Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (October 18, 2018)
One of the common questions we get asked is how to help a child who has temper tantrums or outbursts of anger. It can be so frustrating for parents who have to deal with a wailing toddler or an angry school-goer and they are desperate to find ways to help their children. Helping a child develop self-control and to identify, regulate and responsibly express an emotion is a complex task for a young child. So we’ve compiled a list of things that can be helpful for a parent to consider. Some are preventative measures and some are interventional and can be tried in age appropriate ways.
1. Stay calm
Probably the most difficult thing to do for parents but also the most important. When a child is acting out, the first part of the antidote is to counter the reaction and stay calm. When my son was born, I gave myself a personal challenge that I would counter his emotions when he was upset so the more upset he gets, the more calm I get. It helps the child calm down too as opposed to getting riled up. I think one of the worst things to do is to get angry and use threats to get a child to calm down. For example, I have heard parents shout at their angry child “If you don’t stop now, I’ll leave you here in the shopping mall by yourself”. That kind of comment never adds a calming effect to a child! And once your child realizes you’re giving empty threats, then even worse. So stay calm.
When a child is a young (2 and below), sometimes distractions are the best way to help them calm down. They usually don’t have the capacity to regulate their own emotions so it’d done externally by using distractions. This could be asking them to look at something (look! There’s a police car!) or by moving to the next activity (okay, calm down and let’s go to the park and get some fresh air). Eventually they will have to learn how to calm down on their own which leads to the next point.
This isn’t about distracting your child but about helping him find a way that helps him calm down. Feeling negative emotions isn’t bad but sometimes it leads to bad behaviours (i.e. saying or doing things that are hurtful or harmful). Every child is different and needs something different to help him calm down. So let your child try different things to calm down. Here’s a list you can try:
Take deep breaths
Take a break (e.g. go to toilet)
Go for a run
Listen to music
Read a book
Have a hug
Punch a pillow
Look at a calm down glitter jar
Write in a journal
Talk to a friend
4. Getting to the root
It’s important to know what the root of the issue is. Is your child acting out because he is being bullied at school or at home? Is he throwing a tantrum because he is struggling with something he wants to but can’t do? Asking questions when your child is calm can give you clues on why your child is acting up.
5. Know the trigger
If the tantrums are a regular thing, it’s helpful to figure out what the triggers could be. Is it when your child is hungry or tired? When he’s playing with a particular friend? When he’s put in new and unfamiliar situations? Knowing the trigger can help you plan for it. For example, I know my son doesn’t do well when he’s tired and is more likely to get upset when he’s sleepy so I have to make sure he is well rested.
6. Build emotional awareness
Overall, it’s helpful to develop emotional awareness in children so that they know about different emotions, know how to identify theirs and others and ultimately learn how to regulate them. This starts by reading books about emotions, discussing different emotions that you and your child might feel in different situations (“I was so surprised when you brought out the birthday cake for me” or “I think Tommy was feeling sad when he lost his toy”) and making ‘emotions talk’ a part of daily life.
Although none of us like having a child throw tantrums, that’s sometimes their way of communicating their needs with us. We have to let our children know that having different emotions including being angry is okay but it’s not okay to physically or emotionally hurt themselves or others in the process. And ultimately to minimize temper tantrums for the good of everyone!