How to Stay Sane With Screaming Kids
Any veteran parent knows the classic tricks for pre-empting tantrums: Avoid outings around nap time; stay one step ahead with an oversized bag of distractions to be unleashed in critical moments of need; offer choices; etc.
But as the parent of two young children who wear the label “spirited” with gusto, I understand that even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
I’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom a bit on how we handle tantrums and make these tough times into teachable moments both for our children and ourselves.
- Punish behaviors, not feelings.
Many parents wear it as a badge of honor that the moment their kids throw a tantrum, they send them right into Time Out or ignore them entirely. “Giving attention to bad behavior will only further fuel it,” goes the prevailing wisdom. And they may be right. A child who learns his tantrums will get no response may indeed cease tantrum.
But one day, a friend who worked as a professional counselor and whose parenting I admire just stated matter-of-factly, “We don’t punish tantrums.” Her 6 children (yes, you read that right!) are well-mannered, independent, and disciplined. So I kept listening…
She explained that she views her role as a parent more broadly than “extinguisher of bad behaviors.” She wants her kids to learn that anguish is met with appropriate sensitivity rather than indifference or punishment. After all, adults lose their tempers or need to cry sometimes too. How would we feel if those around us responded by punishing or ignoring us toward the end of teaching a lesson?
While my friend doesn’t punish tantrums, she’s no pushover when it comes to enacting consequences for poor behavior. The guardrails are consistent and her children know them well.
We’ve since adopted this logic in our household. Our children don’t get punished for having negative emotions. But they do for whining, disrespect, or bad behavior.
2. After the storm, a hug.
Tantrums are a lot like hurricanes. You can board up your windows and pack a disaster supply kit, but you can’t do much to stop the thing itself. It just has to run its course.
So let it. It’s not an indication you or your child have done something wrong.
Since young children may feel frightened by the intensity of their emotions, I like to check in every few minutes with the offer of a hug.
3. Coping with your own tantrum.
Do you feel like you’re ready to have a tantrum of your own after hours of being around screaming children? I notice there are at least two types of personalities that seem to have the hardest time coping with tantrums, which are not mutually exclusive:
- An intense temperament
If you’re a bit on the Type A side, tantrums can raise your blood pressure fast.
If you’re introverted, being around kids can be challenging in long durations since you’re more sensitive to noise and may have little ability to re-group.
It’s important to develop coping mechanisms if this is a challenge for you:
- Know when you’re at your limit.
When you can feel yourself losing it, try to steal yourself away for a few minutes to calm down. Ideally another adult can take over, but if they can’t, put the kids in a safe place – even if they’re still wailing – and leave the noise for a little to breathe.
- Use breathing exercises.
The friend I mentioned earlier explained that sometimes she has to breathe through the tantrums like a labor contraction. She tells herself that the pain is intense but it will pass and she can do it.
Physical activity helps manage overall stress level, which in turn makes it easier to cope with tantrums.
- Consider therapy.
Sometimes there’s something in your own makeup – whether your brain chemistry or your past experiences – that makes tantrums particularly stressful. Exploring these emotions with a professional can be beneficial.
- Apologize when you lose your cool.
At some point all of us experience our emotions getting the better of us. When this happens, apologize to your child for losing your temper.
4. This too shall pass.
There are days when the best coping mechanism will be to remind yourself that they grow up, and that hard as it is to believe, someday you’ll miss this phase.
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