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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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).
  6. 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.



Why a white daisy?

Apparently, when people  are asked to draw a flower, the first one that comes to mind for a majority of people is the daisy shape.   This single flower (just the flower part without the stem or any leaves and on a solid black background) was show to study participants after being shown a high-arousal negative image. Examples of high-arousal negative images include awful things like violence, injuries and car crashes.  Two trials were conducted:  in the first subjects were shown a high arousal image and then either a) the flower image b) a mosaic of fragments of the flower image or c) a visual fixation point.  In the second trial, the high arousal image was followed by either a) the flower image, b) a chair (deemed a neutral image) or c) a blue sky with clouds (deemed a positive non-floral image).   Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were taken throughout the experiments.  

As expected, mean blood pressure was lower when participants viewed the flower versus the fixation point or the mosaic flower,  but what was unexpected is that the flower image actually reduced mean blood pressure to a level lower than the baseline.  Both the flower image and the blue sky had a similar positive impact in changing mood from negative to positive (with the blue sky having the most overall impact).  However, only the flower (not the sky) caused a reduction in mean blood pressure.  It was determined that viewing a simple flower image could in fact change a negative mood into a more positive one and also decrease blood pressure. 

The power of the single flower image was then studied in regards to salivary cortisol levels.  During this study, the high-arousal images were once again paired with the flower image, the flower fragment mosaic or the fixation point.  Once again, only the flower image was shown to significantly decrease stress during the recovery phase. One final examination looked at fMRI images of the brain during these conditions.  Through this imagery it was discovered that the flower image was effective in decreasing the amygdala-hippocampus activation that occurred after viewing the high arousal images. Researchers speculated that the flower image was a distraction tool that was helped prevent the recall of the stressful images.  

The brief viewing of this single flower image was shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions and created better functioning of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems! Having such a simple tool available to help reduce stress and regulate unpleasant emotions and is one possible tool for interrupting ruminating thoughts or unpleasant flashbacks.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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