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Two Quick Tips for Calming a Tantrum

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Two Quick Tips for Calming a Tantrum

Let’s face it, therapists are people too! And the children of therapists are also people, and prone to the same behaviors and behavioral issues that all “non-therapist” children experience.  That’s a long way of saying my kids have meltdowns too.  And here comes the shocker… meltdowns are developmentally appropriate, to a certain extent.

Our little people are sent into this world without much of the emotional intelligence that it takes to navigate daily life.  It’s no wonder that they become overwhelmed by their emotions every once in a while and throw a tantrum!  It’s our job as parents to teach them to self regulate.  For some kids (and parents), this comes easy, for some it’s much harder.

Here is a quick tip to help:

When your child is in the middle of a meltdown, DON’T try to talk them through it.

I know this sounds insane, especially coming from a therapist.  We LOVE talking through things.  But here’s the thing.  When your child is melting down they aren’t using the part of their brain that does the thinking and talking.  They are in their amygdala or as Dr. Dan Siegel calls it, the “downstairs brain”.  The amygdala is quick to react, saving us from situations like car accidents, where we don’t have time to think before we act.  If our children our having a “downstairs tantrum,” often characterized by extreme emotion, difficulty calming, and looking “like a different kid,” they will need a different kind of help to shut of the amygdala.

This means that while a tantrum is happening it is not the time to reason with our children or to provide consequences.  This baffles a lot of parents I work with.  However, when I ask them to think about whether or not the above strategies work, they usually come to the conclusion that, not only do they not work, they tend to escalate the situation.  So here are two strategies that can be helpful.

  • Use this as an opportunity to CONNECT with your child. Get on their level, empathize with them, and offer a hug.  Again, many parents feel this is counterintuitive.  Why should we “give in” to this type of behavior.  But if you step back and look at it from a different perspective you are really just helping them regulate (and modeling nonreactive behavior), which is the goal right?  There is never a bad time to connect with your child, so try it and see if it helps!
  • Use grounding techniques to move them from their amygdala to their prefrontal cortex, where they are able to think, reason, and talk about what is making them upset. Grounding is easy; ask them to feel their feet on the floor, look for the brightest color in the room, or count the cars they see outside.  Connecting them to the present calms the amygdala, but it ISN’T DISTRACTION.  When the child is calm, you are then able to process the situation in a healthy way.  We aren’t distracting from the feelings, we are helping them regulate in order to move to the part of the brain where they are actually able to talk about it.

Give it a shot the next time your child is having a tantrum.  Hopefully, you’ll see the difference connecting and grounding makes in your family!

Abby Withee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Rolling Hills Estates and Redondo Beach. With a focus on mindful practices, Abby works with children, adolescents, adults, and families to address a variety of diagnoses and presenting issues.  For more mindfulness and gratitude resources, check out her blog on beginning mindfulness!

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