Bonnie Connell, LMHC, LPC
1. Acknowledge Feelings
One of the reasons young children have tantrums is because they haven't yet acquired the language skills needed to tell you how they feel, what the problem is, and what they need. They fall apart out of frustration, but also because they are communicating by trying to show you with their behavior how they feel. Simply acknowledging that you know how they feel and why is sometimes all they need. "You are so angry because it is time to leave the park and you're still having fun! I understand." Adding that it is okay to feel that feeling is validating. Most importantly, leave out the word "but." Most caregivers can't resist trying to talk the child out of feeling that way, but don't launch into explanations or reasoning right now. Just sit with the feeling for a moment. If you can do that, it gives the child a holding space to allow this new understanding of their feeling to sink in and allows them to feel heard. We all want to feel heard when we are upset. Isn't it frustrating when well-meaning partners or friends try to talk us out of our feelings before we feel understood? This can feel invalidating. Let the feelings be heard and acknowledged.
2. Setting Limits with Choices
Setting consistent limits with children helps them to internalize rules and expectations, which is key to building their self-regulation. But to a young child, it often feels like their power is being taken away, which only increases their feelings of frustration. With each limit you set, try to give at least 2 acceptable choices. "I can't let you push Michael off the bike. You can ask for a turn, or you can choose another toy to play with for now." In fact, you should be incorporating choices into as many areas of your daily routine as possible. Do you want to brush your teeth first, and then pajamas? Or pajamas first? Would you like the blue cup, or the green? Would you like me to carry you, or hold your hand? Each time a young child is allowed to make a choice, they experience empowerment and autonomy. Feeling in control in situations like this when it is appropriate can reduce a young child's need to seek control through inappropriate behavior later on.
3. Check Your Reaction
Speaking of power and control, don't get pulled into power struggles! Remember, "Respond, don't React." Remain calm but firm when giving a correction and a choice. Don't let your internal impatience show on the outside, as this can increase a child's feeling of distress, or it can be the negative attention they are inappropriately seeking in order to regain their sense of control in their environment. Take a deep breath and use a neutral tone of voice. There should be no need to yell, even if you feel like you have redirected the same behavior ten times already today. (If that's the case, then something else needs to change!) If you are standing near your child at eye level and speaking calmly, they are most likely to be able to hear and absorb what you are saying. This means facial expressions too! Sometimes it's just not feasible, but try to keep the exasperation out of your tone as well as how you look at your child. Shoot for acceptance without impatience.
4. Ask Questions to Promote Problem Solving
Caregivers often tend to want to go straight to explaining, when sometimes asking questions engages a child's thinking brain more effectively to help them integrate new information. Reflect what you see happening, and help your child figure out what their options are. "I see you didn't like Shanaya sitting so close to you, so you kicked her chair. How do you think this makes Shanaya feel? Did it help her to know what you want? What else might help her to know what you want that might work better? Is there something you can do now to help her feel better about what happened?" Allowing them to come to their own conclusions through this line of questioning is also a great way to help build and reinforce the skills that children need to develop at this age in order to navigate social relationships successfully. Using this strategy to involve them in the problem solving process engages them more effectively in the moment so they can focus better (and thus learn!).
5. Be a Role Model
You have no idea how much time your child spends watching and listening and learning from what you do! Speaking out loud about your own process of identifying feelings, communicating about them, and problem solving is an often overlooked tool for teaching children new skills. It may feel silly at first, but saying out loud to yourself, "Wow, I am getting really frustrated that this line is taking so long, and I am starting to feel grumpy. I think I need to take some slow, deep, breaths and tell myself, 'I can handle this'..... wow, that worked, I feel less grumpy now." The more you practice this tool, the more opportunities you will notice that are all around you every day to make your internal dialog external to benefit your child audience. This also means, however, that if you are handling your own negative emotions in less than optimal ways, your child sees this and learns from it as well. Whatever you want them to be able to do when they are upset, make sure you are also doing it yourself.
Need more help? Contact me at Dandelion Counseling, PLLC at 413-825-9300 and let's talk!