Chloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW
Why Teaching Your Kid How To Calm Down During Tantrums Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)
We've all been there: your five-year-old is in full meltdown mode, and your patience is wearing thin. As a parent, you may feel the strong urge to teach them a lesson right then and there. But is that really the best approach? In today's blog post, we're diving into why attempting to teach your child a lesson during a tantrum might not be the most effective strategy, and exploring better alternatives to help both you and your child navigate these challenging moments.
Knowing that tantrums are a normal part of development doesn’t mean we enjoy them! Most parents dealing with tantrums are eager to get their kids past this stage. In an attempt to stop future tantrums before they start, parents often find themselves trying to teach their child something in the midst of kids’ stomping feet, yelling, and big emotions.
It seems like the perfect teachable moment. They’re upset now, so why not teach them how to calm down right away? You muster up as patient and calm a voice as you can, and get on their level. You might try introducing a coping skill, like deep breathing. You may attempt to reason with them, explaining in words how throwing things won’t solve their problem. Maybe you’ll tell them about a time from your own childhood when you were upset. You’re hopeful that the next time they have a big feeling, they’ll remember what you said and things won’t get so out of hand.
Then, somehow, none of it seems to stick! The next time they’re angry, it’s like they’re starting from square one. No deep breaths, no reasoning, no memory of the story from when you were a kid! What happened?
Executive Functioning and Brain Development
First, let’s start from before the tantrum even started and talk about executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to a set of abilities that lays the groundwork for more advanced tools, like self-regulation and social skills. Examples of executive functioning skills include planning, prioritizing, and emotional control. Without strong executive functioning, those higher level skills are likely to develop more slowly, and to be more challenging for kids to master.
An important executive functioning skill is working memory. Working memory allows us to take in new information, store it, and apply what we learned to relevant situations later. Because young children are building the strength of their working memory, it may take many more repetitions of the same routine or lesson before it “sticks.” You may feel as if you’ve gone over a certain expectation, like staying near you in public, with your child 100 times, and still find that they have trouble remembering what to do. This need for reminders is normal! It may also take time for them to apply something they’ve learned to new contexts.
The part of the brain in charge of executive functioning is the prefrontal cortex, which is not done developing until about age 25! Between 18 months to 4 years of age, the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning has a lot of developing to do! This makes them prone to having tantrums. It also means that they may struggle to retain or apply what you are saying during a tantrum.
Learning Under Stress
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, and having a mild amount of stress can actually keep us engaged and open to learning. But, if the brain is overwhelmed enough, kids (and adults) actually can’t learn! If you’ve ever had a particularly stressful day, you may have noticed that by the evening, everything that happened feels like a bit of a blur. When our emotions are running high, our brain wants to attend to the stressors we’re dealing with. Learning something new is not the brain’s priority when emotions are heightened!
Many children experience significant emotional disregulation while in the thick of a tantrum. If this sounds like your child, they probably aren’t able to learn much during this time.
When is the Best Time to Teach Calm Down Skills?
With the understanding that children are not going to learn best mid-tantrum, you can now set them up for success by choosing more opportune moments.
When possible, catch a child between when they first start to become disregulated, but before they move into a full-blown tantrum. This is easiest for parents whose kids have a clear pattern of situations that lead to tantrums. For example, if you know that leaving the playground is likely to cause a tantrum, you could tell your child it’s time to go and follow up immediately with a coping skill. This could sound like: “We have five minutes left on the playground. Let’s do a wall push together to help us get ready to go. I can show you how! ” In these moments, kids have just enough stress to be tuned in, but not so much that they are too overwhelmed to learn, and what you are bringing to their attention is immediately applicable.
Some children escalate so quickly into tantrum behavior that triggers are easy to miss. It can be difficult to intervene with a coping strategy when time is extremely limited. If this is the case for your family, another option is to introduce new skills during times of calm. It may be a little harder for kids to apply what you teach them when they get upset, but they are still more likely to retain the information compared to when they are totally immersed in a tantrum.
