If you have a two, three, four, or five-year-old, then there is a good chance you have the pleasure of experiencing at least one full-blown, level 10, code red temper tantrum every single day.
Our youngest is now five-years-old.
I’d say the temper tantrums at this age are less frequent.
But what they lack in frequency, they make up for in intensity.
A few kids ago, I handled temper tantrums differently than I do now.
And I’m certainly not perfect in dealing with them.
But back in the day, I used to believe that the best and most effective way to deal with a tantrum was to punish.
Dole out consequences.
The longer the tantrum went on, the worse the punishment became.
YOU ARE IN A TIME OUT UNTIL YOU STOP CRYING!
IF YOU DON’T STOP CRYING, YOU ARE LOSING TV TIME!
THE LONGER YOU CRY, THE LONGER YOU ARE GOING TO STAY IN YOUR ROOM!!!
I don’t know about you, but my kids have some serious endurance.
And so every time I tried to stop a temper tantrum with threats and punishment, the only thing I succeeded in doing was 1) intensifying the tantrum, 2) becoming increasingly infuriated myself and 3) handing out a whole bunch of empty threats.
I also used to think that my kids were just being total assholes when they were throwing these epic fits, and that I needed to make them understand how unreasonable they were being.
And that my punishment must not be severe enough.
I’d need to make the consequence even worse. Then the tantrums would start to disappear.
The more I ramped up, the more they ramped up!
Nothing got better.
But it definitely often got much worse.
So maybe it took me to the seventh kid to understand that tantrums are your kids’ way of communicating with you.
Not just their way of trying to make your life hell.
What I know now is that kids aren’t misbehaving because they are rude and lacking all self-control or because they don’t know right from wrong.
They are acting out because they have a mistaken goal.
The deepest desire of all human beings, not just children, is to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
We all want attention. We all want to feel important. We want to have a say in what goes on in our lives and the decisions that affect us.
I certainly want all these things in my marriage.
I want my husband to pay attention to me. I want to feel important to him. And I want to have a say in how we run our home and the decisions we make regarding our kids.
Our children want the same things.
Your kids want your attention. They want to feel important. They want to feel like they have some say in what goes on in their lives.
And when they don’t feel these things, they don’t feel like they belong or that they are significant, and they make it pretty clear.
They let you know through rebellion. They let you know through defiance. They let you know through retreating. They let you know through temper tantrums.
They are not trying to be jerks.
They are trying, often unsuccessfully or unhealthily or ineffectively, to communicate with you.
Their behavior, their mistaken goal, is attention or power or revenge or assumed inadequacy.
If your kid is bugging the sh*t out of you, it’s because she (mistakenly) thinks she is only important when you are keeping busy with her.
If your kid is throwing a massive fit, it is because he (mistakenly) believes this is the best way to get some control over the situation.
If your kid is retaliating, hurting people, and destroying things, it’s because she believes she doesn’t belong, so she’s gonna hurt everyone else so they don’t belong either.
And if your kid is retreating and not trying anymore, he is feeling inadequate. He believes he doesn’t belong, and there is no use in trying because he’s never gonna get it right or make you happy anyway.
If you look at all your kids’ behaviors, they will fall into one of these categories.
Back to the temper tantrums….
Number 7 can throw a good temper tantrum.
Sometimes these happen just because she’s exhausted or she’s coming down with something.
But most of the time, the reason behind them is the mistaken goal of power.
If she throws a big enough fit, she will get her way. She’ll have the power. She’ll have control over what is going on.
We had one of these episodes two days ago.
And what it came down to was that I had told her I wanted her to clean her room up.
She had also given me a dollar that was hers to hold onto a few days earlier so she wouldn’t lose it. (She was actually afraid her sister was going to steal it, so she asked me to keep it safe).
We forgot about the dollar, and then, of course, she remembered about it as soon as I asked her to clean up her room.
I told her I would help her clean her room, and that when we were done, I’d go find her dollar downstairs.
And then the meltdown from hell ensued.
I’M NOT CLEANING MY ROOM UNTIL I GET MY DOOOOOLLLLLAAARRRRR!!!!!!
