How to Connect with Your Child During a Tantrum
Part of being human is having big feelings, especially for our little ones who don’t yet have the neural connections in their brains that help them regulate these feelings. This often leads to meltdowns, outbursts and big fits. When our child comes to us with a big feeling or difficult thought (e.g., “I’m so dumb” or “I’m mad!”), our automatic or natural tendency is to reassure them (e.g., “You’re not dumb, sweetheart.” Or, “Don’t be silly. That’s nothing to get mad about.”). While this strategy may work in the short term, these types of feelings or thoughts often tend to come back. And if we spend our time disputing our child’s thoughts/feelings, this may lead them to feel unheard, feeling weak for even thinking this way or feeling like they are the only ones who have these types of thoughts/feelings.
Being little children in a big world, they’re often surrounded by adults and authority figures telling them what to do and how to feel. It can be refreshing for a child to have an adult who takes the time to slow down and tell them it’s okay and it’s normal to feel or think these kinds of things.
How we talk to our children during these difficult times is just as important as what we say. First, it is important we are a calm, supportive presence when they come to us with such a big feeling. You may ask yourself some of these questions:
- Am I distracted or multitasking right now during this time when my child needs me?
- Is there a warm and caring tone in my voice?
- Is my voice volume appropriate for my child’s needs?
- Do my facial expressions project acceptance and understanding?
- Do I have a relaxed posture and inviting gestures?
- Is the speed with which I’m talking appropriate for my child?
Next, consider the content of what we say in response to our child’s emotional dysregulation. Try telling them, “I can see you’re really [upset/mad/worried/frustrated] right now. That’s okay. It’s normal to feel frustrated when your homework gets hard. I get upset, too, when I feel like I’m doing a terrible job at work. But I know it’s just my mind telling me this unhelpful story. And then I just remind myself of all of the things I’m good at and the things that are important to me – like being a good mom or trying my best at work.” Encourage your child to think of their thoughts like clouds passing in the sky – they come and go in their own time. They don’t hang around forever. They’ll move on eventually. So, it’s important to try to focus our attention on helpful thoughts rather than unhelpful ones.
For older children, you may also be able to encourage your child to try to look AT their thoughts rather than FROM their thoughts. Try reframing it to say, “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m dumb.” Or ask yourself, is this thought helpful or unhelpful? This reframe may show them that thoughts are just a string of phrases, words, letters, symbols, language -- passing through our minds -- that don’t need to have power or control over us. Once we can see our thoughts for what they are, we may be more apt to choose not to listen to them, not to believe them and not to pay attention to them.
Learn more about Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology at Ochsner.