when your child is tantruming

Parent of the Tantruming Child: 9 Things I Wish I’d Known

Before writing this post, I happened to be going through photos of a year ago. Mr. Smiles was only a little fluttering in my belly at that point, but there were Mr. Mischievous and Mr. Justice–in all their two-year-old sweetness. Big grins and silly antics!

It made me smile and tugged at my mama’s heart.

But those photos also reminded me of what was not seen. In fact, they reminded me of days that we kept largely hidden from the world–not because they were secret or we were ashamed, but out of a sense of protection.

That sense of protection still lingers so strong, that I’ve hesitated writing this for a while now. You see, I didn’t come to this place of thinking about kindness all the time, because, wow, we had our game on and have been raising some kind kids. Actually, it’s been really hard.

As in tantrums-that-last-for-days hard. Wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-still-screaming tantrums. Tantrums that last an entire week even. Screaming for one week straight, with only 2-hour breaks scattered throughout whenever exhaustion overtook him.

We didn’t put our two older boys in preschool this year, and we had a lot of good reasons for that. But the one that settled it was simply that we were terrified of what would happen to Mr. Justice if he lost it while at school.

Because when he loses it, he doesn’t recover.

sensory child

If you’ve got a sensitive child with enormous meltdowns…

It’s been four months since the last major meltdown, and I’m breathing a sigh of relief. It’s not that I think it’s entirely over, but I don’t think those days will not mark the rhythm of our household anymore. I hope not anyway.

We’ve learned a few things, and we finally have the freedom to focus on other skills–like how to be a good friend and how to be kind to others.

Because when your days are dominated by tantrums, you can’t teach kindness.

Some of you are still there. Nothing seems to help your tantruming child. I get it. That’s why I’m writing this. Whether your child is having the run-of-the-mill toddler tantrums that last five minutes or the total meltdowns that last into the wee hours of the morning, you are not alone.

You’re probably already hearing enough advice

When you say your child has big tantrums, people are quick to offer advice. Ever heard these suggestions?

  • “Just ignore the tantrum.”
  • “Sit on the floor with him, but don’t talk.”
  • “Ask him what he’s feeling.”
  • “Identify why your child is tantruming.”
  • “Walk away.”
  • “Give him words for what he’s feeling.”
  • “Give him choices.”
  • “Don’t give him any power.”
  • “Don’t pay him any attention.”
  • “Put him time-out and don’t let him out until he stops screaming.”
  • “Don’t leave him alone.”
  • “Rub his back.”
  • “Don’t touch him.”
  • “Put him in preschool. Getting around other kids will help him get in line.”
  • “Don’t put him in preschool. It’s a setup for abuse.”

And so much more…

It’s not even that any of it was bad advice per se… But people hold a strange assumption that what’s true for their toddler must be for your child. The reality is they’ve only known the kind of tantrum their children had and what their children’s needs were. They don’t know your child.

When this advice comes while you’re in the middle of helping your currently tantruming child… it’s a miracle more parents don’t lose it in public.

mothers to mother

What I wish somebody had told me…

I wish somebody had just explained to me what they’d learned about tantrums–not how to stop them or fix them or make them go away. Just how to make sense of the chaos that had entered our lives.

I can’t tell you how to fix the tantrums. For some of you, a single approach will work. Once you figure it out, tantrums will be a thing of the past. Congrats. But for many of us, it takes a harder process of learning to understand our child’s unique needs. For some, that includes diagnostic screening and professional assistance.

I don’t know where you’re at. I’m not assuming. I don’t know if you’re talking about a one-year-old’s tantrums or a ten-year-old’s. I know that some of you have been dealing with a tantruming child for over a decade, and it’s hard.

Here are the things I needed to understand in order to help my family get through those hard times and to begin the process of lessening them.

1.Your child is like nobody else’s.

My favorite (or most-hated) advice was,“Give him choices.” 

As a special education teacher, I confess, that’s precisely the advice I doled out to the parents of my students. Generally, it’s good advice, and it can prevent many tantrums.

