Responding to tantrums with gentleness

Responding to tantrums with gentleness

As a toddler-mum, I am no stranger to tantrums. It seems that with every passing month of toddlerhood the tantrums are becoming longer, more intense… and harder to deal with. It’s part and parcel of parenting a toddler, I know this, but when I’m in the thick of those banshee wails and that angry, frantic flailing of limbs – I panic. Every time. I cannot reason with this tiny, ticked off little person. I cannot convince him to stop. I can’t even bribe him. His tantrums usually end with both of us reaching emotional exhaustion.

Recently, I noticed some blog posts and articles popping up around the place suggesting a patient, gentle response to tantrums. I wasn’t convinced. Cooing softly at a scrunched up, red little face didn’t sound like smart parenting to me. Treading softly around him and giving him what he wanted in order to keep his screaming to a minimum didn’t appeal either. To be honest, the whole gentle response thing seemed more like pandering and less like parenting.

Then I witnessed a gentle response in action.

I was on my way into a Café, and walked by a mum standing beside a crying little girl on the footpath. It was a tantrum in full swing, and I readied myself to issue the empathetic knowing smile, waiting for the inevitable huffy, “Stop crying! You’re being silly! I’m going to count to three! We’re going home right now!” You know, those standard panic-buttons we hit when the tantrums strike in public.

Instead, the mum sat down beside her, looked her lovingly in the eyes, and spoke to her gently, “I’m here. I know you’re upset. It’s okay. When you’re done crying, we can go back inside together.”

Did the little girl instantly stop crying? Of course not! When it comes to tantrums, there’s no magical off-switch. But the tantrum didn’t escalate, either. Mum and daughter sat together, waiting for the storm to pass.

Tantrums are based on:

-        Anger

-        A sense of injustice

-        Sadness

-        Fear

-        Uncertainty

None of these are pleasant feelings, and toddlers deal with them the best way they know how. They don’t have the ability to rationalise, and they don’t have a full grasp on perspective. So when they throw themselves on the floor in a full-blown tantrum, it’s because the world is ending. It seriously is. What I have learnt about responding gently and patiently when my toddler cracks it, is that it’s not about giving into whatever hair-brained idea has derailed him this time. It simply means being a soothing, safe place for him the whole time, so that when he stops for a breath, I’m there, loving him and cuddling him and telling him it’s okay. This is a stark contrast to the angry, fed-up, impatient mum he might have dealt with before – and I know which option would help me cheer up if I were in his shoes! Plus, as an added bonus, I find that concentrating on an intentionally gentle reaction actually keeps me calm in the face of a tantrum. His tantrum may not end any sooner, but it does end better – for both of us!

Here are my tips for keeping your cool and responding to tantrums with gentleness:

-        Pause. Breathe. Shake off any frustration that has started to build.

-        Avoid using phrases such as “Stop this now!”, “You’re being silly!” and “Don’t do that!” Instead, focus on responding with “I’m here”, “I know you’re upset” and “It’s not nice to feel angry, is it?”

-        Don’t try to rationalise with your toddler. Don’t try to distract him. All of his focus right now is on the big emotion he’s experiencing.

-        Get down to his level – standing over him when he’s feeling vulnerable can be intimidating

-        Be patient. Ride the waves and be ready to cheer him up when the screams turn to whimpers and he begins to listen to you once more.

-        When he moves on, you move on – don’t dwell on the tantrum or the reason behind it.

Gentleness isn’t generally our default response when it comes to tantrums, but with practise it can become second nature. Give it a try – see if it makes a differenc    

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