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Tackling Tantrums - 4 tips for responding

Updated: Feb 16, 2023


It's not easy to know what to do when the tantrum hits. Each time can feel different depending on your capacity to cope with the situation at that point in time. To help our children change their behaviour, we must change our own behaviour! There are many strategies we can and should use to prevent behaviours from occurring in the first place. But, there are still times when we might not get it right or something unexpected happens and the tantrums are on ON!


Use the tips below to get success with reducing tantrums. The first step starts with YOU.


Tip #1 - S.T.O.P

The first step in the process of responding to tantrums and inappropriate behaviours is to S.T.O.P (Phang, Keng, & Chiang, 2014). Once you practice this a few times it can be a quick process that only takes a few seconds to go through. Then you are ready to respond to your child.


S- Stop what you are doing and check in with yourself. Notice how you are feeling in that moment.


T- Take a breath. This helps to reduce the physiological reaction your body is having when in a high stress situation.


O- Observe and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings that are occurring in the present moment. Do not judge yourself, anything is okay. Just observe. Use your senses to observe the environment- what do you see, hear, smell, feel.


P- Proceed with full awareness and using a strategy based on the level of capacity you have at that moment in time.


(Phang, Keng, & Chiang, 2014)

Tip #2 - Give In - the "emergency response"


Yes, that's what I said. It's okay to give in and you don't have to feel guilty for it!

If you realize after going through the S.T.O.P steps that you don't have the capacity to work through a meltdown or prompt your child to interact appropriately then give them what they want. Give them the popsicle at dinner time, give them the hugs and attention they are screaming for or tell them they don't have to tidy their room anymore before they get iPad time. Your response should stop the tantrum and help re-establish calm (to a certain extent at least!).


The important thing to be mindful of is that by using this strategy you will reinforce your child's behavior. This is okay as long as you don't use this strategy all of the time. If you do use this strategy all of the time your child will learn that whenever they don't like a situation they can use the inappropriate behavior to get what they want or avoid what they don't want.


If you use this strategy it is extremely important to take time to reflect afterwards. You should make a plan for how to PREVENT the behavior in the future and how you will TEACH the skills your child needs, to cope with the next time the situation arises.


Write down what 'triggered' the behavior (this is called the antecedent), what the child was trying to communicate, gain or escape by the behavior, and how they should act next time. This will help to guide you to use strategies to prevent the behavior. It will also help you to determine the skills you need to practice before the 'real life' situation occurs again.


"To help our children change their behaviour, we must first change our own behaviour!"

Tip #3 - Re-direct

This strategy is referred to as 'planned ignoring'. This involves not responding to your child when they are in 'meltdown mode'. You avoid eye contact, don't talk to them directly and act as if all is great (try to not show the emotions you are feeling inside at this moment). This should all be done while ensuring your child is safe, of course. You can keep an eye on them by using your peripheral vision or subtly glancing in their direction without giving eye contact.


This strategy helps to teach children to self-regulate and re-direct themselves when they didn't get what they wanted.

DO NOT use this strategy if your child is physically injured! It is important that you provide the care and support your child needs to ensure their safety.


Next, you will start to play with toys, interact with other children or play with an activity that your child is likely to be interested in. Act like you are having an amazing time! Once your child's inappropriate behavior stops, you can praise your child (e.g. "Nice quiet Tom". If you child comes over to join in the play you can interact with them and include them in the play. If your child starts to engage in the inappropriate behavior again, flip back to the 'planned ignoring'. Eventually, your child will calm and re-direct themselves to another activity.


Note: when you are using a new strategy and your child isn't getting what they want anymore, you will notice an increase in the inappropriate behaviour before it decreases. This is because the strategy your child was using in the past (inappropriate behavior) isn't working anymore, so they "up the ante" and try harder to get what they want. If you can hold in there, the behavior will eventually reduce... BUT... I recommend Tip #4 over this strategy.


Tip #4 - Teach

This will give you the best outcome. The process is:

  1. Ignore the inappropriate behaviour.

  2. Prompt an appropriate behaviour (e.g. if they want your attention, physically prompt by gently taking your child's hand to tap you and tell them to say "daddy" or "mummy").

  3. Reinforce the new appropriate behaviour by giving them what they want (e.g. attention).

I know giving your child what they want isn't always an option even if they do ask nicely. But, as much as possible use this strategy to replace the inappropriate behaviour. For children who are not using verbal language or who lose their ability to communicate expressively when they are heightened, I recommend using printed visuals that represent what they want (e.g. get them to hand you a picture of chips if they can't say "chips")


Practice, practice, practice... determine WHY your child is engaging in behaviours and what skill your child needs to learn. Then set up mini practice sessions where you describe what they have to do. Make these practices easy and achievable for them and teach the correct response. Ensure that you reinforce them for responding correctly even if they needed prompting.


I will expand more on what to do in situations where you can't give your child what they want, in future posts... so, keep following!


Remember:

  1. S.T.O.P

  2. Choose your strategy

    1. Give in (it's okay!)

    2. Re-direct

    3. Teach (recommended)


For more information or to book a free consultation to see if we can help, contact us now!


References:

Fuller, J.L., Fitter, E.A. Mindful Parenting: A Behavioral Tool for Parent Well-Being. Behav Analysis Practice13, 767–771 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00447-6


Phang, C., Keng, S., & Chiang, K. (2014). Mindful-S.T.O.P.: Mindfulness made easy for stress reduction in medical students. Education in Medicine Journal, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.5959/eimj.v6i2.230.

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