Thursday 18 January 2018

How do I deal with my tantrum-throwing child?

David Coleman

David Coleman

I would really appreciate advice on how I can deal with the behaviour of my five-year-old daughter. When we knock heads I really don't know what to do. An example is what happened the other night.

She wanted a special night-light for her teddies and although we searched we couldn't find anything that would satisfy her so she started to whine (I think she was over-tired). I tried to reason with her, distract her and get her to move on to getting into her pajamas. However, she got more and more upset and refused point blank.

Eventually she roared at me and I responded by yelling at her. I told her that I would not read her a story and that she was to go to bed.

She shouted back at me and told me "No" she would not go to bed. Then she started hitting me and she kept leaving the bedroom and roaring at me and crying and eventually I went downstairs. I got so frustrated that I told her that I didn't want to see her because her behaviour was so bad -- to get out of my sight.

After a while she came crying down the stairs again, very upset, telling me that she was sorry. She tried to hug me and I was feeling so bad at this stage that I did cuddle her and we did sort things out enough that she was able to get into bed and fall asleep.

I feel I handled this so badly. Any advice would be very welcome.

It is very disheartening to live with constantly escalating rows and tantrums. It is really helpful to have such a clear example of how a simple issue can quickly grow into a full-blown tantrum, a common occurrence in many homes.

You say that you don't know what to do, and yet you do many things very well. For example, you identified right at the start of the incident that your daughter was over-tired and that this was probably linked to her whinginess and whining.

Once you recognised this then there is little point in reason and rationale, because over-tired children have moved past the point of clear and rational thinking.

The most effective response to tired and cranky children is lots of empathy, while still holding firm to your intention to get them into bed as quickly as possible.

In your situation, your reasoned arguments about (I'm guessing) why you couldn't sort out a light till the next day didn't soothe your daughter's disappointment at all. Therefore she became louder and more insistent in trying to make her point.

Another key point in the escalation of the tantrum happened when you yelled back at her. This is typically a sign that we too have moved past the point of rationality and are being driven entirely by our own feelings (of frustration or anger in this case).

We rarely make good or helpful choices when we are blinded by anger.

So, in addition to the empathy, it will really help you to dig deep into your reserves of patience so that you can stay calmer for longer.

If you also get angry then her anger or distress, too, will spiral up in intensity.

Indeed, it was at this point that things really escalated and your daughter started hitting you in addition to her screaming. It was good that you gave her some space at that point, because she sounded really out of control.

However, when you told her that you didn't want to see her and to get out of your sight, I imagine she experienced a terrible feeling of rejection.

Suddenly your daughter was probably afraid that you had stopped loving her and that you hated her. You probably felt angry and guilty all at the same time.

In your situation, a great way to avoid sounding rejecting, while still giving your daughter some space is to say: "You sound really upset and angry and now you are hitting me, which is not okay. I am going to leave you alone for a while until you and I feel calmer and then we can sort this out."

Withdrawing with this message is very different and won't seem rejecting.

It is really positive that when your daughter eventually came down, upset, possibly scared and ready to make up you did respond warmly and soothingly. At that stage your daughter probably felt quite overwrought and it was important that she had you to help her to regulate her feelings.

Indeed, all through your interactions with your daughter you will find that it helps if you can regulate her feelings for her. She is only five and so will struggle not to simply react, behaviourally, to whatever feeling comes to her.

The more you can recognise that her behaviour (crying, screaming, hitting) is an expression of her feelings, the more effective your response can be.

Instead of simply reacting to her behaviour with distraction, reason or consequences you can react with empathy to help her deal with her feelings such that she doesn't need to keep showing you her distress.

Your goal is not to try to prove yourself to be the more powerful; rather it is to show yourself to be understanding. By helping her to understand and deal with her feelings you won't have to 'knock heads' with her and many tantrums will be avoided.

We won't always feel that we get every situation 'right'. Indeed there are few absolute rights and wrongs in parenting.

Children are resilient and forgiving, however, and that means that as long as we are always trying to do it better, or at least differently, the next time that will be good enough.

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