But for my child? God, in all eternal wisdom, decided to dish me a dose of humble pie.

Choices were (and sometimes still are) the most common spark for an extreme tantrum. For a long time, when given a choice, Mr. Justice would meltdown arguing with himself over which one he wanted.

He wasn’t mad at me, I don’t think. I think he was mad about whatever he didn’t choose.

And that meltdown? It could go on for days.

It was far, far better (and more compassionate) for me to hand him a cup of milk than to ask if he wanted milk or water. He couldn’t handle the choice.

The same was true of getting dressed. Today I give him choices on good days or when I sense he’s seeking a little control. However, I don’t go overboard, because choices are a little risky with him.

So, there you go. It’s a wonderfully research-based suggestion, and it’s dead wrong for my child.

That will happen again and again for you too. Your child is like nobody else’s child. 

2. There are two types of tantrums.

Drs. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. describe these two types of tantrums in The Whole-Brain Child* as upstairs and downstairs tantrums.

The Upstairs Tantruming Child

An upstairs tantrum occurs when your child’s upper, thinking brain is still engaged. They’re aware that you hate it when they kick and scream, and perhaps you’re more prone to give in. They don’t lose total control of themselves in this kind of tantrum, though your child will fall to the ground and act like it at times (probably at the check-out line).

That’s not to say your child feels great in this kind of tantrum. In reality, there’s probably a lot of frustration, and they haven’t learned better communication methods. Additionally, they are testing limits (a good sign of a healthy kid) to see both what they can get away with and what works to get what they want. 

In fact, if you give in during an upstairs tantrum and give them the thing they want (please don’t, but everybody understands on the days you do), the tantrums ends immediately.

The Downstairs Tantruming Child

The downstairs tantrum exists in another sphere. Your tantruming child can’t think, because their flight-or-fight response has completely shut down the upper thinking parts of their brain. They have lost all control. They would like these overwhelming feelings to end as much as you, but they don’t know how to self-regulate and stop it.

Helping a downstairs tantruming child settle isn’t easy. I know. I still feel like a bad parent when I say sometimes my child wouldn’t settle for a week, but it was hard. We didn’t know what was setting him off, and some things we just had to wait for him to have the communication skills to start to tell us.

Let me reemphasize: both types of tantrums are normal parts of a child’s development. 

Most children will experience both kinds, but some kids get stuck at one sort for a longer stretch than other children.

3. Different tantrums require different approaches.

As a parent, one of your primary jobs is to become a student of your child. Figuring out whether your child is having an upstairs or downstairs tantrum will help you understand how to respond. 

Just looking at these two types, you can probably imagine that different responses are needed. If your child has rationally decided to test out screaming and kicking to see if that gets you to change your mind, ignoring the tantrum is brilliant.

But, if your child has lost control in a true meltdown, walking away leaves your child alone in the most terrifying state they know.

be gentle with child

It would be great if children came with guidebooks that told us which kind of tantrum they were having. We don’t always know until afterward. But you’re not without help: the most accurate guide to whether your child is having an upstairs or downstairs tantrum is your gut.

But be warned: if you’re in the habit of assuming the worst in your child, you could easily overlook a downstairs tantrum. I have.

I shudder to think how my child feels in those massive tantrums. Losing control is miserable.

In my experience, extreme tantrums have always been the downstairs kind. If your child’s tantrums last for hours, chances are they’ve lost control and don’t know the way back. But, if you’re not sure, think through which message is more dangerous: walking away or staying.

  • When you walk away, while they are in a downstairs tantrum, you send the message, “I can’t handle your feelings either.”
  • When you stay, even though they’re in an upstairs tantum, you send the message, “Even though you’re not being kind to me, I’m still going to keep showing up with love and grace in your life.”

There will be those moments when you know they’re in an upstairs, rational state-of-mind. I believe walking away can be a demonstration of self-respect in those moments. There’s also plenty of research backing up that choice.

