I have three children under three years old, so I know a lot about tantrums. They are a part of my daily existence. Let’s just face the fact that tantrums cannot be reduced to zero. They cannot be completely eliminated from our lives forever. BUT..they can be significantly reduced in the three main categories: frequency, intensity, and duration. More importantly, this system grows with your children so that it is still effective for those pesky, moody teenagers.
Tantrums Are Going to Happen
It is necessary to review again the mantra that tantrums in children are going to happen. They happen at home and most of us are embarrassed (to say the least) when they happen in public. Or worse, in front of your mother-in-law. Accept it. Acknowledge that it is a normal part of parenting and then be ready to take decisive action to significantly reduce these dreaded tantrums by utilizing these 6 steps:
6 Steps to Reducing Tantrums
- Talk about the activity and length in advance. Whether it is a trip to the grocery store or to the zoo, talk to your children before you start the activity about what you plan to do and how long you will be there. This helps prepare them for the behavioral expectations and also helps the to begin to develop organizational skills and time management.
- Advise them of your plans for after this activity ends. This one is critical. BEFORE you start the first activity, let your child know what is going to happen immediately after that activity ends. For example, we are going to spend one hour at the zoo and when we leave, we are going to have lunch at our favorite pizza place. Or, we are going to Grandma’s for the day but we will be home for bedtime in our beds.
- Start the activity! After you have reviewed the plans and the after party plans, get moving. Don’t delay and try to be relaxed. Don’t worry about a meltdown and participate in the activity expecting to have fun and then expecting a peaceful ending.
- Give a mid-way transition warning. Halfway through the activity, let you child know how much time is remaining. Again, this allows them to take control over planning their activities and helps develop organizational and time management skills. This is called executive functioning and it is critical for long-term success. **Note: as children get older, they may be able to function without this step, but in the beginning, more warnings are usually better. It is NOT necessary for the child to acknowledge your warning. They are usually listening, but just put it out there for the world to hear and don’t expect a response. If they protest, “Oh no, not yet!” Simply reflect those feelings, “You’re having so much fun!” and move on. If the continue, just say, “I will let you know when we have five more minutes.”
- Give a 5-minute and a 1-minute warning. Follow through with a five-minute warning that the activity is about to end. Follow the same actions as in number 4 if you get any protests. Then give a 1-minute warning. “In one more minute, this activity will end and it will be time for (follow up activity that you prepped in step 2).
- END THE ACTIVITY ON TIME. Here’s the key. Do not get distracted talking to a friend and wait 10 more minutes to end. Do not feel guilty that there is something really cool is happening right then. END THE ACTIVITY. End it using clear but neutral language with your child’s name. “Johnny, our time for today is up, it’s time to go and get pizza.” If the child protests, refer back to steps 4-5 reflecting the feeling, “You wish we had more time, but our time for today is up.” Continue this until the child complies. For our young children, we use the words, “Bye (name of activity), see you again next time!” For older children, you can encourage good mannered goodbyes to anyone else participating in the event.
Working Through the Tantrum
In the beginning, you may continue to get a meltdown at this point. Stay calm. Continue to set the limit and enforce the ending. Do not give in and allow more time and you will go through all of the steps again, but without the same success.
As I said, you may continue to get some tantrums, but overall the frequency and intensity should decrease significantly. Just this past weekend, my three toddlers were at the pool. We did our usual routine just as I have outlined and one of them still threw a pretty big fit at the time to go. He cried and he wiggled in my arms. He really wanted to stay. The other two got up easily and waved, “bye bye pool.” My little one cried for about 1 minute and before we even made it to the exit was also saying, “see you next time pool.”
It’s not magic. It’s structure and routine without yelling, bribing or punishing. And it makes your life a lot easier in the long run.