Dealing with Strong Emotions by Michelle McHale

As a parent, being exposed to your child’s uncontrolled strong emotions can be daunting, frightening, uncomfortable or even embarrassing. Our lifetime of social conditioning tells us that emotions, for the sake of societal norms, need to be held largely in check. So when a child unleashes a fit of temper in innocence of the social context, the adult faces a huge challenge – they may feel the exact same as the child, overwhelmed and stressed but unlike the child they have awareness of options. Choosing an option with a positive outcome requires the same self-awareness and control we might simultaneously crave in our children at the height of a tantrum.

What is a tantrum?

  • An internal self-regulating healing tool to process hurts and stress
  • An emotional overspill, often unconnected to the actions of the moment
  • A sign your child is processing and trying to understanding events, feelings and/or environment
  • An expression of feelings which cannot be verbalised – an unrefined communication tool!
  • An action to be regarded with respect and sensitivity for what it uniquely represents
  • A reminder of your child’s emotional immaturity and emotional discomfort
  • A sign of lack of self-control which invites the adult to focus on this in themselves

Recognising Tantrums

  • Look for triggers – tiredness, hunger, thirst, fear, anxiety or over-stimulation usually play a part
  • What is the condition of the parent/child connection when a tantrum usually occurs? (are you trying to do too much and losing focus on your child?)
  • Notice patterns – does your child seem calmer after a tantrum, do they engineer situations where they will be denied something or deliberately seek to provoke a reaction?
  • Be aware of the context – what is going on for your child in their physical, mental or psychological development? Remember, your child isn’t just giving you a rough time but having a rough time
  • Look for the unmet need – is it physical or emotional? Is it about what is happening right now or is this the vehicle for previous unreleased feelings?

Supporting the Tantruming Child

  • Stay present, stay calm, stay listening
  • A child will not be able to listen well or rationalize your adult logic in the heat of a tantrum – listen empathetically, offer soothing words
  • Give language to the feelings to help your child identify what’s happening
  • Stay close to offer physical comfort and reassurance even when this might be rejected – hold the offer softly, lovingly and with acceptance for as long as it takes
  • Validate and verbalise the trigger with observations eg: ‘you feel really sad he took your pencil, and you didn’t know how to get it back’
  • Some children will accept the offer of drawing how they are feeling and this may bring them to a place of feeling understood having been able to express themselves more clearly

Supporting Yourself through a Tantrum

  • Recognise the feelings within yourself during a tantrum, meet those feelings, offer yourself the opportunity to be at ease with them
  • Have confidence you can stay calm – remember the gift of emotional maturity you possess – fear not these strong feelings, they are transient and cannot harm you or your child
  • Celebrate that your calm loving presence allows your child to fully explore their range of emotions and feel accepted for their authentic selves
  • Remember that children need parents most when they act their worst (when they need help most)
  • Focus on the child’s language, body and mind, rather than on those around you who may be observing
  • Free yourself from the idea that you need to remedy your child’s discomfort by rationalizing or distracting when the child continues to show signs of needing to vent or cry
  • If the child becomes hysterical, try to change the environment and focus on something to help bring the child back into themselves
  • A tantrum is not an indicator of parental or child failure – you cannot manage a tantrum, simply respect it and meet it with empathy
  • Remember that your child is learning how to handle emotions even when it feels like they don’t know how to – this is all part of a process which you can support in a positive way
  • When a tantrum is at its most intense, remind yourself of the calm which usually follows a storm

After the Tantrum

  • Positive Discipline focuses on understanding motivations for behavior – look for the feelings behind the actions remembering that anger is a secondary emotion and a different feeling often lies beneath. Look at the context of your child’s current developmental stage, physical environment, health and emotional well-being
  • If your child is verbal, discuss how they felt and invite them to suggest different solutions to the situation which triggered the tantrum. You may be able to discuss what happened and the feeling it gave them and then invite them to discuss what they would have ideally liked to have happened and the feeling that then comes up for them – this allows them to rewrite events which may feel troubling or a cause of anxiety
  • Even your pre-verbal child may respond well to you putting into words their emotions if you use age-appropriate language
  • Empathy toys such as Kimochis or Feeleez can help pre-verbal children recognize and explain different emotions
  • Fantasy play for young children in which you can model how to express strong emotions in a safe and positive way supports children in learning how to ‘act out’ these intense feelings

Resources

Books 

  • Raising Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort
  • Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen
  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
  • Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everday Parenting Problems by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, Stephen Glenn

Links 

Learn more 

Attachment Parenting’s accredited Positive Parenting course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on tantrums, power struggles and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.

 Michelle McHale

Michelle McHale

About the Author

Michelle McHale is the mum of 2 girls aged 7 and 5 years and is the founding director of APUK, a writer and speaker. An experienced support group leader herself, Michelle trained with Attachment Parenting International and now manages the thriving APUK community nationwide. She is the creator of the upcoming School of Attachment Parenting offering an online e-course in Positive Discipline as well as a collaborator in the unique ‘Love Parenting Project’ offering pay-it-forward coaching to parents. A keynote speaker at the Mumsnet Bumpfest Conference she is an enthusiastic advocate of Attachment Parenting and self-care.

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