However, looking back, there are moments where I assumed upstairs, and I think it was all downstairs. I wish I hadn’t assumed upstairs.

4. Sleep matters even more to our sensitive kids.

Sleep matters to sensitive kids.

Mr. Smiles is a very easy baby, but he’s a baby. That means my sleep is a lot more broken than it’s been in a while. I’m kind of horrified at how easy it is for me to turn into the Wicked Witch of the West when I don’t get adequate sleep.

EVERYTHING feels wrong on those days.

EVERYTHING makes me jump. My nerves are on end. And the older boys sound entirely too loud!

I feel awful when I don’t sleep. That’s how our kids feel too. These days when I see either of my sons beginning to get into a mood rut, I check how we’ve been doing for bedtimes and nap times first.

I wish, wish, wish I had understood how much my son’s sleep would impact his ability to handle life’s ups and downs. Not everybody has to stick to a rigid nap schedule. However, if I had guarded Mr. Justice’s naps a little more rigidly back in the day, I’m convinced we could have spared both him and ourselves days of misery.

I was too quick to try to sync him up with this brother’s sleep, but his brother has always needed less sleep.

In fact, since were all about parenting kind kids, we might as well state it: sleep-deprived kids are not kind kids.

While you’re prioritizing your child’s sleep, don’t forget yourself. If you’re dealing with the insanity of tantrums daily, try to take a nap when your child does. If there’s any way you can prioritize your own sleep, it’ll give you the patience to deal with the next wave of big feelings. There’s nothing worse than when your child is laying on the floor kicking and screaming (probably on aisle 2 of the grocery store), and all you can think is that you’d like to join him. It happens. So get some sleep.

5. Co-regulation comes before self-regulation.

Nurses ought to hand this out on notecards to moms when they give birth. Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. No child is born able to self-regulate (or self-soothe). Before they learn to self-regulate, they’re going to borrow from you. This is called co-regulation.

Just as they borrow from your body during pregnancy and breastfeeding, they will borrow from your feelings.

Children start out on a spectrum. Inside your womb, they’re borrowing from you close to 100%. When they come out, they slowly develop emotional independence, but this process takes years. Maybe toddlers are closer to 50/50. However, even teenagers still borrow from the feelings of the adults in their lives occasionally.

How to Communicate with a Tantruming Child

They great news is that co-regulation allows you to communicate calmness to a tantruming child. You can’t talk to a tantruming child. You can’t explain things to a tantruming child. You can’t reason with a tantruming child. But by being calm, you communicate the message that even this tantrum isn’t too scary for you. You don’t have to speak.

(In fact, speaking is probably largely ineffective.)

Parents must do inner work before addressing tantruming child.

That means if you have not done the hard inner work of dealing with your feelings, it’s time to start. If you cannot bring yourself into a calm place in the middle of your child’s tantrums, stop and ask why. What’s going on inside you? Sometimes, working through this requires professional help.

What Happens When Your Mixed Up Feelings Interact with a Tantruming child

When I was a teacher, many of my students had emotional or behavioral disorders. If I showed up to work after a bad phone call with a family member, I brought those upended emotions into the classroom with me. My kids were between nine and thirteen years old, but they had not learned to self-regulation yet due to their disorders. They needed to borrow from me, and when my feelings were out of whack, what they borrowed from me was disastrous.

I learned the hard way that taking care of my junk was the only way to lead a child out of a tantrum.

Your child doesn’t know what’s going on inside them physiologically, but the good news is they are wired to wire themselves to you. If your pupils dilate like you’re going into fight-or-flight, their pupils will start dilating and their palms sweating. But if you’re breathing slowly and your body’s relaxed, your calm, peaceful demeanor will spread.

Peace is contagious. Not perfectly. Not 100%. But starting with you is essential.

You cannot control your child. You cannot make them feel okay. But you can share your own calm and peaceful heart.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this, but other resources have done this better.

