How to Handle Tantrums

If you’ve been with us for a while, you know that we LOVE a good definition. Shared language brings peace and order.

So for the sake of child training, let’s start with a good definition for tantrum. We hear the word thrown around a lot, but when it comes to this method, a tantrum means “a violent demonstration of rage or frustration.”

We’re not talking about Willful Disobedience, which we covered yesterday. We’re talking about a total loss of emotional control. It can look like screaming, kicking, flailing, hitting, spitting, throwing things…TANTRUM!

When a child is in the midst of a true tantrum, no training method will be effective. Instead, we need to help our kids learn (hopefully at an early age) how to regain control of their mind, will and emotions when they’re nervous system is flooded with intense emotion.

Jody and I often say that the prison system is full of people who couldn’t control their emotions for just five more minutes.

When we teach our kids how to manage their emotions, we give them a great gift.

My Tantrum Journey

As many of you know, my oldest child is autistic. When he was two years old, he had absolutely no expressive or receptive language, which means he said no words and understood no words. He couldn’t even point or gesture to communicate. So when he was hungry or tired or bored or cold or wet or unhappy or uncomfortable in any way, all he could do was throw himself on the floor and cry. My husband and I went through all kinds of mental gymnastics to figure out what this child needed. We were slaves to his outbursts.

For most of his second year, Griffyn wore a big contusion on his forehead from banging it against the ground. And we wore circles under eyes from sheer exhaustion.

But toward the end of his second year I learned something that forever changed our lives. It’s called The Extinction Method, and it works on tantrums like nothing I’d ever seen before or since.

We’ve used on all of our other kids during the terrible twos and with many of the families we’ve coached, and we have found that after using The Extinction Method correctly two or three times, tantrums are a thing of the past because the child learns the valuable skill of getting his emotions under control all by himself.

Disclaimer

Before we tell you how to do it, we have one important disclaimer. If you are consistent and committed to the process, The Extinction Method WILL break tantrums. However, if you give in, even once…even a little bit, we promise that the next tantrum will be longer and louder. Once your toddler knows that you have a weak spot, he will up the ante until he finds it again.

The Extinction Method

Here’s how it works. When you see a true tantrum coming on, put the child in a safe place, remove any items that could get broken or could hurt him, and stay nearby so that he can see you. If your child sleeps in a crib or uses a playpen, these can be useful places to place the child as soon as the tantrum comes on.

Get down on their level, make eye contact and very calmly say, “You are having a tantrum. You need to calm yourself down.” Then, do not say another word or make eye contact again until the tantrum is over.

No matter what the child does or says, DO NOT respond AT ALL to the child until he has calmed himself down and has brought their emotions under control.

But DO stay nearby where he can see you. Remain fully aware of your body language and facial expressions, and no matter how hard it becomes, do not tense up, sigh or show any outward signs of anger, sadness or distress.

Make no mistake — this is not for sissies. This is where the rubber meets the road in parenting. It’s hard work and it could take every ounce of self control you can muster. But it is worth it.

Keep busy. Do dishes, read a book (or at least pretend to read a book), clean the room, fold laundry, make a grocery list…and all the while, stay totally calm and quiet, as if nothing were happening.

Avoid getting on the phone, computer or iPad. Those things can make the child feel like you are escaping him. During a tantrum, you need to let him know that you are there, while also giving him the space he needs to work this out.

How Long Should You Let it Go On?

A truly willful child can keep this going for a LONG time! Griffyn’s first tantrum during The Extinction Method lasted for two hours. I thought I was going to jump out of my skin! But the next one was much shorter, and the third lasted a matter of minutes. There never was a fourth. He had learned what to do when overwhelming emotion flooded his nervous system.

The only acceptable reason to acknowledge the child at all during The Extinction Method is to remove him from harm’s way. During Griffyn’s two-hour tirade in the crib, he pooped in his diaper, took it off and smeared it all over the crib and walls. I lifted him out of the crib without a word, as calm as I could be (but thoroughly FREAKING OUT on the inside!). Put him in the tub, washed off the poop, all without making any eye contact or saying a word. He continued to scream and thrash, and I did my best to act as if nothing was happening. I got splashed, hit, kicked and got poop in my hair. I wanted to scream and quite frankly, to throw him out the window, but I forced myself to stay completely calm and even aloof.

Once he was clean, I put him in a playpen in the room with me as I calmly cleaned the crib and walls. He eventually exhausted himself and fell asleep, and I cried and then scrubbed down the bathroom and took a shower. It was HARD work, and on that night I had little hope that it would ever change. But I remembered the workshop instructor who first taught me this method saying that it would get better. I held on to that hope and held my breath.

