10 Steps for Taming a “Tantrum” With Love

Portland Headlight & Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse

We’ve all witnessed it – our serene and blissful child transforming before our eyes over a seemingly small disappointment or discomfort. His freshly built, wooden bridge toppling over with little brother’s touch. Her sock being situated incorrectly within a shoe. The cookie denied. Suddenly our little one’s breath becomes shallow, tears spring to their eyes. Perhaps they let out a howl. Perhaps they flail their arms or legs.

There are so many reasons why a child may find himself in a rapid release of overwhelming emotions, unable to see things in a rational way. Maybe yesterday they had a long ride in the car, energy suppressed, all cooped up. Or maybe bedtime was late with an early rise for school. Now they’ve lost their ability to process things in a balanced way. Maybe they were so excited for school, they couldn’t focus on breakfast and their blood sugar is sending them on a roller-coaster ride. Maybe they took in too much television, toys with bright lights or sugary snacks. Or maybe they are experiencing tremendous development, seeing the world through new eyes and fearful of all these great, new challenges. Whether exhaustion, hunger, over-stimulation or natural development is the cause of a child’s break with their ability to process things peacefully, their ability to overcome these moments – self-worth intact – is all in the hands of their caregivers. These moments can be beautiful and transformative, filled with a parent or caregiver’s love and understanding or they can be sad and lonely times for a child.

When these moments occur in our home, I am learning to bring a more steady and observing energy to the situation and gaining in return a deeper closeness with my sons once the storm has passed. Positioning myself as a headlight in the distance allows my children to be guided back to the individuals we both know they really are, positive sense-of-self intact, feeling loved. It doesn’t work all of the time and sometimes I forget. This is a journey and all we can do is put our best foot forward again and again.

These are a few ways that I have helped my children when they have been overcome by their feelings:

1. When emotions run high there is always time to take a moment and decide how you will proceed. There is time to take a breath and center yourself before responding. Breath deeply, maybe sit down or kneel beside your child and collect your own thoughts and emotions. Maybe find a memory of a time when you have lost yourself and remember how scary and powerful that moment can be. Find a place of compassion within your being. Soften your eyes and release any feeling of needing this situation to be over. It will be over in good time.

2. Resist the urge to convince your child not to feel what they are feeling. Instead, in your most understanding tone, say something like, “that is a very big feeling you are having.” If you mean it, they will know. Then just sit and observe for a moment, concentrating on your breath. There is time for this as well, for waiting, for looking on and being steady. It doesn’t matter if you are in the grocery store, the doctor’s office or in your front yard. Most people will understand your situation. Try your best to ignore those who do not.

3. Without words, stroke your child’s arm or offer to pick your child up allowing them to choose whether or not your embrace will help. Validate their sense of loss or disappointment, upset or confusion with a simple phrase like, “Oh, I have felt that way before too.” “I can understand how you must feel.” After all, aren’t children mirrors of the emotions they witness in the world around them? Often they are simply demonstrating exaggerated version of the very same emotions we experience as adults.

4. For the younger child who may not understand these phrases, try instead saying something like, “Mama knows” a few times and wiping their tears oh-so-delicately.

5. Designate a safe place within your home that you may go to recover from incidents such as these. For instance in our home, we’ve created a “peace circle” (thanks to the suggestion of a wise babysitter and kindergarten teacher). This place is a sometimes circle, sometimes oval, crafted out of various pillows and balance boards where we spend time when we are struggling. As your child begins calming down, you may suggest that you go together to this special place for some comfort. Walk slowly, gently with your child to this space, setting the tone. Spend time there reading or playing quietly throughout the day so that your child’s special place has a positive association. Once the idea of a sacred space is established in your child’s mind, you may create this same sort of place anywhere you go, simply by giving it the same name.

6. Know that these caring gestures do not mean that you should “given in” to the demands, request or situation that brought on the episode. We are not called as parents to allow our children everything they want or think they need but to stand by instead helping them to experience their own – very significant – feelings  in a safe and loving way.

7. Observe your inner dialogue when these issues arise and notice whether or not you might be able to loosen your grip and allow for things to unfold in the most natural way possible. Notice any tension throughout your body. Notice where anger may arise. Work to recognize these feelings, validate them and  then allow for them to fall away from you. So much of how we respond to our children has to do with our own upbringing. Make certain that your response is in alignment with your present-self, not your child- self.

