2 Main Principles:
- Maintain a regular schedule and follow established routines.
- Be consistent about rules and expectations.
Give choices wherever possible. LIMIT the choices to two options that you can accept.
Make sure that your choices can’t be answered by a Yes or a No.
Where possible, frame demands as choices. (“Do you want to wear your coat or your sweatshirt?” “Do you want to get in your car seat yourself or have me help you?”)
Give advance warnings when transitioning between activities or stopping an activity.
Limit your use of “no.” Think of alternatives to saying no.
Anticipate difficult situations and talk your child through them in advance. (“We’re going to go in the store and won’t stop at the toys; you can help me find the boots and when we’re done we’ll go home and play in some puddles.”)
Listen to your child, talk WITH your child, and have lots of “floor time.” Make sure that at least some of the time s/he is in charge of what you do together and how you do it.
Follow your child’s lead. If your child is in a “difficult” period (e.g., having frequent tantrums), take this as a sign that your child needs MORE unstructured time with you, even though you may feel less inclined to spend time together, given this phase.
When things begin to escalate, try to head off a tantrum by diversion or a change of scene.
Provide positive reinforcement (praise, a smile, a hug, an enthusiastic comment) for using words to convey what s/he wants and feels, rather than acting out negative emotions.
Provide positive reinforcement when your child calms himself/herself down. (“Wow! You were mad at Jake for pushing you – I would be too – but you found a book to look at to help yourself feel better. I’m proud of you.” “Boy, you were sure upset when you were yelling, but [parent smiles] you calmed yourself down and are feeling better, so now we can play some more!”
Provide positive reinforcement when your child behaves appropriately, especially in challenging situations.
Handling Tantrums When They Occur
Stay calm; take a deep breath; take a personal “Time Out” if necessary (“I’m feeling pretty upset right now; I need to go sit down by myself for a minute; I’ll be back soon”); keep reminding yourself of the developmental significance of tantrums – it’s not really misbehavior, and it’s not about you.
If this is a manipulative tantrum (i.e., designed to get your attention or to get you to do something) ignore if possible. “Ignore” in this case means don’t watch; stay present but turn away or direct your attention to something; look bored.
If it is not a manipulative tantrum, move in close to your child, as close as s/he will allow. (this works for Elliot) Many children will not want you to do this at first; respect that choice and behave accordingly, but as soon as your child begins to seem a little bit calmer, try moving closer and touching her/him gently. If s/he responds positively to this, you might offer a hug. Staying present is important because it communicates that you accept all your child’s feelings and that you will not reject her/him for “bad” feelings. Your presence also helps absorb and contain those out-of-control feelings. (Exception: If YOU are feeling angry, wait until you have calmed down; don’t move in close or touch your child when you are angry or you might frighten your child and escalate the tantrum.)
If the tantrum has not escalated too far, go through the “Emotion Coaching” steps with your child:
label the emotion; BRIEFLY state what the child appears to be feeling and
the apparent cause;
empathize (“I can see why . . .”, “I would be too if . . .”.);
pause and look at your child to see whether s/he feels you “got it”; if not, say more about what you think they might be feeling, in an empathic way;
then, after you think your child feels understood, state the limit (“But I can’t let you . . .”, “But we don’t ______, even when we’re angry”); and finally
offer or suggest an alternative (acceptable behavior, change of scene, substitute object, other outlet for feelings, etc.) (“Would it help to _____?” Would you feel better if __________?” “How about ___or _____instead?”)
Ensure the child’s safety, perhaps even verbalizing this to the child (for reassurance).
Ensure that the child can’t hurt you, other people, or objects in the environment..
When the tantrum is over, comfort your child and reestablish connection as soon as possible. If the tantrum was a reaction to a demand from you, once the tantrum is over repeat the demand and help the child comply.
WITH OLDER CHILDREN:
Afterwards (later that day, or the next day) talk with them about what led up to the tantrum and elicit their ideas about how the tantrum could have been avoided – what they could do in a similar situation, what they could do the next time they’re feeling that way.