On a crisp spring evening last year, a dozen parents gathered together anxiously to watch our 6 year old kids during their very first t-ball practice.
With a sparkle in our eye and a goofy grin on our faces, we anxiously watched our little ones awkwardly pick up the bat, preparing to hit the ball off the tee for the very first time. A hush fell over us as we all tried to calm down enough to just enjoy the moment.
Our excitement filled the air.
Each kid confidently walked up to the tee, knowing for sure they could hit a home run the first time around. As they picked up the bat, and swung it with the force and determination only a 6 year old possesses.
One by one, they each missed. They tried swinging harder, and faster, and sometimes, they’d catch a lucky break. Every time the parents would erupt into raging cheers that SOMETHING had actually happened.
The sight was adorable, but the coach decided those weren’t the odds he wanted when playing a game.
He paused the practice to teach the kids something new- the right approach to hitting the ball with proper form and technique.
Right hand over left, feet apart, face the ball, elbow up, eye on the ball, swing!
Sure enough, as they nailed the approach, one by one they started actually hitting the ball, on purpose!
So it is with parenting. I often feel like a 6 year old beginning t-ball player, trying desperately to calm down a tantrum. I end up using everything I’ve seen and trying unsuccessfully replicate it. I try harder to have patience, to do what I see others doing. I try to be tough, maybe that is the missing ingredient, but no matter what, I make the tantrum worse.
A Simple Approach to Calm Down a Tantrum
Parenting is hard enough as it is. The thought of going through 5 steps, taking deep breaths, or doing anything other than trying to survive in the heat of a meltdown is frankly unrealistic.
When coming up with strategies for you, I made sure to list only those that will give you the most bang for your buck with the least amount of effort. It’s all about simple and effective!
The following strategies contain the easiest approach to addressing even the most strong willed, explosive, determined, stubborn, kids. Yes, that means your kid can benefit from this exact approach.
1. Resist the Urge to Fight
The ability to calm down tantrum in full swing is like trying to stop a freight train in it’s tracks. It simply won’t happen without mass casualties.
Having said that, I have found there are ways to keep it from getting bigger, which have proven to be worth their weight in gold.
Fighting an ongoing freight train isn’t recommended, but slowing it down is absolutely possible ONLY IF you are able to get in the driver’s seat.
During a tantrum, imagine your child is in the driver’s seat, rather than trying to fight to see who gets that seat by being bigger, louder, or more threatening, this time you both get a spot on the seat, deciding where to go together.
That happens when you take a moment to pause, and simply ask an open ended question like these has the power to put you both in the driver’s seat.
- “Tell me why”
- “Can you explain?”
- “How do you think it should be done?”
While you decide the end destination (or result of the situation), maybe your child can determine how to get there. The driver’s seat is shared and everyone is happy!
2. Calm the Body
Most of the time, when tantrums start, there’s no stopping them.
Trying to fix the situation only makes it worse, which leaves parents feeling helpless and defeated. The only options seem to be “give in, or ride out the tidal wave.”
We all know there’s no reasoning with a child during a tantrum because at that time, emotions are high, logic is at an all time low, and the world seems to be on the verge of collapse.
The one thing a parent can do is offer a way for the body to calm down. No feelings have to be talked about, solutions don’t have to be offered, no words even need to be spoken. If the body can have a few moments to relax, everything else seems to come together afterwards.
The best way to do that is to offer (not force or demand) one of these powerfully calming activities (also called sensory activities) that are proven to calm the nervous system;
- Offer a Cool Down Spot
- Give deep pressure (like a bear hug)
- Gentle rocking movement while holding your child
- Gentle bouncing movement while holding your child
A child’s body is calmed in powerful ways with any of these options. Often, these are referred to as deep pressure or proprioceptive activities to balance out the sensory system. Doing that allows the brain to think more clearly, emotions to calm, and the stars can realign once again.
Related: Wondering if your child’s sensory system needs more balance? Download this free Decoding Sensory Workbook.
Ok, maybe it doesn’t affect the solar system, but some days it sure feels like the world functions better when my kid is happy.
Which is where the next step in the approach comes into play.
3. Say the Words They Can’t Say
After my son threw himself on the ground in what seemed the hundredth tantrum that day, I went to my neighbor in desperation. Her sound advice that afternoon will stay with me forever.
“If you can’t stop it, look him in the eye and let him know you at least hear it.”
I was surprised by her simple response. It seemed too easy. But, the more I’ve used it, the more I see it makes perfect sense.
As a child development major studying special education, I quickly learned “all behavior is a form of communication”.
Most behavior is simply a way of kids trying to express the strong feelings they have inside. It’s like a constant game of charades…but much more annoying.
Imagine not having the words to say
- “I feel stressed”
- “I’m really frustrated”
- “I can’t deal with this right now.”
The thought of having those words taken away from me makes me want to fall on the ground in a tantrum, too.
When kids are given the words they don’t yet have, it allows them to feel heard, and takes away the need to melt down at the drop of a hat.
In the midst of a tantrum, validating phrases like this can help calm down those big feelings and replace them with words:
“It looks like you are really upset.”
“I hear you saying you are mad.”
“I can see that you are frustrated.”
“It seems like you don’t want that.”
If your parenting efforts are resulting in mostly foul balls or complete “misses”, it might be time to change up the approach.
By implementing these three steps into your parenting approach you are bound to start hitting some home runs. The best part is, your child will now be on your team, rooting for you, and winning right along with you!