Effective strategies for helping kids deal with runaway emotions/tantrum
October 6, 2015 8:01 AM   Subscribe

What successful strategies have you had for helping a kindergartener/young school age child deal with runaway emotions or prevent tantrums?
posted by drezdn to Human Relations (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I really love the gentle parenting advice on Nurshable.com and here are some of the posts she made regarding tantrums.
posted by jillithd at 8:19 AM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think we could answer this question a lot better if you elaborate a bit on what's happening. How often are the tantrums occurring? When and where? Are there certain things that are liable to set the child off? What does the child do during the tantrum (just screaming? does the child become violent?)

Thta information would be helpful to suss out whether we're talking about:
- garden variety 5 year old drama and occasional tantrums when kid is overtired
- excessive quantity of tantrums that probably indicate an underlying problem needs to be addressed
- excessively violent tantrums that indicate a big focus on coping skills is needed
posted by telepanda at 8:21 AM on October 6, 2015

With the caveat that I'm not a parent, I've sat in on some 'mindfulness for kids' courses at my local sangha and observed a couple of things to be very helpful when it came to easing the onset of standard 4- and 5-year-old tantrums.

• Repeating their emotions back to them and asking them how those emotions make their bodies feel. The emotion-repeating makes the kid feel seen, heard, and validated, and the body observation grounds them and gives them something tangible to focus on. "I see that you're very [angry/scared/sad/overwhelmed] right now, and that's OK. I'm very sorry you're feeling bad, and I'm going to stay right here with you until you feel better. When you're [angry/scared/sad/overwhelmed], how does it make [your tummy/the tip of your nose/the bottom of your feet] feel?"

• Have a craft night and make some glitter bottles or jars. When the kid is calm, show them how shaking the jar makes the glitter floof up and cloud the water, but if you just wait a little while, the glitter settles and the water is clear again. Then you can draw a comparison between the glitter jar and our minds (lots of action = cloudy, minimal action = clear). When they're starting to feel upset, they can shake the jar [PDF]. Watching the glitter as it falls to the bottom will give them something cute and sparkly to focus on, time to breathe, and some distance from their distress.

If there's one consistent emotion that keeps popping up in the tantrums, a selection from this book series might help get to the root of it: What to Do When You Worry Too Much, What to Do When Your Temper Flares, What to Do When You Grumble Too Much.
posted by divined by radio at 8:57 AM on October 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

Step one is empathy and hugs. "You really wanted that toy! It looks like so much fun! It does. But it's not yours kiddo."

After that... kids can learn to "take deep breaths." it seems like a really good technique that even really little kids can practice, to get some control back over their own bodies. It's not magic, but over time they really can learn to do it, and it does help.

Distraction/redirection is a big one, of course. Best is if you can just scoop them up and move them to a different environment (at least a different room) which has something interesting in it to grab their attention. If that's not an option, just changing the subject can work at times, at least if you can hit on a topic that really interests them (like Halloween costumes!)

I've tried a little "mindfulness" techniques on my four year old with good results. After the sympathy and hugs and a few minutes of just letting my daughter cry, I start asking her about what she sees, what she hears, what she smells... I talk about what I see. "I see a shadow over there. It's kind of a triangle shape. I see the bumps on the ceiling. I see Daddy's fuzzy slippers. I hear the TV in the other room... I hear the air conditioner..." She will sometimes join in and sometimes not, but either way it seems to help her ground herself a little.

Also, I've spent a lot of time with my kids trying to help them identify their own emotional state, and realize that it will pass. I tell them it's like a storm. It's scary, but it doesn't last. I tell them "You seem really upset! I get upset too. I don't like it though. I feel much better when I calm down. Sometimes it takes me a little while, but I can calm myself down, you know? It takes practice. It's not easy, even for grown ups. But it's something we have to learn how to do."

Finally, I am usually prepared to just sit with them and wait it out if necessary, and honestly I usually wait for a while before I even try any of those other techniques, just to give them a chance to spend their energy and try to calm themselves a little first. Those other ideas don't work very well if they're still in full freak-out mode.