8. If things are not quieting down or are escalating, try stepping a few feet away from your child and beginning a tactile task. Folding clothes, stacking blocks, braiding yarn. These activities may draw a child out of themselves and allow them to begin again with something new.

9. Allow your child to rebound with dignity maybe saying something like, “wow, that was a very big feeling you were having!” “I am so glad you are feeling better now.” “Let’s go and …..” Try not to lecture your child as to what they should have felt or done differently.

10. And, finally, most importantly, know that what your child needs more than anything when they are falling apart is to have someone by their side who loves them and knows how to put them back together again. Knowing they aren’t alone, knowing someone understands them, the presence of these things, will create fewer and fewer falling-apart moments and allow for more wholeness in your home and in your life again.

23 thoughts on “10 Steps for Taming a “Tantrum” With Love

    • One thought I had after writing this was that it may take a week or two for a child to respond differently to his parent using this new language. He may not at first believe that things can remain so peaceful with his upset. He may also “milk it” for a bit. *Ultimately* once you’ve made a decision in your heart that this is how things will be (and it’s taken me many “tries” to finally, wholeheartedly get to this place), your child will respond with great love. I’ve seen it happen!

    • Thank you Sarah! I just visited your webpage and saw that you live in Maine! Do I have that right? If so, might you be interested in attending the Mindful Mothering workshop that I am facilitating at the end of the month? I would so love to have you there …. If so, the details can be found at: http://www.jaiyogahome.com (click on Practices to Go Deeper).

      I am also going to have to buy your book! Motherhood has been a tremendous learning process for me and I have so much more to figure out!

      Thank you again for the feedback.

      All my best,

      Meghan

      • HI Meghan,

        Yes! I am in Maine. About 1/2 hour from Brunswick, but my schedule is pretty booked for the fall. Do you have an event page for it on Facebook I could promote fro you. I know peeps in your area. I’m emailing you right now and would LOVE to connect in person (mama coffee/tea time?) sometime soon!

  1. This is wonderful. Thank you.

    However, I’ve also learned to stop thinking about having “fewer falling-apart moments” because that can cause stress and guilt when those moments still occur, and also because I don’t want my child to ever feel like those moments are looked down upon just because those are big feelings. Same with “I’m so glad you’re feeling better now.” I’ve noticed that puts a pressure on my older son to NOT feel sad or angry or out-of-control, so I’ve stopped saying that, too.

    In the end, I’m doing this so that when they get older and still have all those big feelings, they know that they will always be loved no matter WHAT their feelings are, and they will know how to act to express those feelings without harming others, and hopefully will know how to get whatever it is they are needing.

    I’m not trying to pick apart your individual phrases. I think what you’ve said is really helpful. This is just my reaction to some of the things I used to say and do that didn’t work out for us, and what we’ve moved on to. Thanks again!

    • I truly agree with you and appreciate your feedback so much. If we defined a day based on whether or not anyone struggled, it would make for a very sad life! As mothers, enjoying each moment (however it may appear) can be tremendously rewarding and if we created an environment in which the emotional moments were considered “bad” our children would suffer and might think their feelings were wrong or should be hidden. I would never want to encourage that. I try to be very careful with language in general and in this case I believe I used that description because, whatever our age, I believe we have the potential to stand in a place of who we really are (our very highest self) or fall away from that in stressful moments, overcome with emotion. Having someone by our side who loves and believes in us can help us return to who we are at the soulful level. It doesn’t mean that who we are in those highly emotional moments is bad or wrong or invalid but that the place of peace is closer to who we can be if all things are in alignment. Does this make any sense? Again, THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts with me. I really value them.

  2. Wonderful post! Tantrums are so misunderstood aren’t they? All too often parents just want their children to stop but they have soo much to process and feel. All your suggestions are so kind and supportive. Thank you for posting on our wall – I have shared this with the positive parenting connection community page.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this post Ariadne! It has been an evolution in my thinking to come to this realization about tantrums and all upsets in children. In our culture we have been so ingrained with ideas about child “rearing” that as a relatively new mother I have had to come to these discoveries a little at a time, mostly on my own. My greatest hope is for others to see that there are so many other ways to address these types of issues beyond what has been done in the past. I am so grateful for sites like yours spreading the word about they many ways in which we may approach children in a kind and positive way.

