There comes a time in every parent’s life when he has to handle full-blown, screaming, kicking, public tantrums for the very first time. Seeing your child in a worked-up emotional state is hard, no matter what your parenting strategy is. It’s tempting to go back on your word and tell her “yes, you can have that candy bar,” or to sternly tell him that we don’t scream in this house.
Both courses of action have one commonality: they tell your child that expressing her emotions is bad. She’ll learn to shut up when she’s upset, and she’ll grow up to be non communicative when she’s overly emotional.
Instead, teach your child that it’s okay to feel and express emotion by allowing tantrums to run their course while providing healthy support. This isn’t the same as walking away and letting him throw a fit in time-out while you wait for it to pass. Be an active supporter in your child’s journey of emotional development. Here’s how:
Mirror Healthy Emotions
“Mirroring” is a strategy that behaviorists use to teach children (and adults, and even animals) how to perform a behavior by first practicing that behavior themselves. You can apply the same strategy to emotional development by mindfully expressing your emotions in a healthy way.
You don’t have to wait until your daughter is throwing a tantrum to start encouraging her to express healthy emotions. Instead, the next time you’re sad about something, show it.
It’s all too easy for parents to hide emotions around their small children because they don’t want to seem vulnerable, or they don’t want to set a bad example. To the contrary, being emotional around your children is setting a healthy example.
Validate His Feelings
Use language that validates how he feels when he’s sad or angry. Ban the phrases “boys don’t cry” and “don’t speak in that tone” from your home! Instead, when he cries, tell him that it’s okay. When he’s mad, tell him you understand how he feels and that you don’t blame him for feeling that way.
Positive emotions aren’t the only ones to be celebrated. Negative feelings have an important place in every person’s emotional development, starting in early childhood.
Be a Source of Calm
Keep a cool head when your child is expressing negative emotions, whether he’s crying, screaming, pouting, or telling you off. It’s easy to get snippy when you’ve told your child “no” 50 times in a row, but buckle down and make it 51 without raising your voice… and while at it, remind her that it’s okay to feel the way she’s feeling.
You should be a neutral source of empathy during these episodes, and your child should learn that she can rely on you when she’s upset, even if you’re the source of her negative feelings.
It’s during early childhood that kids learn that they’re not the center of the world; that other people have feelings, too. Begin to teach your child to see from another point of view while validating his emotions at the same time.
A tantrum is the perfect time to do it. While she’s wailing that she wants to fly the balsa airplane in the house even though you said “no,” sit down with her and tell her about a time you couldn’t do what you wanted to do. Tell her what happened, why you didn’t get your way, and most importantly, how you felt during and after the episode. Speak freely and honestly.
If you start this early enough, you’ll get to see the light in her eyes the first time she realizes that you feel the same things that she does. This empathetic awareness is absolutely crucial to raising a child who is kind and mindful toward her peers.
Talk Through It
There’s no such thing as “just because” in a household that practices emotional intelligence. If your child is screaming because you wouldn’t let her put her fingers in the electrical outlet, don’t tell her “you can’t because I said so,” tell her “it’s not safe and you could hurt yourself badly.” It won’t calm her down, but it lets her understand the actions that lead to her emotional episode.
And while you’re explaining your side of the situation, ask her what she’s feeling and why. She might not be able to articulate it very well, but you only learn by practicing. Teach her that you need to unpack and talk about emotional situations, and eventually she’ll learn to talk about it and express her emotions eloquently instead of throwing a public tantrum.
Handle Public Tantrums Predictably
You can’t always let a child scream forever in a public place for the sake of embracing emotional expression. If your little one has a meltdown in a public library or a grocery store, it’s unkind to the other guests who have no say in experiencing your child’s tantrum. At the same time, immediately removing your child from the situation has a negative impact on his ability to express his emotions normally.
A good middle ground is having a procedure that you refer to every time your child begins throwing a tantrum in public. Use empathetic words such as “I wish we could borrow three books, but we can only have one,” to show that you understand why he’s upset. Then, tell him “Two minutes” so he knows he’s on the clock. He can express himself however he needs to for those two minutes, and then it’s time to go home, no matter what.
Emotional expression is a huge challenge for children and parents alike. He’s navigating feelings that are weird, upsetting, and sometimes downright unpleasant, and you’re trying to figure out the best way to handle those feelings from the parent’s point of view. The best guideline to follow is that tantrums are normal and healthy, and for small children, often the only way to learn emotional expression until socially appropriate ways to be emotional come across his radar. Be patient, and encourage your child to embrace the way he feels, whether it’s positive or negative.