A child throwing a tantrum is certainly one of the most trying episodes for most parents. The patience and understanding required of a parent while the little (or big!) volcano erupts can be nothing short of heroic.
The truth is, while the child (volcano) is erupting, there’s not much a parent can do to stop it. That behavior is motivated by the child’s intense anger or rage, and the child is the only one who can control it. So, what is a parent to do? Here are seven suggestions.
1. Do not take it personally. Realize that this very unpleasant behavior on the part of your child is simply an immature expression of intense frustration. It is NOT a reflection on you as a parent, or as a person, or on your style of parenting. The child is expressing through this behavior much more about him/herself than about you. Tell yourself: “This isn’t about me. It’s about his/her frustration, and s/he does not know a better way yet of expressing it.”
2. If you are in public, ignore the people around you. See notes on “Not taking things personally.” Let them think whatever they want about you or your child. Their thoughts will not hurt you. This unpleasant even it not about you as a parent. It’s about your child’s needs and wants.
3. Make sure that the child (and less importantly, property) is safe, and will not be hurt. Remove objects that might be thrown or cause the child harm, or if necessary move the child to a safer location.
4. Remain calm and patiently wait it out. Do some mental gymnastics, and tell yourself that this behavior is not caused by you, it is your child’s anger and beneath the angry feelings there is a feeling of pain (which is always the case with anger). The pain is more than likely a blow to the ego! Try to put yourself in the child’s place and empathize with him/her, in terms of figuring out what kind of pain s/he is experiencing: for example, the helplessness of not getting their way, the powerlessness of not being able to control you, the fear that they will never be understood by you, the fear that you don’t love them, etc.
5. If you can, hang in there and remain present. Verbally reassure the child that you love her/him, and that you realize s/he is angry and maybe feeling frustrated, helpless, afraid, sad, or whatever you think the painful feeling is beneath the anger. If you can’t stand to stay with her/him, leave the room but say you will be happy to listen when s/he is finished.
6. Do not stoop to their level by yelling back. You can’t control volcano’s eruption, but you could make it worse by throwing gasoline on the flames.
7. After the storm blows over, look for an opportunity to use your listening skills and invite the child to talk about what made him/her so angry. Be non-judgmental, and verbalize your appreciation of whatever the painful feelings were that s/he seems to have been experiencing. If the child is receptive, use the occasion to teach how s/he might be able to “use the words” to express the feelings next time. See if you can help her/him resolve the problem the caused the pain/anger in the first place. Negotiate an agreement about how s/he will handle frustration the next time s/he gets angry. “Using the words” is the ideal way to get this explosive volcano to use a) the hole at the top of the volcano (mouth), and b) the power refinery that sits on top of the volcano (brain).
What’s most important in all of this is that you communicate that you love your child and understand how difficult it is to experience the frustration and pain (sadness, fear, helplessness, humiliation, etc.) that s/he was feeling. An added benefit is the opportunity to discuss the whole event later, and reassure the child of your love while also helping him/her learn to “use the words,” and maybe even to solve the problem that caused the eruption.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.