Either way, practice frequently. Remember that repetition is key, and re-introducing the same concept in many different ways will yield results faster.
What Can You Teach A Child to Tame Tantrums?
1. Noticing feelings
One reason that young children become overwhelmed by their emotions is that they don’t see them coming like most older children and adults do! If they are better able to tune into their feelings and name them, they can then seek support before becoming totally disregulated. Very young children may find it easiest to identify concrete signs of big feelings, like clenched fists, tears, or frowning. Teaching a variety of feelings words is important, too!
2. Expressing feelings in healthy ways
Once kids can name their feelings, the next step is self-expression. Encourage your verbal
children to share with you about how they feel. Incorporate expressing feelings into your daily routine, such as a mealtime check-in. For kids that are not verbal or working on their vocabulary, you can use visual tools instead, like a feelings wheel with faces representing different emotions.
3. Safe Alternatives
Tantrums often include unsafe behaviors such as kicking and hitting. Ra
ther than telling kids to stop, tell them what they can do. Kids are unlikely to know where to direct their physical energy. Provide alternatives like squeezing a stress ball or hitting a pillow.
4. Coping skills
It’s not always practical (or possible!) to prevent a tantrum before it starts. We all get overwhelmed by emotions at some point, but coping skills are things to do that aid in de-escalation. Keep reading to learn about different types of coping strategies.
Fun and Effective Coping Strategies
Deep breathing is a popular coping strategy for kids and adults, and for good reason! When we intentionally shift our breathing, it affects our brains, bodies, and emotional state. There are dozens of kid-friendly breathwork options. You can find a list of techniques to encourage calming breaths.
Tuning into their senses can encourage mindfulness and calm in children. Weighted blankets bring some children comfort, while others may have a favorite scent you can add to play dough. Create a set of items that engage all five senses, and offer it when a big feeling starts to emerge.
Activate the Diver’s Reflex
A quick, free, and effective tool that kids can use on their own is to splash cold water on their faces in the sink, or dunk their faces quickly in a bowl of cold water. Cold water on our faces engages the diver’s reflex, which can reset the nervous system, naturally making us feel calmer. This one is great because it can also be used in other environments, like school, restaurants, or friend’s homes. While kids can probably splash or dunking their faces in cool water on their own, it is still important to have a caregiver present to ensure they are doing so safely.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This strategy involves tensing and relaxing various muscle groups, and has numerous benefits! PMR can decrease stress and anxiety while improving sleep and emotional regulation.
Create a safe, quiet area in your home where family members can go when managing big feelings or need alone time. If your child can help set it up, even better! Note that this space should not be presented as a consequence or obligation. While you can suggest using the calm-down space, and even encourage it, forcing a child to go or stay there is likely to cause more dysregulation. A child that might otherwise have enjoyed the calming corner may end up disliking it if they feel forced to go.
How to Teach Kids Calming Skills
Presenting information in a kid-friendly way is more likely to keep kids interested. Ideally, this involves play, hands-on experiences, and connection with you.
Incorporate Lessons Into Child-Led Play
During pretend play or an activity chosen by your child, involve a coping strategy or lesson, like having toy farm animals take deep breaths.
Model What You Hope to See
Although it may not always seem like it, your child pays careful attention to what you say
and do. Name your feelings out loud and describe what you do to feel better. Not only
does it normalize big emotions for your child, it also demonstrates that everyone, even
grown ups, use tools to manage them.
Use Social Stories
With puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, or anything you have at home that’s kid friendly, make up stories that are relevant to what you want your child to learn.
Read children’s books together
Kids love repetition– reading their favorite books over and over isn’t just normal, it’s part of healthy brain development! Children’s books focused on recognizing big emotions and keeping calm are a great way to introduce skills.
Listen to podcasts or audio books
Check out podcasts like Calm Kids or Like You
Give Positive Attention for Successes
Just attempting to name emotions or use calming strategies is a big deal for young children.
Celebrate your kids (and yourself!) when progress happens. For those children that thrive off of the attention they get from tantrums, this will show them that positive attention is even better!