Taming the Tantrum
As adoptive parents, you prepared for the challenges of bringing a child into your family, but in the moment your child is having a complete meltdown – for the second time today- you may feel at a loss for effective tools. Here are some ways to manage a child’s escalating behavior that you can use and pass on to those who may also spend significant time with your child.
When your child is having a tantrum, start by trying to recognize the difference between an “upstairs tantrum” and a “downstairs tantrum,” as coined by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their book, The Whole-Brain Child.
The “Upstairs Tantrum”
An upstairs tantrum can be commonly seen in your local superstore. Your child is clearly upset but still able to interact.
“But I want the toy! Toy, Mommy! Toy!”
“Not today. We’ll pick out something next week.”
“No! I want one now!”
This type of tantrum can also be observed when your child stops crying when you step out of the room but then follows you and starts up again when they’re sure they are in your sights.
According to Siegel and Bryson, “upstairs” represents how your child is able to use higher levels of brain function, where reasoning and logic impact thoughts and behavior. This type of behavior often comes from a child with limited coping skills; this may simply be a default effort to change your mind.
Your child will continue these types of tantrums as long as they serve him well. This is where setting limits and giving alternative choices is appropriate:
“You cannot get a toy today. You may choose your cereal or help me push the cart. Which would you like to do?”
This approach allows you to redirect their behavior and then work with them on developing more complex skills, like asking and negotiating, which can help reduce the frequency of this type of tantrum.
The “Downstairs Tantrum”
A “downstairs tantrum” is a whole other breed. The triggers, emotions, motives, and capabilities are all completely different. The wave of emotion the child is experiencing is as intense as physical pain. These episodes can last for hours and may involve aggressive behavior or even regression to baby-talk. It is an irrational state, where your child is using only the lower level of their brain function—the fight, flight, or freeze instincts. Because it is a different tantrum, alternative approaches will likely be more effective.
- Comfort and soothe your child
- Keep your voice low, soft, and your speech slow. Children struggle to calm down if those around them raise their voices and escalate behaviors with them.
- Show your child how to self-soothe. Sit with them and sway while taking deep breaths.
- Gentle touch can soothe a child, such as dragging your hand left to right on their back or gently stroking their hands or face with your hand or a soft toy. Some children may be fearful of touch, based on a history of abuse or sensory sensitivity, so this technique depends on your child’s responsiveness.
- Do something unexpected. Sometimes you can disrupt your child’s reactive state just by responding in a unique way. If your child appears to be in another world and gives no indication of hearing or understanding you, do something silly and ridiculous. For example, start doing jumping jacks, dance an Irish jig, or stand on your head if you’re able! Again, be mindful of your child’s sensory needs or responses.
You may get some indication they can hear you and possibly make their own choices when they make eye contact with you or when their yelling and crying begins to soften and slow.
- Engage in reciprocal interaction
- Show empathy and concern in your facial expression as you speak softly: “You’re so upset. Mommy wants to help you, not hurt you. I’d like to hold your hand if that’s okay.” Be respectful if your child says “no.” Give them a moment and try again.
- Try tossing a soft ball or balloon back and forth with your child or engage them in blowing a cotton ball from their hand to yours.
- Put on music your child likes and dance. Try to get them to mirror your movements.
- Offer heavy work materials and activities. Know which activities calm your child—kneading a ball of dough, chewing gum, or pushing on a wall. They may be able to engage in this activity once they are headed in a calmer direction. Weighted blankets may also be helpful if you already use this as a calming, sensory-processing aid.
“Downstairs tantrum” interventions can be beneficial with either type of tantrum. Using these techniques may de-escalate the episode while also building a stronger bond between parent and child because they create a feeling of safety and trust.
Caregivers may be concerned that these techniques reward or give a child permission to act out. This is not the case. A child in distress and experiencing a “downstairs tantrum” is not processing rewards and consequences, reviewing your rules, or understanding expectations. In that moment, your child is not equipped with coping skills or in a “logical” state of mind. It is advisable to set boundaries and establish rules and structure, but that is step two. Processing will be more effective with your child once they reach a calm state where they can hear you, absorb the information, and integrate it into their “upstairs” brain function.
As a caregiver, you may feel drained and uninspired to offer more nurturing energy. However, this step is crucial in reducing the frequency and intensity of tantrums as it shows your child you are strong enough to be his secure base when he feels out of control. Take a moment to calm yourself as needed, but be mindful of engaging with your child as soon as possible to assure him that he is still safe and loved.
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