Photo by TouTouke.
Preschoolers are notorious for their histrionic tantrums. Every child and every tantrum is different and each requires a certain “tweaking” of tactics, but here’s a look into my toolbox for dealing with tantrums.
Get down to their level. While it may be tempting to throw yourself down on the floor and join in, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here. Tantrums generally come from a place of frustration and a lack of control. Towering over a preschooler only reinforces that frustrating feeling of being powerless. It also reinforces a “me against you” feeling. Come down to their level so that you can be eye to eye.
Bring your voice down too. The natural inclination is often to raise your voice to be heard over the shrill performance, but lowering your voice is often much more effective. Certainly more effective for defusing the situation, but also more effective for getting the child’s attention.
Create time and space to get control. Again, feeling a lack of control is often fueling a tantrum. The child isn’t getting what is wanted- whether it’s his way, a toy, or just understanding, a desire has been frustrated. Remove the child from the situation so that he can focus on regaining personal control. Focus on it as a need, not a punishment. Say something like, “You look like you need some time to get in control. Let’s go sit over here until you’re ready.” Find another room, a quiet corner, or simply turn the child other direction and use your body as a screen as you come to eye level. Having some time away from the stimulus (the toy, friend, or project that influenced the blow up) helps the child to focus on his behavior and personal control rather than continuing to fixate on the frustrated desire.
Deep breathing for two. With some children, particularly those that are frequently frustrated and/or easily worked up, I teach relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. “You know what helps me when I need to relax,” I ask them. “I take a deep breath like this, and then I slowly blow it all out. And that helps me relax all my muscles so I can feel better and think better.” (As a beneficial by-product, my example helps me relax a bit myself during a tense situation.)
For some children, I try the birthday candle technique to get them to take a few deep breaths. With my hand in a fist, and my thumb extended up like the flame, I say, “Oh, look at this! I have a candle. Do you think you could blow it out?” At this point they tend to give me a questioning glance. Somewhere along the lines of , “Has she lost it?” But they’ve also been distracted enough to stop crying. As they blow, I wiggle my thumb and even bring it down, but then pop it back up (with sound effects of course, and a look of surprise) and encourage them to take a deeper breath and try again. After a few tries, they’re usually laughing, and have taken several deep breaths. Now this little gem is effective in large part because of the novelty. If you find you’re using it too often with the same child, is time to teach deep breathing as a tactic, as I mentioned above.
Talk it out. “I can see that you’re very upset. Can we talk about it now, or do you need a minute to get control?” If more time is needed, I may leave the child in a that quiet spot for a moment and return, sit with the child, or just hold him until he’s ready. Helping the children to verbalize their emotions gives them a more controlled outlet for venting their frustrations. Too often the tantrum comes from immature language skills leaving them with the inability to express needs or emotions in any other way. Talking with them and labeling their feelings, directing them on how to properly express their needs, goes a long way in soothing not only this flare-up but preventing future ones as well.