Reading teaches self-regulation.

6. Self-regulation comes before kindness.

This is a website dedicated to parenting kind kids, and the fact that you’re here means you care a lot about raising kind little human beings. Fantastic!

Teach them self-regulation first. You will not have a kind child, if she loses total control over herself every time somebody doesn’t give her what she wants.

It’s okay.

You’re not teaching generosity or sharing or courage or any of that other stuff right now.

Right now you’re teaching him to not hit his brother. You’re teaching big deep belly breaths. You’re teaching your child to do no harm.

How? By being calm and modeling a self-regulating thought process, so that they can borrow from you.

It’s okay.

Co-regulation comes before self-regulation, and self-regulation comes before kindness.

You’ll get there.

Just because your child throws some insane tantrums doesn’t mean he/she is going to grow up to be an out-of-control adult. They’re not narcissists or sociopaths. They’re kids, with tantrums.

It’s normal–even when it’s diagnosably not normal. It’s still your child’s normal.

healing routines for parent of tantruming child

7. Set up healing routines for you and your child.

For a long while, during some of his hardest phases, Mr. Justice and I shared an afternoon pot of mint tea. 

With real ceramic mugs that could have broken.

Not one ever did.

But it would have been okay if they had. I made my mind up to that, because he was two after all.

I needed the warm cup in my hands and the gentle steam on my face, and my son needed to feel respected, trusted, and desired. This was our routine.

I never suggested these moments while he was tantruming, but we had a habit of them. When things were calm, I’d initiate, and we did it no matter whether it had been a good day or bad day.

The key here was that mint tea felt calming to me. This was a healing routine for me. But it was also something I could do with him that made him feel special (and I suspect it was a healing routine for him too). Some days his brother or papa would join in, but most of the time it was just our thing.

Unfortunately, I think I took too long to start this routine. I wish I had started almost as soon as the tantrums began. It bore us so much good fruit. Our relationship blossomed over hot mint tea. 

I can’t tell you if it’s part of the reason why big tantrums are so much less frequent now.  After all, he’s gotten older and that’s the natural progression of things. What I can tell you is that tantrums, extreme tantrums especially, can drive a wedge in your relationship and deplete you. When you’re struggling, set up a routine that is healing both for you as a person (it needs to be something you love to do) and for your relationship to your child.

The trampoline is a big muscle activity to calm a tantruming child.

8. Big muscles and sensory stimulation are your friends… sometimes.

It’s true that motion changes emotion, but have you ever tried to get a tantruming toddler to move? If you’re fortunate enough to have a child that responds affirmatively to suggestions of jumping on a trampoline or running around the house, use it.

Motion can pull kids out of the worst tantrums. But it’s not always easy to get your child to go for an afternoon stroll in the middle of a meltdown. Moving my child off the floor to go take a walk… Not happening. 

Plus, he sees right through my motives. He knows I just want him to stop crying when I suggest a walk, and that makes him even more upset. I’m still working on my motives.

However, if you can’t find some big muscle activity that your child is willing to engage in during a tantrum, think about how you can engage your kids in a sensory or multi-muscle activity of some sort.

Productive sensory activities

Productive activity is key to settling my own big feelings, and it seems to be true for my boys as well. The problem is the activity that settles my child won’t be the activity that settles your child. Here are a few calming activities that might be worth trying during a tantrum. Who knows which one might be the activity for your child?

  • Play dough. Think squeezing, pounding, and molding funneling their negative energy into creating something.
  • Homemade popsicles. It takes a lot of concentration and sensory stimulation to eat a popsicle!
  • Drinking smoothies from a straw. Sucking on straw is quite rhythmic, and there are a lot of facial muscles involved.
  • Playing with water. This happens to be both of my sons’ favorite way of calming down. I hand them the hose, a tub, and a few cups, and we’re good to go.
  • Playing with sand. I know it’s messy, but if you can create a place for it, it really is calming.
  • Swinging. Hammocks can be particularly calming, as they create a cocoon for the child.
  • Baking together. This can be especially helpful if you need to knead the dough or use a rolling pin or cookie cutters. Again, you put a lot of muscles to use.

