No tricks needed when you parent a tantrum-ing child.
At birthday parties, family gatherings, and any type of social situations, you would see me and my husband trying to relax while, and at the same time, keeping track of our kids’ arousal levels, never fully making eye contact with someone we were talking to. We were afraid of missing the signs.
In other words, we carefully kept watch in order to predict when our kids were going to explode, crash and burn.
We're experts in stepping in just before it happens, saying farewell in an all-around goodbye-wave and rushing to the car. We could only handle that many speedy goodbyes before we stopped going to those types of gatherings altogether.
I’m still recovering physically and emotionally from this toddler phase. I had the explosive highly sensitive toddlers!
My oldest daughter would almost implode and explode at the same time. It was pretty scary to watch this happening! She actually helped me later with some insights when her younger brother and sister were at that age.
She said, "I can still feel the total frustration and all this energy in my body that I just couldn't get out. You didn’t understand me and everything felt so unfair."
That really helped me understand tantrums so much better. But what truly helped me deal with tantrums and challenging behavior of my children was the work I was doing on myself.
I realized that parenting is the best mindfulness and personal growth practice I could have chosen in this lifetime. It has helped me transform the way I show up as a parent and as a person.
There are three things we have to get in perspective when we start parenting from the inside out:
1. How we feel as a person defines how we react as parents.
If we’re unclear, ungrounded, and unbalanced, our children will pick up on that and reflect it in their behavior.
When you don’t fulfill your own needs, you don’t have much to give to others. When you are tired and have no energy, it is much harder to deal with your children’s outbursts.
Give yourself a break whenever you're not perfect, make mistakes or can't hold it all together. Forgive yourself when you do scream and yell and do everything exactly the opposite of what you knew you had to do. You are doing the best you can.
Healthy boundaries are important for your children, but they are important for you as a parent as well. You are the parent and affirming healthy boundaries is your job. Think of the gift you are giving to your children. By declaring that you are important, you mirror it to them: they are important as well.
As adults this will serve them, as it is serving you now.
Children can trigger unresolved emotions in you, causing you to feel hurt and frustrated. They can also pick up on those unresolved feelings and mirror them. And beware of the projection of your own unresolved feeling onto your children.
Embrace the parts of you that are still hurting. Acknowledge and accept your own feelings from or about you past without judgment and give that child in you all the love and validation it never got.
Practice keeping things in perspective and avoid the panic. Your child experiencing a strong emotion is not going to kill them. Your calm will show them the way through whatever they are feeling.
2. We must have age-appropriate expectations!
This is true for the toddler tantrums as well as the teenage tantrums. My youngest and my oldest are almost 11 years apart, so I had children who were all in tantrum mode at the same time. It took a lot of deep breathing and grounding for me not to start screaming and kicking just like my children.
And honestly, there were times that I did just that. I was almost jealous that I had to be the adult. But yes, age appropriate expectations, for your children and for yourself.
In a toddler, tantrums arise as they build up stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, while coping with all the stimuli. While toddlers can already verbalize many of their needs, their brains are not able to process strong emotions verbally.
A tantrum is the body’s way of restoring balance by discharging and unloading all the physiological residue of all the frustration and fears that had been building up throughout the day.
That’s why tantrums usually occur when kids are tired or at very busy social settings. It's not meant to manipulate you, but children can’t control it and are not enjoying it. Their outburst is usually a message, a signal, a cry for help. Look beyond the behavior and realize what lies beneath.
(On a more practical level, a quick way to calm a child who is in over-arousal mode, is to put a cold pack in their hands. This literally cools down the over-aroused brain.)
As a child’s brain develops, they become more capable of verbalizing their emotions and needs. It never ceases to amaze me how behavior shifts when a child is around 6 to 7 years old. It’s like everything you’ve been saying all these years kind of clicks in their brains.
But then, they hit puberty, and the brain gets inundated with hormones. Teenagers are literally drowning in them. The brain goes through many changes under the influence of hormones and a different stage in their lives is reached.
Ah, teenagers…they think they know everything and that we know nothing. They push and shove while figuring out who they are. It’s an amazing and scary rollercoaster ride for both the teenagers as well as for the parent.
So, if we start with the knowledge that our two-year-old is not being bad or naughty but that he is a young human exploring the world, then we’re seeing things from his perspective.
That empathy changes everything. It’s the same with a teenager. They don’t want to hurt you, they are doing their best at creating their own values. Don’t worry. By the time they figure it out, their values will be pretty close to yours.
A two-year-old’s job description is to explore the world, which includes throwing water around at every opportunity. A 16-year-old’s job description is also to explore the world, which includes stepping out of the world they know and which you find safe.
3. The main reason that children cooperate is that they love you and want to please you.
Yes, you can beat them into submission and break their wills while calling it respect, but I trust that if you are reading this article, this is not the way you want to go. Overpowering or even abandoning your child, bribing or threatening just add to the disconnect and anxiety your child is experiencing.
Connection and love is what matters most so connect before correcting. The quickest way to connect is by getting down to eye level, making eye contact and taking a few deep breaths.
Just think about it. When you're angry and start yelling you're usually not making eye-contact. You're just venting, getting it out of your system, and kind of dumping it on the other person. When you make eye-contact you SEE the little human in front of you.
The deep breaths are not only for you but also for your child. When you relax, they relax. The connection between a parent and a child is that strong.
This one is not really easy to do but it works if you really set the intention that love and respect for each other is what you’re going for. My youngest daughter has been my greatest teacher on this one.
- "I understand that you are tired, do you need a hug and a kiss?"
- "I love you and the answer is, no."
- "I understand that you are upset because you are tired, but this is behavior is not acceptable."
- "I love you and I have faith that we can find a respectful solution."
If you deal with tantrums this way, I assure you that not only your child, but also you will grow emotionally.
Parenting from the inside out is not always the easiest way. But I can guarantee you that it will be the most fulfilling way, for you and your children.
This article was originally published at Highly Sensitive Parents. Reprinted with permission from the author.