The next time Griffyn had a tantrum, it was remarkably different. I put him in the crib and although he kicked and screamed for a while, he didn’t have the panic and desperation he had had the first time. No poop catastrophe, and this time, he calmed himself down without falling asleep.

By the last tantrum, you could see in his face that he knew he was going to have to work it out on his own and the sooner the better. It took a few minutes, but he did it.

We’ve helped many families successfully use this method. Along the way, we discovered a few things that may help any of our readers who are currently dealing with tantrums.

When to Acknowledge the Child

If the child falls asleep, don’t disturb him, but be aware that he may wake up and start the tantrum again. Just continue as before.

As soon as the child calms himself down, go to him gently, and tell him you are very proud of him that he calmed himself down. Give him lots of hugs and kisses and then ask if he’d like to read a book with you or play a game.

Calm can look like a gentle cry or whimpering, as long as the violent outburst that characterizes a tantrum has stopped.

Sometimes the tantrum will start up again once you acknowledge him. Just gently say, “You are having a tantrum again. You need to calm yourself down,” and go back to The Extinction Method. But be careful not to confuse crying with a tantrum.

Sometimes, once you acknowledge the child, the relief of finally getting your attention again can be so overwhelming that they can’t help but cry. Once they recover from a tantrum even toddlers can feel remorse and even guilt for having been so out of control, and that can also make them very sad.

As long as there’s no violence involved (no screaming, flailing, kicking, angry words, etc.), just show tenderness and compassion. You can say, “I understand that you feel sad. It can be scary to have a tantrum. But you did a great job of calming yourself down. I’m so proud of you, and I know that next time you feel very angry or frustrated, you’ll be able to calm yourself down again.” Even if your child is still too young to understand all those words, he will understand your love and compassion.

Some Notes About Older Kids

If you use this method in the toddler years (i.e. the terrible 2’s or even 3’s) you won’t have tantrum issues after that. But if you didn’t know how to do this when they were toddlers, you might have a preschooler or school-aged tantrumer on your hands. First, let me say, you need to let yourself off the hook. Do not, for one moment, feel any guilt or condemnation for having not done this sooner.

The truth is, this method is NOT obvious. It’s not something you “should have known.” In fact, it defies every natural instinct we have during a child’s tantrum.

Older kids can be more challenging in some ways. For one thing, they’ve got a better command of language, and often they’ll use it in violent ways. Don’t be ruffled by hateful words or harsh accusations that you don’t love them or that you’re torturing them. Kids can be master manipulators. Don’t be tricked into responding in any way during a tantrum. Continue to stay busy nearby until he calms himself down.

The good news with older kids is that they understand more, so when the tantrum is over, they will have a much better understanding of what is happening. When the tantrum is over, you can assure him that he’s not a bad person but that he just became overwhelmed with anger or frustration and didn’t know how to handle it. Then you can tell him that he calmed down all by himself, and that you are so proud of him for learning how to do this. Let him know that the next time he feels rage coming on, he can calm himself down again, and that he’s just going to keep getting better and better at it.

If you have any questions about The Extinction Method or tantrums, please feel free to leave a comment, send us a message or go to our Facebook page and contact us there.

 

Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “How to Handle Tantrums

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge! I have been so blessed by your blog! We are in the process of adopting from Ethiopia, and I know that many adoptive parents have to deal with tantrums quite a bit! That’s what I’m not sure how to handle when we bring them home… Whether the same method would work for them, especially when they’re just beginning to learn English, their world has been turned upside-down, etc… Any tips? We are definitely trying your ideas with our biological children! 😉

    • Thank you for your encouragement Becky! It was a blessing to us. The Extinction Method will would for kids from another culture, but you will need a heaping dose of gentleness and love and grace. The idea is still to help them learn to calm themselves down in the midst of a full blown tantrum, but just make sure that is a full blown tantrum. The language barrier may cause a much higher level of frustration for these little ones, and they may cry or yell or stomp. In those cases, get down on their level, look in their eyes and try to gently help them understand what’s happening. “You’re frustrated. I understand. I am here to help you.” Offer choices whenever possible. Fill their day with love, hugs and interaction. Read stories. Play in water. Experiment with playdough. Bake. Make dinner with them. Paint. Color. Pick flowers. Chase butterflies.

      Then, decide what your absolute rules are. Keep them short, simple and make sure they’re solid (unwavering). Decide what the consequences will be if the rules are broken,and be absolutely consistent.

      Then, if you see a genuine tantrum (complete loss of control), use the Extinction Method to help them calm down. May you be mightily blessed in your life with these precious ones. Adoption is at the center of God’s heart! Stay in touch with us.

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