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Two Techniques To Stop Tantrums In Their Tracks, From A Holistic Pediatrician

Jason Wachob
February 25, 2020
Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
mindbodygreen Podcast Guest Dr. Stephen Cowan
Image by mbg Creative
February 25, 2020

When noticing the beginning stages of a temper tantrum (be it from your toddler or even a frustrated friend), you might feel a wave of anxiety as you try to appease them. Dealing with tantrums can be tricky—you might regretfully raise your voice in the heat of the moment or promise treats in favor of silence. However, there are ways you can effectively calm those tantrums and ease your stress before any screaming or shrieking takes place.  

Take it from holistic pediatrician Stephen Cowan, M.D., who’s all about empowering children and finding ways to listen to them, rather than asserting blind authority. Needless to say, he's not the biggest fan of a timeout. "Timeout is like jail," he tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. 

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Rather, Cowan has certain techniques to quell any outburst you may face—no punishing or yelling necessary.  

Here are Cowan's two techniques to stop those tantrums in their tracks, whether your child is at the beginning stages of tears or at an all-out wail. These two techniques also work for everyone—from toddlers to teenagers to tired and cranky adults. Let's get into it. 

Technique No. 1: Letting go.

Think of this technique as a type of breathwork exercise. Although, rather than taking deep, slow inhale-exhales, you want your child to breathe out sharply, "Like you're blowing out a birthday cake," Cowan explains. 

Here's how it works: Tell your child to make two tight fists, breathe into their belly, and blow out hard while opening their fists. 

This exercise relates to the act of letting go, as your child is quite literally letting go of their breath and (hopefully) their distress. "You're synchronizing your body to your breath," Cowan continues. 

However, it's important to note that this exercise only works when your child is about to have a tantrum, as opposed to when they're already kicking and screaming. Cowan says that simply telling your child to breathe in the midst of a tantrum will not work, to say the least. 

"If you can get to them early enough and help them breathe, they'll release those feelings. But if they're already into that frustration shutdown, there's nothing you can do," he adds.

Technique No. 2: The game of three yeses.

Whereas "no," implies defensively shutting down, "yes," invites conversation and engages the other person. That said, most tantrums are a "no," and we want to transform it into a "yes." Here's how.

"The act of saying yes shifts your nervous system. Or si. The "ss" sound requires a more complex movement of your mouth that requires you to engage what's called in Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory the social engagement network1," says Cowan. 

First, an important caveat: You don't want to bribe your child in order to get that "yes." While you might think they would say yes to a question such as, "Do you want ice cream later?" that tactic rarely works. In fact, according to Cowan, it's trickery, and your kid will see right through it. 

Instead, you want to ask if you're hearing your child correctly. In other words, ask for clarification: "You don't want to go to bed now. Is that right? Yes or no?" 

Even if you're just repeating their words, just getting that first "yes" is crucial. "It immediately creates connection because you're saying, 'I'm hearing you,' as opposed to, 'You have to,'" Cowan says. 

Once you have that first yes, the second task is to validate their emotions, or "drop it down to the heart level," as Cowan puts it. Ask a question like, "You're frustrated right now, aren't you? Yes or no?" You're essentially giving them emotional intelligence training of their own, as well as letting them know that you understand their feelings. 

The third "yes" is to tailor it to body experience. Ask, "Where do you feel frustrated in your body right now? Let's see if we can let it go." That way, you can offer coping mechanisms for your child (or teen) and help them deal with their emotions in a healthy way. 

After these exercises, you should (hopefully) have a calmer, composed child on your hands. Now whenever you see the beginning stages of a tantrum coming on, you have a mindful plan of action—no yelling necessary! 

Enjoy this episode! And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
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Jason Wachob author page.
Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO

Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.