I said good idea but what if I am in the middle of something and can’t leave? She thought a bit, I then suggested that maybe we should have a secret code so I could tell her when I need her to stop doing something or pay attention without others knowing. She loved that idea. I asked her to think of what she would like as a code. We had a bit of fun with that and laughed together at some of the funny ideas she came up with. She thought of 5 and I then asked her to select the one she liked the most. She picked a small teddy bear. I put it in the scouts backpack for tomorrow. She suggested then that maybe we could have a different one every week and I agreed that was a great idea. We also agreed that if she was feeling upset or angry that she could go outside the door for a break to reset regardless of what was going on.
We then got on to the snack. That was kind of easy as she is also dairy-free right now for allergy reasons. If asked what she thought of the snacks. She said she didn’t know what it might be and if it was cookies with milk, she might not be able to have it. So, I said what can we do if it is? She suggested waiting until she got home and then having something? I said what if you are hungry? She then suggested that we bring some things from home in case. We went out to the kitchen and she chose the snacks and drink she wanted to take and was happy with that. I finished off by asking if we could have another chat after the meeting to see how she thought it went and she agreed that would be good.
Fingers crossed for tomorrow!! Nancy
Well, that was AMAZING but the story gets better…
A few days later I followed up with Nancy:
The meeting went so much better than the last time. I gave her a lot of space and let her realize when she needed to share e.g. glue etc. Then we had the moment that could have turned the meeting. Her little 3-year-old sister walked on her art project and got glue on a place it should not have gone. She got really annoyed and hit her, sister screamed and hit back. I didn’t say a word- took sister away, got the teddy and handed it to Jenny. She looked at me and kind of nodded and smiled and got back to her project. A minute later she came to me and handed back the teddy. So simple - it defused the whole situation without me needing to say a word. The rest of the meeting went really smoothly and we all went home happy. We talked about it after and she agreed it was a much better meeting. She is excited to pick another secret code for our next meeting.
Wow, amazing how that brainstorming really turned around not only bad behavior but really empowered Jenny in a way that really built more confidence and grit into her.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast and have some new ideas or refreshed some old ones about how to get more calm into your families – by you keeping calm and not taking offense at your child’s tantrums, by allowing your children to have calm down time and then, when needed, creating special time with them so you can brainstorm ideas about how to help empower them to keep calm in the future before tantrums can arise.
Link to UH Oh Song Info