Figure out things you can offer your child. Try not to think of them as a means to stop the crying (I know, it’s hard), but something you offer because your child is miserable and can’t problem-solve in this state. 

What works for our family is when I say something like, “Hey, this isn’t fun. I feel pretty bad. I’m thinking I’d like to play with some play dough now. We can talk about this later. Would you like some too?”

Use fewer words if your child isn’t particularly verbal yet.

I usually get an angry ‘no’ at first and more screaming. But now I have an action to follow through with that calms me and takes me away from the center of chaos. If I’ve figured out the right activity for my child, he’ll join in at some point.

A few suggestions for using these calming activities: 

  • Offer these during a lull, not at the peak of screaming.
  • Make sure you’re offering something your child is allowed to have at any other time. It’s not a reward for the tantrum–just a calming activity that is always permissible.
  • If it’s food–aim for healthy. Avoid the sugar. You don’t want to teach your child to cope with their feelings via junk food. Now’s not the time for cookies or candy.
  • Be careful of screens, for the same reason. Psychologists generally recommend we use addictive substances for celebration, not coping. Screens and sugar fall in the addictive category.
  • If there was a specific cause for the tantrum, do return to the topic and talk about it after your child is calm. Don’t brush it under the rug. Teach your child how you can problem solve so the situation doesn’t have to repeat itself as often. This may include addressing consequences for any violent harm done during the tantrum.
Hope, not blame, for the parent of the tantruming child.

9. Blaming yourself isn’t useful. 

You’re the type of parent that goes online and reads parenting articles. High five.

If your child throws massive tantrums (probably in the most public location where all the other children are smiling and playing nicely), it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Even if you lose your temper and respond in all the wrong ways, it doesn’t make you a bad parent. It means, like all of us, you’re imperfect.

But we’re all imperfect.

In the near future, I want to write on self-compassion.* For now, ask yourself what a good friend would say to you about your situation and your child’s behavior–I mean, a really good friend that loves you. Or, put another way, if your dear friend was experiencing what you’re experiencing, what would you say?

You probably wouldn’t tell your dear friend what a terrible parent they are. You might start with empathy, like, “Wow, this is really tough. I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. But I love the way you’re seeking out resources and more information to get through this.”

That’s what I would say to you. Practice saying these things to yourself.

Eighty-four percent of preschoolers throw tantrums. You’re in good company.

Fewer throw the extreme tantrums and meltdowns my family has known, but even then we’re not alone. 

What I’ve learned through this process is that my child’s behavior is not a measure of my worth or parenting skills. He’s got his own struggles and needs, and he needs my support to help him walk through hurdles I never faced as a child. I can’t be all that he needs from me if I’m constantly looking over my shoulder and wondering if everyone thinks I’m a bad mom.

Maybe they do sometimes. Oh well.

My two older boys were born at the same time and have received as close to the same parenting as two human beings can. But they are different. And they have different needs.

I’m not parenting one better than the other, and neither of them is fundamentally flawed. They’re both wonderful and amazing children, and I am so privileged to be their mother. However, their struggles will never be the same.

Both of them tantrum sometimes, but one of them has bigger, scarier tantrums. But then again he’s also teaching himself to read. At 3 ½. Because he’s brilliant. And, yesterday, when I had a short bout of food poisoning, he was also the one to come up to me and start stroking my arm, saying, “It’s okay, Mama. I’m here. I’ll take care of you.” I don’t think Mr. Mischievous even noticed that I was sick.

Mr. Justice is kind, sweet, and full of larger-than-life feelings. I’m determined to love him through those big feelings.

So blame? Nope. I’m not going there. And you shouldn’t either.

*I use affiliate links with books and products I believe in. When you purchase something through these links, it helps support the Parenting Kind Kids project. Thanks so much!

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