That's pretty much all I got. Some of that is from "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," which is my favorite parenting book for this sort of thing (and I've read a lot of them.) Some of that is from Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which is a show all about helping kids learn how to manage their emotions, which has good insights for grown-ups too, in my opinion. :-) My daughter used actually sing one of the Daniel Tiger songs to herself to help herself calm down when she was freaking out. "When you feel so mad that you want to roar... Take a deep breath, and count to four." And then she would. Now she'll sometimes sing that for her little sister.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:16 AM on October 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

We find that our kiddo really acts out when his expectations have not been prepared. If his expectations have not been prepared and he's left to his own devices to figure out what will be happening he often gets into what I call "wishful thinking", meaning, if we go to the store and I don't tell him beforehand what we are getting or more importantly what we won't be getting, he will get it into his head that he wants to get a toy, and we will get him one because hey, we never said we weren't getting one. So all the way to the store he's thinking "I'll get a toy!"and by the time we're at checkout and we say "no we're not getting a toy today" he flips out because he's built up the expectation in his own mind. When we tell him what will happen and what won't happen he's just like "oh, okay" and there's no incident.

Seconding everything above about just being present while they express hard feelings, and helping them narrate or sports cast those feelings.
posted by vignettist at 10:07 AM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

A long time ago when my eldest was going to playgroups, one of the moms would ALWAYS get her kids packed up and on the move maybe 1.5-2 hours into the playdates, which we usually planned 3 hours for.

Her thinking, and it's the smartest thing, was to always leave when you're still having a good time. You can always come another time and have more fun, but once you're hungry/angry/bored/tired, you can't leave happy.
posted by kinetic at 11:21 AM on October 6, 2015

Not sure of the context, but I always just leave my daughter alone when she does that. She has to work her own way out of the situation, nothing I say can help, and in fact if I try to help it just prolongs the situation. Once she's out of it, it's like it never even happened.
posted by Dansaman at 11:31 AM on October 6, 2015

Prevention is the best cure. Schedule only one outing per day (don't force a kid to go to the grocery store, dry cleaners, and the mall all in one trip). Provide necessary down time. Avoid all sugary snacks. Encourage child to go to bed around 7:30 pm. If you see the child is getting to the breaking point, stop what you are doing and redirect. The time that you spend with prevention may seem like a lot but it is nothing compared to the time you spend dealing with a tantrum and the after effects of a tantrum. It also will allow the child to feel that their needs are as important as everyone else's, which can prevent behavioral problems in the future.
posted by myselfasme at 12:37 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is, for some reason, outrageously priced at Amazon, but Mr. Rogers has a DVD called What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel? That I have heard is good.
posted by 4ster at 1:53 PM on October 6, 2015

Assuming garden-variety tantrums with no more sinister cause than being 5*, here are a couple of weird-ass things that work for my family:

1) When the tension is starting to rise, and the kid is getting grumpy, and I'm getting grumpy back, and I can feel that we're headed for a meltdown, I declare a 'GROUP GRUMP!' Where someone counts to three, and then everyone in the group makes the loudest, grumpiest sound they can. You can make a wounded yak noise, or just shout 'grump!', or whatever. We do this approximately three times. By the third time, everyone is usually giggling (self included) and the tension is significantly reduced.

2) I have a special toy, a Tangle. I got it as a quiet fidget toy for myself at work. It is *MY* tangle (this is important). For whatever reason, it has a dramatic calming effect on Micropanda. So, when he flips his lid, and just can't stop screaming, I sometimes ask him in a weighty and serious voice if he would like to borrow my Tangle to help calm himself down. There's something magic about it. It's become, like, this little magic talisman, and it's mostly magic because it belongs to Mom and she's letting him borrow this very important thing that must be returned as soon as he's calm.

Here are a few more generic things:

3) Just generally try to avoid excesses of tired, hungry, and unpleasant surprises. That's really at the root of a lot lot lot of tantrums.

4) Really praise the kid when they tell you their emotional state using words (even if it's a rude shitty tone of voice - still better than incoherent screaming). When they don't manage, narrate/sportscast and empathize like everyone else said above.

5) Tell the kid you love them no matter what. When my kid worried that I wouldn't love him if he didn't use good manners, it made him anxious and tightly-wound and more likely to fly off the handle. We have a little rhyme: "I love you when you're happy, I love you when you're sad, I love you when you're grumpy, I love you when you're mad." It visibly settles him.

