Turning Tantrums Into Learning Opportunities

With my then 6-year old in tow, I navigated the confusing aisles of a department store in need of a costume for his Linggo Ng Wika. How odd to buy black tights for a little boy, I kept thinking. But then it happened. We glanced to our left and right beside the active wear section was the toy section. I was always amazed at his agility in reaching the toy section. He asked for a toy, and I said “No”. This exchange went on for several times until his cute little face contorted into disarray and he began screaming. When the tantrum wouldn’t let up, I embarrassingly picked him up and dashed out of the store to head home. The scenario above is all too common for moms. Tantrums don’t mean a child is “bad” or “spoiled”, they really are a normal part of child development. These outbursts and irrational displays of emotion are due to frustration and stress. As children, there are things they don’t understand yet, and emotions they don’t know how to express. Experts say that inside their teeny bodies, anxiety heightens the production of the stress hormone cortisol, readying them to ignite at any moment.

When your child is throwing a tantrum, it takes a lot of stay control to stop yourself from throwing a tantrum too. But there are things that we, as parents, can do to turn these tantrums into opportunities for positive learning and modelling.

Put Your Oxygen Mask On

Asking you to keep your cool during a major meltdown is easier said than done. And it’s hard not to respond with same level of feelings, especially when behavior seems unacceptable. Falling into the anger trap is a common response.

There is a verse in the Bible that says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). While we are unable to control our child’s emotions, we certainly are able to control our response to the situation.  Getting angry and raising your voice is like adding gas to a big fire. During a tantrum, a child will respond negatively to negative emotions.

Believe it or not, tantrums can provide parents a valuable opportunity to model good behavior. Kids are pretty smart, they learn from anything and everything we do, including handling tantrums. Here are a few steps to get you to the other side smoothly.

  • Take deep breaths and count to ten. When a plane’s in distress, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on before doing the same to your child. Do your best to make your inside as calm as you would like your child to be.
  • Recite Proverbs 15:1 in your mind. It makes a good mantra. Adding fuel to fire is futile.
  • Experts say that an average tantrum lasts 3 minutes. Give your child the benefit of completing the average tantrum time, and try your best not to fall into anger while waiting.

When things have quiet down, recognize your child’s feelings and acknowledge them as valid. Expressing feelings through a tantrum does not equal bad behavior, so don’t be too quick to label your child negatively. You can start with this sentence, “I can see that you really want that toy and you’re upset because we said no”.

Comforting a child in the middle of a meltdown reinforces the tantrum. You can then finish off your sentence by saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset. I can give you a hug and we can talk after you’ve calmed down”. This way, you’re showing sympathy without dismissing the child’s feelings.

Lead By Example

By responding calmly and positively, you model the behavior you want them to display when they need to face stressful situations. You’re also teaching them not to respond in anger. Just as a child can say “I hate you” or “You’re so mean!”, parents can say pretty mean things in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, harsh words are hard to take back. So it’s best to hold your tongue until you’re sure that your emotions have calmed down.

Handling a tantrum calmly and without giving in to their demand shows the child that we are able to hold boundaries. Rules don’t change based on moods or feelings. They will see that it is only during peaceful, respectful, and obedient behavior that things go in their favor.

Parents are not perfect. There will be times when we can’t help but respond to tantrums with bigger emotions. It’s important for moms and dads take each tantrum as an opportunity to learn more about their child, and about how they can control their responses to meltdowns. We all lose our cool at one point or another. Children are forgiving, so forgive yourself too. After apologizing to your child, you can let go, move on, and be better prepared for when another tantrum happens.