We’ve all been there.
Your preschooler wakes up in a foul mood (don’t we all, every once in a while?), and starts crying before she even gets out of bed. Nothing you do can make it right: she doesn’t want the same thing she has for breakfast every morning; she can’t choose something she does want; she hits her brother; she collapses in a sobbing heap on the floor.
Or maybe your “witching hour” comes later in the day, after school or at bedtime: he doesn’t WANT to go in the bath. He doesn’t want a bath with bubbles OR without bubbles. He refuses to brush his teeth, with either bubblegum OR strawberry toothpaste.
Toddlers have tantrums, and to some extent we just need to be supportive and get through them because they don’t really have the mental skills or vocabulary to express what they need. But by the time your child is about three, some new abilities start to open up that create enormous opportunities for you. They are able to think about more than one way to do something, and their vocabularies are expanding so they can begin to express these new ideas.
They probably aren't yet fully able to regulate their own emotions, which is why they still have these occasional tantrums. But what if there was a way to use some of their new skills to avoid tantrums in the first place?
The good news: there is!
The bad news: this method does require you to go through one tantrum to figure it out. But isn’t that a small price to pay?
The best news is that this method is most powerful for the types of tantrums that are related to issues you face repeatedly related to their ideas about how things should work in your house (like whether it's OK to eat ice cream right before bed). You may still get the ones that result from being over-tired or hungry/hangry, but you already know the fix for those ones...
Here’s your action plan:
- Your child is having a tantrum about something. Maybe you said “no” to something they really want to do, and they've had a tantrum about this same issue at least once before. If the limit was set for safety reasons, hold the line. If the limit wasn’t set for safety reasons, come up with a way you can “give in” without sacrificing your original goal. If your child wants ice cream right before bed, give them a little bit on a teaspoon. If they just DO NOT want to get dressed for preschool, allow them to go to school in pajamas. Just get through the current issue as best you can, allowing them to get “their way” to the extent reasonably possible.
This likely goes against everything you’ve done as a parent: holding the line so your child knows they can’t walk all over you. Don’t despair – this method does NOT rely on your child walking all over you – in fact, it’s going to invite your child to WANT to cooperate with you.
- When you reach a natural separation point (your child has to leave for school, or at bedtime, etc.) say “I’m so sorry we had a rough morning/evening. Let’s talk about it some more tonight/tomorrow, OK?” Over time, this phrase is going to become a signal between you and your child that a brainstorming session is coming.
It’s important that “let’s talk about it later” isn’t delivered in a threatening way – you’re not going to spend the day/night thinking about ways to punish your child. Rather, it’s an invitation for what I’m about to describe.
- Pick a time after preschool/the next day when you’re both calm, well-fed, and engaged with each other (perhaps doing a puzzle, or sitting together at the park).
Say: “I’m sorry this morning was tough. It was really hard for me, and it looked like it was hard for you as well. [If necessary, add “I’m so sorry I had to…(insert action that you took that you now regret).] Can you help me to understand what happened?”
Depending on your child’s age and cognitive/verbal abilities, you may need to provide more or less scaffolding in this process. If your child is on the older side, they might be able to immediately explain what happened. If they’re on the younger side, you might need to ask “It seemed like you just woke up not feeling great – did you get enough sleep?” or “It seemed like your brother did something to irritate you – is that right?”. Keep probing until you feel like you’ve found the root cause of the issue.
- Brainstorm ways to avoid having this happen again. Invite your child’s suggestions first. Say “It would be really nice if we didn’t have to have mornings like that. I feel terrible, and it makes me late for work, and it really doesn’t seem as though you enjoy it either. Let’s think of some things we can do that could help us avoid going through this again.” Again, scaffold as needed: if your child is older/you’ve done this before, ask: “Do you have any ideas?” If your child is younger/this is your first time doing this, say “Let’s start with some of my ideas, and if you have ideas too then I’d like to hear them.”
Write ALL the ideas down! It helps the child to see that you’re taking their ideas seriously.
Don’t throw out any ideas to start with. If they suggest eating a mountain of ice cream for breakfast every day, write it down. You’re not committing to it yet.
- Think through (together!) which ideas will work for both of you. Ask your child if there are any ideas on the list that won’t work for them (you’ll need to read the list to them to remind them). Cross those ideas out. Cross out ideas that absolutely won’t work for you, explaining why each one won’t work for you.
- Examine the ideas that are left. See whether any of them could really be workable if you made a slight tweak. Come up with a plan that works – for both of you. This is really the key here: this isn’t you making a plan and saying “do you agree?” in a tone that makes it clear there really is no other option.
- The next time you see the first hint of a potential tantrum (or the conditions that lead to it) related to this issue, remind your child of the plan you made together, and put it into action.
Avoiding tantrums through skill development, not distraction
The key to this method is that it’s backed by science. Self-Determination Theory is a theory about what motivates people to act. Calling it a “theory” implies that we don’t really know much about it but that isn’t the case here – SDT has been studied for decades and is supported by many empirical studies. The three components of SDT are connectedness, competence, and autonomy.
You connect when you close the immediate issue by saying “I’m so sorry we had a rough morning/evening” and by ensuring that you’re both in a good mood before broaching the issue again in a gentle, loving way.
You support your child’s competence by inviting them to bring their own ideas to the brainstorming session. You’re saying “I know that together we can find a solution to this issue.”
You support your child’s autonomy by showing you value their ideas, by writing them down and by giving them just as much weight as your own ideas. Over time, you may find that the kinds of ideas your child brings to these sessions are creative and fresh and solve the problem in a way that you would never have imagined by yourself.
Yes, you do have to get through a tantrum to use this method. But I typically find that I can make it through any tantrum with grace as long as I know that it’s pretty likely to be the last one I see on this topic. And since many children tend to be triggered by similar things over and over again, by addressing each of their triggers as they come up you may pretty soon find yourself mostly tantrum-free. In the process you will have supported them in developing skills that they’ll be able to use with you, with other children, and for the rest of their lives.