She screamed that at the top of her lungs repeatedly until she ended up in a Helen Keller rage on her floor.
A couple years ago, I would have gone into threatening mode almost immediately. Or I would have put her in her room, held the door shut, and told her she had to stay in there until she calmed herself down and cleaned her room up. Or I would have put her in a time out until she stopped crying. Or I would have told her she now lost her dollar permanently.
But like I said earlier, my kids have some serious endurance.
I have held the bedroom door closed for twenty minutes in the past.
Twenty minutes of all out screaming. That is no fun for anyone in the house.
Plus, by the end of it, we would both be completely drained and the room still wouldn’t be cleaned up.
So what do I do now? How did I handle the dollar disaster?
There are plenty of different strategies that don’t involve threatening your kid.I don’t always employ them. I still forget. She can still get under my skin.
But I’m much better now at dealing effectively with this behavior and not totally overreacting to it.
Sometimes she works herself up so badly that asking her if she wants to just sit on my lap with her blankie helps her calm down. Sometimes, when I’m fairly rested and have more patience than normal, I’ll just ignore her. But I have to be feeling particularly strong to do that one.
I do try to acknowledge her anger. I mean, when someone does something to me and I’m pissed off, I like to be acknowledged for that.
And then this time around, I tried to redirect her.
I had originally told Number 7 I wanted her to clean her room up. I wasn’t going to make her though. Which was part of the reason for the tantrum.
She didn’t want to clean her room, but really what she wanted was her dollar.
I had told her she didn’t have to clean her room, but if she chose not to, I’d hold onto the dollar until she did. That’s what pushed her over the edge.
So ultimately, the fit wasn’t about cleaning the room, it was about the dollar.
As she was freaking out on her bedroom floor, I sat down and started folding clothes.
She wasn’t helping at all.
But I wasn’t about to get into a comparison of who was doing more cleaning.
Sometimes just having the kid be in the room while you are helping is enough. Because they don’t even want to be in there.
As I was folding clothes, I figured we’d pick out her outfits for the next couple days.
I’d pick up a shirt and ask her, “Do you want to wear this tomorrow to school?”
She was starting to get distracted from the IWANTMYDOLLAR chant she had going on.
She basically said no to every single thing I held up, but in addition to distracting and redirecting her, I was also giving her some control in another area. So maybe she wasn’t getting the dollar, but she was getting some power in the form of choosing what to wear to school.
She’d stop the crying for a couple seconds, then realize she wasn’t screaming and start back up again.
But the intervals of crying were getting a little bit shorter, and the intervals of not crying were getting a little bit longer.
Then, I picked up a few pieces of paper that were on the floor, crumpled them up, and asked Number 7 if she could pull the garbage can out from behind her closet door for me.
Of course she screamed NO!!! at me.
So from where I was sitting on the floor, I took the wadded up ball of paper, and lobbed it over the closet door, trying to get it in the garbage can behind the door.
Number 7 saw me do that, stopped crying immediately, jumped up, and went to look behind the door to see if I made the shot.
And then she said, “I WANNA TRY!!!”
She took her first shot.
Then she looked behind the door to see if she had made it.
Then, I asked her if she’d pick up all the other papers on the floor. She could make them into balls and see how many baskets she could make.
The tantrum stopped immediately.
And now, without realizing it, really, she was cleaning up.
And she was even having fun.
She kept picking up papers and shooting baskets.
I kept folding clothes.
Now that she was calm, I asked her again what she wanted to wear as I was folding, and we got her outfits for the rest of the week picked out. And she had complete control over what she wore to school.
A year or two ago I would have battled it out with her until we were both exhausted and until I had taken every privilege imaginable away,
And the room still would have been a mess.
But not this time.
This time I changed the way I approached the situation. I didn’t give into Number 7’s tantrum and helped her understand that tantrums aren’t the way to get what she wants. I didn’t threaten or punish. I also didn’t feel guilty about the way I handled the situation.
I kept my cool, we spent some one on one time together, Number 7 contributed without the use of ultimatums, and outfits for the week were picked out.
In the end, Number 7 felt like she belonged and was significant.
And she finally got her dollar.