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  • Michael Philp


Here's a great picture of my then two year old daughter, having a tantrum while we tried to take a family photo on the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. Despite all our attempts to encourage her to pose quickly for a photo, she refused and now we have this fantastic photo moment. This photo attempt was shortly after our attempt to get a photo of her inside the Colosseum, which she proceeded to bat away the camera as if we were the paparazzi, all the while crying and refusing to walk. I'm sure we've all been there at some point, whether it was on the family trip of a life time, or simply trying to wrangle the children in order to get to school on time, so let's break down the tantrum.

The low-down on tantrums

Tantrums are extremely common for pre-school aged children and can also extend into the early years of school. Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes, but are a sign of some internal issue for the child and may include being hungry, tired, overstimulated or frustrated for example. Sometimes the cause of the tantrum is not immediately clear. In my example, in hindsight my daughter was experiencing a combination of tiredness (lots of walking around and travelling), overstimulation (lots of people, noises, things to see) and frustration (lots of things to see but not to touch, demands of her parents to smile and pose for multiple photos). In hindsight the results were fairly predictable. Other examples may include the child being told no; the child not being physically able to complete the task (eg building Lego); too many choices; or being asked to change tasks (eg stop playing and put on shoes). Essentially though, the child is not able to regulate how they are feeling internally or communicate how they are feeling to their parents/caregivers.

How to manage tantrums

Firstly, in pre-school children, it's important to acknowledge that tantrums are common; particularly as children around age three start to develop a desire for independence but often lack the motor skills to achieve this independence, leading to an expression of frustration. Tantrums, particularly if they occur frequently, are very draining for the parents as well as the child. More importantly, we want to help our children come out of the tantrum and re-engage with activities or the family. So, how can we manage these behaviours? There are many suggestions and each often have their own valid reasons. However, when I see parents at my practice I encourage them to follow an attachment focused way of helping their child, which is outlined by Dr Dan Siegel in his fantastic book No Drama Discipline. Dr Siegel encourages parents to remain connected - both emotionally and physically - to their child during the tantrum. He encourages parents to use their understanding of their child to determine if their child is in a "can't" or "won't" moment. A "won't" moment is usually a defiant behaviour (eg a child refusing to stop playing to brush their teeth) and requires a different parental reaction to a child in a "can't" moment. Children in a "can't" moment are overwhelmed, emotionally dysregulated and are no longer in control of their reactions and importantly they are no longer in contact with the part of the brain that helps them to make rational decisions. During "can't" moments, Dr Siegel suggests the best response is to connect physically with the child in order to help them calm down emotionally and connect to the rational part of the brain. Once the child has calmed down, which you can usually observe through the child relaxing physically, then you can talk to them about their behaviour and how to make better choices. Children in a "won't" moment, however, require different discipline strategies and I'll address that in future blogs.

Proactive parenting

One of the best strategies to managing a tantrum is to identify the early signs of your child beginning to move into a "can't" moment. This could include noticing the raised voices coming from siblings while playing with their toys and intervening early to help them make better choices (eg sharing) or even giving them a time-out from each other through separate activities. Proactive parenting also includes self-awareness of how you are feeling. Are you tired, hungry, stressed? If so, this could impact on your ability to effectively connect with your child and sometimes the best course of action is to collect yourself before helping your child calm down.

Back to the Spanish Steps

So how did it turn out for my daughter as we tried to navigate the crowds in Rome? Well, we had a cuddle, calmed down and she fell asleep in her mother's arms for an hour outside the next tourist site. She improved after a sleep, and she was our happy and hungry little girl again. We also tried to reduced the demands we were placing on her (posing for photos, looking at boring - for a 2 year old - buildings).

If your child is experiencing tantrums that are more frequent, go on for too long, or you are having difficulties managing your child's behaviour, please feel free to contact me at Grove Psychology to discuss this further.

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