When my friend’s toddler first started having tantrums, she was surprised at how overwhelming and all-consuming they felt. Her son’s outbursts were making her angry, irritable, and snappy. After a few months of this, she reached out.
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“I don’t understand why he’s so mad all the time… it’s stressing me out!”
“I can’t handle the whining, crying, and screaming!”
“What am I doing wrong?”
“I’m going to lose it!”
She didn’t have any tools to stay calm or any strategies for helping her son out of a tantrum. Yelling felt like the only way to get the behaviour to stop and release all of her pent-up emotions.
Yelling wasn’t the way she wanted to respond, but she felt helpless to make a change.
In typical therapist fashion, I asked her how her parents dealt with her emotions when she was a child.
As she got curious about her past, she realized that her parents shut down, ignored or punished her when she expressed herself.
It was no wonder that it was so triggering for her when her son would get upset! When she had emotions like this as a child, she would be shut down, yelled at, and punished. Her instinct was to do the same thing back to her child.
Yelling at her child was the ONLY tool she had.
It made sense that her son’s tantrums were so distressing for her – they were triggering all of those old feelings.
Being aware that her son’s tantrums triggered all of those old feelings empowered her to make a change. She didn’t have to yell. She didn’t have to ignore the tantrums. She could do things differently. She could parent in a way that connected her with her son.
Acknowledging Your Own Emotions: A Good Place to Start
There is a wide range of emotions parents experience during tantrums. When my friend sat down to reflect, she listed the range of emotions she felt:
- Helpless to make a change because she didn’t understand the source of his distress or how to cope with the overstimulation.
- Frustrated when the tantrums occurred at the most inconvenient times.
- Angry because her son wasn’t cooperating or calming down.
- Ashamed of the way she was reacting and responding to his outburst.
- Afraid her family, friends, or strangers were judging her reactions or responses.
- Embarrassed when her son had a tantrum in public.
- Overwhelmed by the sounds of screaming, whining, and crying.
- Anxious and on edge waiting for the next tantrum.
It’s important for parents to acknowledge and maintain emotional balance during tantrums. If you’re noticing that your child’s tantrums are a significant source of emotional distress, take some time to reflect on these feelings.
3 Strategies for Maintaining Your Own Emotional Balance During Tantrums
Since my friend had never learned how to cope with her own emotions, she needed help building a toolbox of strategies to help her stay calm during her son’s tantrums. There are three strategies I shared with her to help her keep her cool.
1. The 3-4-5 Breathing Technique
The first strategy I gave her was to take deep breaths using the 3-4-5 Breathing Technique. When her emotions started to take over, she could start by:
- Breathing in through the nose for three seconds.
- Then hold that breath for four seconds.
- Then breathe out through the mouth for five seconds.
- Repeat as needed.
2. “Yell-Proof Shield” Visualisation
Since her son’s screams were a trigger, I encouraged my friend to use the “yell-proof shield” visualization to help her stay calm.
Here’s how this works: Whenever her son was in the midst of an emotional outburst, she could envision herself holding up a shield, and imagine all of his cries or yells bouncing off it.
3. Grounding Statements
My friend often felt flooded with anxiety during tantrums. Together, we came up with some grounding statements to help anchor her when she felt overwhelmed.
- I am safe.
- My child is safe.
- I am ___ years old.
- Everyone has anxious thoughts. This doesn’t mean they are true.
- I can cope with this.
- I’m grateful for____.
Tip: Write these affirmations down and post them around the house (i.e. fridge, bathroom mirror, car dashboard, etc.), so you can access them when you’re in the midst of a tantrum or about to lose your cool.
Building a Support System
Building a support system is a really practical way for parents to set themselves up for success. This will look different for every parent, but here are a few suggestions to help you get started.
Include a Trusted Relative in Childcare
Building a support system can start within your own family. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, aunt, cousin, or grandparent – having help with childcare can give you an opportunity to take a break and recharge your battery, so you can show up and be the parent you want to be.
This step can also feel incredibly intimidating.
It makes sense that asking a family for help can feel challenging if you don’t know the style of discipline they’ll use, or if they’re handling tantrums the same way you will. If this isn’t a possibility, consider connecting with a local parenting group as a way of building a support system.
Join a Local Parenting Program
If you’re looking to build a support system, contact your local library, hospital, or community centre; these organizations often have resources that can get you connected.
One common concern for parents is physically getting out of the house to attend a parenting group. If you’re struggling to take that step, start by joining an online parenting group. You might find a local Facebook group for parents in your community. This route may be a more gentle and realistic transition into a parenting community.
It’s okay to ask for help or seek support when you need it. Taking care of your needs IS taking care of your little ones!
Setting Realistic Goals and Embracing Imperfection
It’s not realistic to expect yourself to stay calm at all times. Have grace on yourself as you learn and grow alongside your child.
The Do-over: Repairing After Rupture
If you lose your cool, you’re not alone. You might not always be successful in staying calm, and that’s okay.
If you lose your cool, one of the most important things you can do is come back and try to repair the relationship you have with your child.
This might sound like:
- “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. That was not ok. I’m sorry.”
- “Can we try a do-over? I don’t like how I talked to you just now.”
- “My feelings are my responsibility, not yours. It’s not ok for me to yell.”
- “Ahhhh, that’s not what I wanted to say. I’m sorry. Can we rewind and start over?”
There’s beauty in the humility that comes when asking your child for a do-over. It’s ok to stop yourself mid-discipline and ask: “Am I responding to my child in a way that aligns with my values?”
We are learning with our kids. We won’t always get it right. Our kids will learn that important lesson too. When they see us realizing we made a mistake, owning up to it, and trying again, they will learn the power of the do-over through us.
Remember this: repairing the relationship after rupture is one of the most important things we can do. This can be especially important if you’re raising a highly sensitive child!
If you’re struggling to keep your cool during tantrums, you’re not alone. Offer yourself compassion – parenting is hard work!
When we acknowledge our own emotions and reflect on where they’re coming from, it can put our reactions into context. You’re not responsible for fixing or taking away your child’s emotions, and they’re not responsible for fixing or taking away yours!
Practising the calming strategies outlined above is a really practical way to maintain emotional balance so you can respond to tantrums in a way that feels good (for you and your little one).
- Acknowledge your own emotions: embrace the many emotions you may feel during your child’s tantrums. This practice of self-awareness can guide a positive response to tantrums.
- Understand your triggers: take time to identify and explore your personal triggers related to tantrums, which will enable you to change your reactions and bond more closely with your child.
- Use strategies to maintain your emotional balance: utilize methods such as the 3-4-5 breathing technique, visualizations, and grounding statements to remain calm during tantrums.
- Build a support system: Seek support from trusted family, friends, or parenting communities to help manage stress and share nurturing responsibilities.
- The power of a do-over: Apologize to your child when needed and embrace the power of trying again, teaching your child that parents aren’t perfect and sometimes need to try again.
- Repairing after rupture is crucial: after moments of conflict, make amends and use these experiences as opportunities to model positive behaviour to your child.
- Parenting is not about perfection: show compassion towards yourself during this journey, and remember that parenting is about constantly connecting, nurturing, and growing, not perfection.