6) Don't ever try to reason with a kid who's mid-tantrum. Get them cooled off first, then talk about what happened and how to avoid it next time. (Seriously, imagine the last time you were flaming mad at a loved one - how would *you* have reacted if they started in on you about how you shouldn't be mad and you were acting stupid [even if it were true]? That's pouring gasoline on a fire.) Empathetic but calm and slightly detached is the way to go.

*I only say this because our kid was having way excessive tantrums and it turned out there were some actual problems that, once addressed, made the number of tantrums diminish spectacularly.
posted by telepanda at 2:56 PM on October 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Mr. Rogers was recently added to Netflix, although I'm not sure about that specific episode.

Agreeing with the comment above regarding no sugar. It turns my very sweet little kid into a total ass. Some kids have similar reactions to food dyes, or other things (tomatoes, in our case). So it's worth taking a hard look at kiddos diet when they're acting out. Doesn't solve the immediate issue, but can prevent issues in the future.

On preview: Agree with letting kiddo know that you love them no matter what. My little was able to really get out so many feelings when he knew he had a safe place (with me) to do so.
posted by vignettist at 2:57 PM on October 6, 2015

The book The Explosive Child helped us tremendously. It was recommended to me a bunch. I avoided it for a while, because it seems mostly aimed at parents of children with ADHD and autism, where my kid is (afaik) neurotypical. But the advice is valuable for most people -- it's mostly about anticipating and short-circuiting tantrums. So, you learn what the warning signs are and how to catch the kid before the tantrum. Highly recommend.

If a tantrum does happen, I just sit with my kid and keep him (and me) safe until he's done. It's a feelings storm. He's not there. When it's over, we talk about what happened and how things might have gone differently. But in the middle of it, I just need to be a giant lighthouse of love, showing him that I'm not afraid of his big, scary feelings, even if he is, and that I'll see him safely through the storm.
posted by linettasky at 8:22 PM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

So I am not a parent, but I am a teacher of six year olds. When kids are melting down, I try to stay aware of my own emotional reaction and level of tension. Sometimes it's helpful to mentally step back from the situation because when I get more emotionally involved, they do too.

Children are learning all sorts of things about how to regulate their emotions and I think tantrums are destined to happen and knowing that it's a normal part of emotional development can be a relief in a way. It means you're not doing anything wrong as a parent.

One of the things I also try to do, as mentioned above, is try to re-voice what I'm noticing about their body language and inferring about their emotions, while establishing boundaries for their behavior. Example: I can see that you are very upset right now. Your face is telling me that you are feeling mad and you do not want to do X. That is okay to feel. You are allowed to be mad and upset right now. I can understand that you don't want to do X right now. In this space/in this family it is NOT okay to scream or hit when you feel upset. I am going to give you some space to let your feelings get calm and settled and then let's solve the problem when you are calm. Part of the later conversation is how the actions they chose in the emotional state affect others. Part of the lesson is that you don't always get the thing you want - This is important!

In a nutshell, give them language to express their emotions or model this language for them. Validate their emotional state but make very clear boundaries about what is appropriate and inappropriate. That's the teacher version anyway. I'm not as familiar with the parent version (and I only do discipline part time as the teacher!) so take what is useful.
posted by mermily at 2:50 PM on October 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, and also -- Sometimes you have to do things that you don't want to do (meant to add to the end of paragraph 3). That's the other one!!! The tantrum doesn't get them out of doing the thing once they have themselves together. Basically I am all ears for them being upset and mad (very mad, even!) but no ears for slamming the chair on the floor, kicking, opting out of the task [chore?], etc. etc.
posted by mermily at 2:57 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought of this thread the other night when my daughter was having an especially tough tantrum and I went through the whole bag of tricks in my previous comment and she was still freaking. Rather desperately, I pulled out a parenting book trick which I have rarely tried before: I encouraged her to hit a pillow. A lot. Harder. Harder! More!

That totally made her feel better. She was laughing by the time we were done.

I seem to recall that the same parenting books that recommend that technique also recommend "draw me a picture of how angry you are." I think I've pulled that one out a few times too -- furious scribbling can be a pretty effective outlet.

And then there's Daniel Tiger's "If you can't get what you waa-aant ... Stomp three times [stomp stomp stomp] and help yourself feel better."

Anyway, I didn't remember seeing those in the thread, so I felt the need to add them, for completeness. That pillow thing, man. A+, will encourage child to beat up home decor items again.
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:47 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

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