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Temper Tantrums: A Child Psychologist on How Parents Can Survive a Meltdown

Temper tantrums are difficult for parents and children, but with a foundation of knowledge and few pointed tactics, the meltdown can be managed with ease.

Parents dread the inevitable meltdowns of childhood. It’s not just that tantrums are loud and disruptive. Tantrums are also be embarrassing for parents and make them feel powerless, often in public. What’s more, tantrums often arrive at the most inopportune moment, sewing chaos. And, really, they aren’t anyone’s fault. Tantrums are a fact of life and evolution. The question isn’t how to stop them — minimize, sure, but not stop — it’s how to weather these periodic but inevitable storms.

According to early childhood psychologist Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, staying on the same team is the best way to engage in tantrum management. Fatherly spoke with Dr. Hershberg to find out what exactly a tantrum is, how best to tackle them and when we can expect them to, finally, go away.

My boys are 5- and 7-years-old. They’ll still occasionally lose their shit. I thought they’d be over it by now. So, please, tell me: when does it stop?

The good news is that they’re on the way out. Tantrums are basically an overwhelming emotional experience your kid doesn’t know how to handle. As kids get older, they get better at handling their emotions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be certain circumstances that they won’t be able to cope with. That continues into adulthood.

Adults have tantrums?

Well, most of the time you can keep it together, but yes. You will have a tantrum if something tests you. But that is much rarer for an adult than for a little kid.

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I don’t want to tantrum here, but you’re basically saying there’s no hope. 

Well, what we think of conventional meltdowns or tantrums peak at thre and four and by five they are less frequent. By six or seven they are week to week. Something would have to happen to put your 7-year-old in that space.

Sometimes my boys will set each other off because they’re brothers. Is there a technical difference between conflict and a tantrum?

It’s a question of semantics. There are so many things that fall under the name of “tantrum” because they are just about a behavior, whether it’s precipitated by fighting with a sibling or anxiety. We need to know that the crying, screaming, kicking and wailing can come from a variety of factors, and as long as we know that who cares what we call it. As long as we know it’s not one size fits all and change our response according to what set it off.

Well, about that response…. I always hear it’s necessary to respond consistently. Is that true?

Well, you’re a person. You might have more than one kid and a job. Ideally, you’re generally consisten, but that doesn’t mean you’re running a military school where everything is always the same as the day before. It’s an impossible standard and you wouldn’t come across as authentic and human, which is probably even more important than consistency.

Look, if you’re coming off a week of family vacation and you’re jet-lagged and your kid loses his mind because you gave him a fork and he wanted a spoon. You might need to take a step back and realize you kid is overwhelmed, the same way you are. So it might be good to respond differently. Tantrums are interactions. A dance between a child and a caregiver.

But if I give in aren’t I teaching my child that this is the way to get what they want?

I caution parents against having such a severe perspective when it comes to one incident. It’s just one incident. You have a choice. There’s not a right or wrong answer. Can you pause at the moment and make a decision that comes from a thoughtful and focused place? Not one from anxiety and anger? Sometimes you might find the best option is the path of least resistance. It’s less about doing the same thing every time and more about pausing, taking stock and figuring out how to trend consistently.

 

What’s your ideal method of approaching a tantrum in stressful circumstances. The grocery store, for instance. It’s the gold standard of tantrums.

Be aware of your own expectations. Do you think you’re just going to go to the grocery store and have an easy breezy time? If that’s your expectation, you’re not setting everybody up for success. There’s power in anticipation. You’re a team. Talk about it like you’re a team. Plan ahead to prevent a tantrum situation. Even your eventual anger can be anticipated. You need to know your own triggers. If you have an issue with your kid asking for more, you can prepare for that.

What about those onlookers? Judging parents?

Let’s go back to the team idea. Sometimes parents take the side of the onlookers. Your kid will melt down and you’ll look to the lady behind you and say something like, “I’m so sorry.” But your kid isn’t doing that on purpose. And what they see is that dad cares more about some stranger than what’s going on with them. Instead, look to your kid. That’s you’re number one priority. You’re not going to see these people again. You’re on your kids team.

Is there anything else that works? How about distraction?

Distraction is a wonderful method because kids are so easily distracted. But there’s a caveat. It’s not at the cost of acknowledging how your kid feels. When I use distraction it’s always after acknowledging what your kid is reacting to and saying something empathic. And distraction doesn’t have to be a big deal, it can be as simple as asking if they can remember what they had for breakfast in the morning. It’s about engaging your child in something.

But the first step is empathy?

When little kids are throwing a time they’ve tried to impart to you how important something is and you don’t get it. It happens to us as grown-ups. Sometimes we don’t want solutions we just want someone to say, “that stinks.”

That makes sense and it’s also not at all my first inclination. It definitely requires a bit of discipline. It is not, as they say, easy.

In my experience, as much as parents want easy answers, they’re also sick of banging their heads against the wall and feeling like they’re the only family where these answers aren’t working. So there’s a sense of relief in knowing that it takes a bit more work. It’s an investment. All of these principles carry on as a kid grows up. Understanding a child’s development and knowing your own baggage is useful throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.