I've thought and written extensively about why we feel the urge to yell at our kids. I truly believe that there are many things we can do for ourselves as parents to feel more balanced and less inclined to lash out if our kids misbehave.
That said, misbehavior is to be expected. Outbursts and temper tantrums are not unhealthy in and of themselves. But the frequency of emotional outbursts, and their intensity, can determine how willing we are to shrug off these instances as "normal." Temper tantrums can either damage our relationship with our kids or not. And it all depends on the way we respond to them.
Although it's totally understandable that we'd want to react with extreme discipline in response to our children's misbehavior, certain reactions actually damage their trust in us and weaken our relationship over time. Yelling and punishment are just two examples of unproductive responses, but there are others to avoid. Remember: how we respond to our kids' behavior as parents not only affects how they feel, but also our own well-being as parents.
So treat yourself and your children with the care you both deserve. Here are 15 tips for how to react when your kids have temper tantrums so that both of you can learn and grow in the process.
1. Make them feel safe, no matter what your first reaction is.
Children's first need is to feel safe. That's why more "old-fashioned" modes of discipline — hitting, yelling, giving "time outs" — were seen for so long as productive. Punishment immediately threatens anyone's basic need for safety. So under the feeling of threat, children will go into survival-mode, trying to please you until they feel safe again.
Punishment of this sort is shortsighted. If your children come to learn that you threaten their safety every time they lash out, the punishment will not only lose its power, but it will also lead to more intense problems in their development later.
2. Teach them the distinction between "acceptable" and "unacceptable."
By using fear or threatening your children, you send them the message that they are not safe, and that they'll have to "earn" the feeling of safety back. As I mentioned, this is precarious in the long-run. Make your child always feel safe with you.
What you do need to make very clear to your child is the difference between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" behavior. This distinction does not rely on manipulating your child's emotions, but uses a more objective vocabulary to explain their "wrongdoing." Rather than using fear, use words: tell your child that certain behavior will simply not be accepted.
3. Avoid "time outs."
Giving a child a "time out" is another way of taking their safety away. This ultimately has a huge impact on their self-esteem, as "time outs" establish a dynamic of rejection. As a result of the "time out" rejection, your child will want to please you into "liking" them again. This impulse to "please" as a conciliatory gesture is not healthy or productive for their growth. Children need space to be children, to express their feelings and to explore behavior without fear of rejection.
4. Don't use distraction.
If you try to distract children from feeling their feelings by giving them candy or a toy, they never learn how to deal with discomfort in mature and sustainable ways. We tend to rely on distraction because we ourselves are uncomfortable. But when children cry, they have something to say. So let them "say" whatever it is they need to, without telling them (indirectly or directly) to swallow their need for expression.
5. Let them feel.
Never punish or make your child feel bad for having a feeling. There's nothing wrong with having feelings, and it's very healthy to express them. Make clear that you are responding to their inappropriate behavior, not the feelings themselves.
6. Keep taking deep breaths.
Avoid being triggered into acting automatically by using the breath. Take a deep breath first before saying or doing anything in response to your child's tantrum.
7. Never take it personally.
Remember: your child's misbehavior is never personal. Children who are upset often just don't know how to handle their feelings. Tantrums are often cries for help, not attempts to personally offend anyone. Even children who feel safe and happy will test their parents' limits and misbehave. In fact, children who push your buttons are sending you a sign that they feel safe.
7. Maintain your inner strength.
Being afraid of your child's emotions will cause confusion in the process of creating healthy boundaries. While "caving" in response to your child's outburst may seem at first like the path of least resistance, it will harm the relationship in the long-run. Sure, your child might have a further emotional response in response to your "putting your foot down," but that's perfectly normal. You will notice that the more consistent you become with boundaries, the less resistance your child will give.
8. Directly acknowledge their feelings.
Children, like adults, just want to be understood (no matter how "irrational" their feelings might seem). Acknowledge your child's feelings by saying things like, "Wow you are really angry. Let's stamp our feet together as hard as we can," or, "I know you would really like to stay here a little longer. I know you love it here. But it's time to go home for dinner. We can come back another day."
9. Offer one or more alternatives.
In the moment of an outburst, offer an appropriate alternative that gives your child the outlet he/she may be looking for: "I know you really like drawing. I won't let you draw on your brother, but you can draw on this piece of paper here." Or, if your child is hitting you, try suggesting something like this: "I won't let you hit me, that hurts me. If you want to hit something, you can hit this pillow."
10. Choose natural and fair consequences.
Children learn discipline best when they experience natural and fair consequences for their behavior. If your child throws sand, play time in the sand is over. If your child refuses to cooperate at bedtime, there will be no story. These are reasonable and fair consequences to a child. They may still resist it, but they'll learn from it in ways that are not damaging to their emotional health or your relationship with them.
11. Help them continue to express their feelings — in a healthy way.
If your child is sad and you take your time with them to let them cry it out, their feelings will be released. If they experience anger, you can help them by letting them hit pillows, stamp their feet or run as fast as they can outside. If you give them space to feel, they won't feel as much of a need to rebel through outbursts and tantrums.
12. Follow through.
When you are stating a boundary, explaining a consequence or giving your child a certain amount of time before changing into the next activity, always follow through. Gently, lovingly and calmly accept the response your child may have. Not following through and being inconsistent makes life unpredictable, which will likely encourage your child to act out more.
13. Remain calm even if things get physical.
When your child acts out physically, breathe and try to stay as calm as you can. Your attitude — gentle yet firm — is what's most important here. Prevent the physical behavior — hold your child's arm or leg if you must — and say something like: "I won't let you kick your brother, kicking hurts. I can see you're upset. You can stamp your feet on the ground instead if you want."
14. Try to examine what else might be going on.
After gently stopping your child's behavior, acknowledging feelings, affirming a boundary and offering an alternative, observe your child: What is your child trying to tell you? How is your own energy? Does your child need sleep or food? A clear boundary? Quality attention from you?
15. Say "sorry."
If you responded in a way that you rather had not, make sure to own your own misbehavior and apologize. Say, "I'm sorry I yelled at you, I know that upsets you. I'll do my very best to avoid it in the future." It is not a sign of weakness to say sorry to your child, it is sign of respect and it will model healthy social behavior for them.