The biscuit breaks and your three-year-old screws up his eyes, opens his mouth and wails loudly. I remember situations like this with my son – I would find myself trying to piece together the broken biscuit, whilst attempting to explain as best I could to my devastated son, without going into the laws of physics, that it really was still the same biscuit...to no avail. His wild demonstrations of fury and disappointment would continue unabated.
We have all been there one way or the other, trying to help resolve a tantrum, when our child has had a meltdown. As a parent it’s distressing to see, and to add insult to injury, you too can eventually become exasperated and end up losing it yourself. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. When you are both tired, irritated and overwhelmed it’s hard to keep your cool. But there are ways to help calm the situation.
So what is it about tantrums?
Well, first of all, tantrums are normal and common in young children. Their brain is not yet developed enough to manage strong emotions and most young children are buzzing with BIG feelings. So, when they are spread out on the pavement shrieking, it helps to remember that your child will learn better ways of dealing with frustration as their brain wiring matures - and however much it may seem that they are intent on making life difficult at that moment, they are not doing it to annoy!
Although the reasons for tantrums can be astonishingly individual, like you cut their sandwich the wrong way, or you peeled the banana ALL the way, research has demonstrated that tantrums have a pattern and rhythm to them, no matter what the cause or how long they go on for. Researcher Potegal & his team developed a ‘onesie’ with an inbuilt microphone and analysed in detail the sounds toddlers make during the course of a tantrum.
Previously it had been assumed that tantrums have two phases; ‘anger’ (yelling, screaming, bashing & throwing things), followed by ‘sadness’ (crying and whimpering). However, the researchers found that these phases were intertwined. Sad sounds occurred throughout tantrums, mixed in with sharp peaks of yelling and screaming - anger. The researchers found that 'Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together’ while combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort also hang together. They found that the quickest way to end the tantrum is to let the child get past the 'peaks of anger' by leaving them alone. What is then left is the sadness, and sad children tend to reach out for comfort. So, the best way to help your child get over the anger phase is to do nothing. (That’s probably why my attempts to explain the physics of broken biscuits was getting us nowhere.) A child in a state of overwhelming emotion is unable to process anything beyond their overwhelming fury and distress. As Potegal says, "There's an anger trap. Even asking questions can prolong the anger - and the tantrum".
So this means that during the anger phase it is best not to engage with your child, other than keeping them safe. Even asking questions can prolong their anger — and the tantrum.
It’s very important at this time that you stay calm and appear 'neutral', by not making close contact with your child - not making eye contact, not talking to them, not picking them up - until they have calmed down enough and can be comforted. Watch out for a moment when your child moves to the sadness phase, at which point you can reach out to give comfort and a cuddle and make room for the tears of sadness.
By staying calm and nearby you are ready to help melt the frustration and dissolve the anger. The good news is that by supporting your child when they are ready to be comforted, you help prime your child to develop flexibility and resilience in the face of challenges. The goal is to help your child to learn to 'self-regulate' when it comes to strong emotions. And by staying calm yourself, you are providing an excellent role model – so your child learns to feel less overwhelmed, and to deal with difficult emotions in a constructive way, get over the strong feelings and move on.
The researchers also found that by recognising the phases of anger then sadness, can give parents back a sense of control in a stressful situation. It also allows a brief moment of ‘time out’ for themselves to calm down.
Lots of broken biscuits later, and after helping many parents who are struggling with their child’s tantrums, I can see that it really helps to recognise and understand the anger and sadness phases of meltdowns. The child of a parent who can remain calm and then re-engage with their child (or teenager...) with warmth and positive attention is likely to learn positive ways to manage anger and frustration in the future.