Tears are the low moods that children can get in and would need comfort to get through. Tantrums are a state of heightened arousal due to frustration. When your child is having a tantrum there is no point in trying to have a conversation with them. They have flipped their lid! Literally, the frontal cortex, their thinking brain, has flipped up as their amygdala, our emotional alarm system, has opened and caused the neocortex to become inactive. This is why we refer to a child as ‘activated’ when they are in this ragey state. They are at the mercy of their behaviours as they have lost all reasoning and rationalizing capacity, simply relying on their reptilian brain, the fight, flight or freeze response part, which is telling them to fight. In order to help them become rational again, they will need us to co-regulate and attune to them, to help switch off the amygdala and contain the flooding feelings of frustration which turned into an angry rage.
So, what do you do while your kid is trying to attack you or their sibling physically or verbally?
You need to make sure your other children are safely out the way, that you are safely out the way and then buckle up for the ride. Keep an eye on your child while they are in the full throes of their tantrum. Make sure they are not hurting themself and say short direct statements, such as, “I understand, I am here with you”. Anger needs validation so you can even say, “I get it, I would be mad in your situation”. Once anger is validated then the rage will hopefully start to subside and slowly the heightened child will become exhausted as the adrenaline and cortisol drains from their body, culminating in exhaustion. At this stage you can safely contain them in a hug and forgive them, letting them cry and be sad. Then a while later it is a great time to talk about what happened and devise a plan around what to do when they feel frustration bubbling up inside them again. Self-awareness is helpful and if they can understand that they are starting to feel anger, this is the first step to be able to regulate.
Use a calm down kit (can contain fidgets, playdough, bubbles, art stuff to draw or colour, putty, mini toys, a stuffy, a snuggly blanket/cushion, a small rock or crystal to hold etc.) – your child can even pack it themselves which helps the understanding around them using it when they have ‘big feelings’.
The child receives a sticker every time they can use a coping strategy when they have big feelings (see attached coping strategies).
Over praise when a child names their feeling.
Over praise when a child uses their calm down kit or coping strategies.
Practice the strategies with your child and do them in sync in the moment e.g., deep breaths of 4 in and 4 out imagining they are blowing out candles on a cake.
Shocking the nervous system can also help by giving the child a popsicle or older children may want to splash their face with cold water. A warm drink can allow regulation, just make sure they aren't still raging otherwise you may get it in the face!
If your child continually runs back to you to attack you during a rage this must not be accepted or tolerated, they must be contained physically (in a duvet for example), and enveloped in a safe bear hug to help them calm down. It is likely they cannot control their emotions and therefore need you to physically help them to contain themselves so that they can feel safe.
Direct short statements, such as, “anger is ok but hurting people is not” must be said and then it must be negotiated that the child can be let free when they agree to stop hurting others. They will need to be spoken to afterwards to uncover their side of the story, as it is likely they need to be heard and their anger validated before they can move on to the deescalating part of the process.
If you have two or more of your children arguing and starting to escalate there is a method where everyone can attentively listen to each child individually, a talking stick can be used where needed, and then you can repeat back and clarify what each child said so they feel heard and understood. You can wonder allowed how the situation could be handled differently next time (e.g., "I wonder what we should do to make this fair?") and the children will help you answer the question, coming up with suggestions. This is a skill-building activity that eventually creates harmony (for most of the time) in your family environment.
Kids typically want to do well but sometimes they cannot, particularly if they become triggered and feel unsafe; or if they feel out of control with their overwhelming feelings, which can be scary for them. A tantrum is just an explosion of pent-up emotion and sometimes is necessary, particularly in young children, as it allows a release. Allowing this natural part of growing up to occur and being with your child in this intense emotion, is saying to them that you love them and care for them whatever the circumstance. They do not want to tantrum, but sometimes it just happens and is uncontrollable. With your help, they will be able to start understanding their feelings and gaining control of their emotions. This will feel good and successful and will be a journey that you do together! Emotional regulation - co-regulate (take deep breaths if you need to as well!), attune, validate, set limits, de-escalate, regulate, and plan for next time! You can do it together! It is ok if you get triggered too, this is a normal, empathic response. Take deep breaths, walk away or do what you need to do to regulate, and then you can help your child with these intense feelings! You've got this!