Fighting off temper tantrums How to keep from screaming when your toddler does By Alena MurguiaIllustration by Marc Stopek
We've all been there. Your daughter is just having a terrible day. Every little thing sets her off. You have already survived three meltdowns and it's only noon. The holidays are upon us, the shopping is not done and tensions are running high. You can feel the familiar hysteria boiling up inside. The tears threaten to run down both you and your daughter's cheeks.
You may not be able to control your child's tantrum but you can keep yours in check. In fact, it is important to remember that temper tantrums are a healthy and normal part of growing up. According to child psychologist Colleen Cicchetti of Children's Memorial Hospital, children are struggling for ways to express themselves and exert some control, struggles that sometimes turn into tantrums. This does not mean you are a bad mother or father, she says. But it can feel that way.
So, how do you diffuse the emotion? The following tips are a combination of approaches used by other mothers, my own personal experience, expert advice from medical professionals and good old common sense. Try any or all of them to keep calm, not just during the holiday season, but year-round.
1 Breathe. "Take a deep breath" is popular advice for a reason. It occupies your lungs to prevent you from screaming while delivering much-needed oxygen to your brain, which allows you to think. Teach your toddler to do it, too—three counts in and three counts out. A few deep breaths are usually enough to diffuse both your tempers.
2 Recite the parenting mantra. During parenting seminars, Cicchetti encourages parents to come up with their own coping mantras, to be repeated aloud: "I know that I'm doing my job. He is doing his, too. This is all part of growing up." Kids learn better by watching us struggle through choices than if we make things seem easy. So, let your daughter hear how you work through your frustrations. You'll diffuse the emotion and teach her at the same time.
3 Get out. When I'm just about to blow, I try a new scene. It can be as simple as going into the yard or taking a walk around the neighborhood. Your daughter can run around to work out the bad energy and you get the chance to focus on the scenery instead of the argument. If the weather is not cooperating, try an impromptu adventure. Does your local mall have a children's play area? Or is there an open gym at your park district? Just find an activity that allows you to take the focus off each other and put it onto something different.
4 Chill out. This is not to be confused with a time out, which is punishment for misbehaving. A chill out is the time spent diffusing a potentially explosive situation in the hope of avoiding the blowup. So, before you loose control, separate yourself from the situation. Make sure your child is safe in his crib or the playroom and then spend a few minutes alone regaining your composure. Sometimes five minutes is all you need.
5 Reach out. Fellow parents know how to hear you over your baby's screams. Chances are another mom has been there before and can talk you back from the edge.
6 Remember the good times. Break out the baby picture and remember how cute she was before she learned to push every button you have—a strategy that could prove useful again when she hits those difficult teen years.
7 Talk it out. But do it carefully. Avoid starting sentences with the words, "you make me so …" Rather, according to Dr. Cathryn Tobin, pediatrician and author of The Parent's Problem Solver, try saying "Mommy is feeling (frustrated, sad, angry)" and give your child a reason why you dislike his behavior—"I don't want you to throw toys because I'm afraid someone will get hurt." This is another opportunity for modeling good problem-solving behavior for your child. Tobin says kids will learn more about controlling their temper when they see us control ours. And, she says, if you're really lucky, your openness about your feelings may lead your son to share what's motivating his tantrum.
8 Try new approaches. While we all know that children respond to consistency, if the approach you are using to quell temper tantrums is not working, try something else. Pick up a parenting book. Go to the Internet. Find an approach that might work for you and your kids. This may not solve the immediate crisis, but you can take comfort in the fact that you have taken one positive step.
9 Get some sleep. A well-rested parent is better able to cope with any crisis. Find a way to catch 20 minutes in the late afternoon or go to bed earlier at night, whatever is takes to put you at your best during the day.
10 Reward your good behavior. As soon as your partner gets home, fill the tub with hot water and bath salts, listen to music and refuse to be interrupted. Or plan a romantic date for just you and your partner. You survived the day. You deserve a reward.
Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of two boys and a part-time employee of chicago Parent magazine.