Dealing With Tantrums: Address The Need, Not The Emotion

We have a new nightly routine in our house. My daughter takes a bath with a couple Barbies in tow. She has a bedtime snack, normally my favorite Minute Maid popsicle, because she thinks it’s funny to eat them all before I get a chance. We read two books, one of her choosing and then Momma’s Choice. And after that nice calm routine, she proceeds to get out of bed every five minutes for the next hour, asking to go to the bathroom or for a drink of water or to find a stuffed animal she’s misplaced. Over and over and over again, she comes out of her room. Sometimes, she just wants to tell me she loves me.

Inevitably, I get frustrated or exhausted enough to get that sharp twinge in my voice when I say, “Get back in bed!” Or maybe I tell her “No” when she asks for a drink. That’s quickly proceeded by screaming, kicking and a whole lot of toddler tantrum mess. There’s tears, sobs and I am constantly reminded that my daughter and I will never be best friends ever again. My heart breaks just a little (or sometimes a lot).

I’ve tried to deal with these meltdowns in a variety of ways. I’ve held my daughter close, trying to coo and rub her back until she can calm down and lay in her bed. I’ve promised all of her favorite activities the following day, trips to the park and all the Play-Doh she can handle, if she’ll just settle and go back to bed. And I’ve tried to sternly remind her that screaming and hitting are not how we solve our problems. I’ve stood up straight, crossed my arms and arched my brow in the best disciplinarian pose I can muster.

I wish I could say that any of these are completely successful. They aren’t. None of my techniques can stop a tantrum in its tracks. Each and every option still makes me feel like a horrible mother once I’ve finally shut the door to my daughter’s bedroom. I’m pretty sure that I’ve cried myself after employing each of these techniques.

So what do we do? Well, I turn to professionals like child psychologist, Dr. Erika Montgomery, because honestly, I’m running out of ideas here. Thankfully, I have a wonderful resource to help us out with our night time dramatics.

So first things first, Dr. Montgomery explained a little bit about tantrums in general. “Tantrums always serve a purpose; whether expressing an emotion or communicating a need (attention, want, hunger, sleep, affection, etc.).” I think this makes sense. Young kids have a hard time communicating emotions, tantrums are often the only way they can figure out to express negatives like frustration or anger. Part of my frustration with these tantrums though, is that my daughter can talk. We have lots and lots of conversations about everything. So why are we still having these problems?

“We must understand that children who have language may still be emotionally immature and we as parents can teach them how to use their words to express their emotions by labeling their emotion in the moment (i.e. You look sad, tired, seem frustrated or excited…).” I have to admit, this bit makes me feel a little guilty, because it’s completely true that even though my daughter is only three and a half, I look at her like a little adult. She’s intelligent and thoughtful, and I forget that she’s still trying to figure out what her emotions are and how to handle them.

So, any overall tantrum tips? “A general guideline for responding to tantrums is to not react to the emotion but help her child communicate their need by asking them simply, “what is it that you need?” Then respond to their need appropriately.” But each child is different, so in the eye of the storm, a mother has to trust her instinct on the best way to approach each individual child. “Some children can be taught to communicate their need for a hug, gentle word or guidance to calm themselves, while others need to be left alone so they can calm themselves. After they calm, however, stay firm to your rules or decision.”

Tantrums are stressful and frustrating, for both the parents and the child. At the end of the day, kids are trying to communicate feelings that they aren’t capable of explaining. It’s up to the parents to figure out just what their needs are and how to help. That doesn’t make you a push-over, it makes you receptive to your child and their development. Even when my daughter was being defiant, it was her way of expressing something that she couldn’t put into words. Now it’s my job to unravel that riddle and help her get what she’s missing out of our bedtime routine.

Wish us luck. And sweet dreams!

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