      I may have already shared them with you, but if not, you may appreciate the following articles that I’ve written as well:

      http://meghannathanson.com/2012/07/27/5-ways-to-return-to-mindfulness-with-your-children/

      http://meghannathanson.com/2012/08/01/5-benefits-of-mindfulness-for-mothers/

      Thank you so much for your support and I look forward to continuing to enjoy your page!

      All my best,

      Meghan

  3. I love this post. Thank you so much for sharing. I am currently going through a divorce and it has been hard at times on all of us. I have a very young daughter and will use these suggestions you have made. God bless you. <3

    • Thank you so much for your lovely feedback. I send you many blessings in return that all may be well as you go through this difficult time. Stop and breathe when you can and give long hugs to your daughter. xoxo

  4. Pingback: 10 Steps for Taming a “Tantrum” With Love « Let's Go Chipper!

  5. I want to be a peaceful parent and I try so hard to follow these suggestions….but I find myself in a position where I don’t have time to think and stay calm, my son’s response in a temper tantrum is to throw his potty at the tv, and other destructive behaviours that need to be prevented quickly. :P And any words just escalates the tantrum. :( So difficult to allow him to express his overwhelming emotions in a non-destructive way.

    • Dear KS,
      I’m so sorry for the long delay in responding. I would not recommend allowing your son to be destructive, however, if you can find *one moment* as he begins to have a tantrum to check in with yourself and acknowledge that with presence you have the opportunity to respond as opposed to react. You always have the choice to breath and use gentle words and actions. I myself am not always capable of doing this, however, I do know that it is always my choice. If you have been reacting harshly it may take some time for your son to trust that you really will respond peacefully to him in every situation. Just remember to check in with your breath before you do or say anything and see what happens. I would love to know how this goes for you and I send so much light and love to both you and your son. I know that you can turn this around. Lots of love, Meghan

  6. Pingback: How to Practice Unconditional Parenting in Real Life: Some Helpful Resources

  7. how does this fare with 2 yr olds? i have anger issues so i know this method will be good for ME personally, but with my son I find that no matter what method I use (super peaceful to even yelling and spanking) it doesn’t offer any results. No matter what I have done as a form of discipline or to quell a tantrum he thinks I’m playing a game, or he just flat out ignores me. =[ I love my boy so much, but I wish he would listen to me. I’m starting to feel inadequate as a mother. I don’t want him to think I don’t love him.

    • Dear Dawn,

      I’m sorry for the long delay in responding to your post. I too have a 2 year old so I very much know the energy and patience that we are called to share with them. I believe that these methods are very applicable for a 2 year old and if you have been inconsistent with your response (especially if you have yelled and spanked) you will need to commit to this process for some time before seeing the results but I know that when your son comes to trust that you will always (or as close to always as possible) be peaceful in your approach to him, he will begin to trust in that. I would start by setting a goal for yourself to stop spanking and yelling. You may find valuable support in these two sites:

      http://stopspanking.org

      http://theorangerhino.com

      I would also recommend beginning simply to focus on your breath throughout the day and to remind yourself of your commitment that your son may know how much you love him. Another excellent resource for learning about setting boundaries with your son is this fabulous site which has helped me tremendously:

      http://peacefulparent.com

      I know that you can reverse this pattern with your son and send you both much love. Please let me know how you are doing. All my very best, Meghan

  8. Love your posts and work to be a peaceful gentle parent. I too live in Southern Maine and would love to attend one of your workshops. Any coming up in the end of 2013?

    Thank you,
    Alison

    • Dear Alison,

      I do not have any workshops planned for the coming months, although, if you had a group of mothers who might be interested, I would be willing to come and share and lead a mother’s meditation for a few hours even for a handful of moms. This kind of gathering could be held at someone’s home or a yoga studio – I am open! I do not consider myself any sort of parenting expert :) yet I do feel called to hold space for mothers to come to a place where they may *go within* and find the inner answers and guidance that they need to mother in a mindful way. I am not so concerned about earning a great income from this work but if people wanted to contribute in some way that would be fine with me. If this interests you, let me know! Thank you for your sweet words. Sending you much love, Meghan

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