Before babies can even speak, you can teach them how to show frustration. If a wooden peg won’t go into it’s hole, slap your own thigh and say something like “grrr” or “bah” or “shucks”. Baby will get the hang of showing frustration with the same thigh slap and often making an adorable “frustrated” face.
As children age and develop more vocabulary, you can add more robust phrases to their “anti-tantrum” tool belt. The best way to teach new phrases is to model them, just like the thigh slap above.
Here are 8 phrases to teach a child so they have less tantrums:
If you are cooking dinner and the phone rings and and a cup spills say “Yikes, I am overwhelmed. This is too many things at once”. Modeling this phrase prepares a child for the moment when they are building an important tower and you are asking them to get their shoes on and they need to go pee. They will have the ability to say “I’m overwhelmed, too many things at once” instead of having a tantrum.
“That didn’t make sense to me”
Feeling confused is a common cause of a meltdown. Being able to verbalize feelings with phrases like “That didn’t make sense to me” or “I’m confused” can evade the meltdown and get your child the clarity they need.
It’s amazing how comforting it can be in a moment of extreme frustration to simply say the words “I’m frustrated.” This acknowledges and allows the feeling to occur, which can prevent the feeling from becoming something bigger than it is. Model this phrase for your child and you will be surprised how often it gets used and how well it prevents tantrums.
A spill or a mistake can feel sad or embarrassing. But we all spill! – parents included! – so it’s important to teach that mistakes are ok. Saying “whoops!” in times of spills or mistakes keeps them lighthearted and can prevent feelings of sadness or shame from seeping in.
“My body is jumpy”
Kids’ bodies have a hardwired need for gross motor movement and sensory fulfillment. Without it, their bodies can feel jumpy. Expressing the feeling, and then satisfying it with some jumping, climbing, or running, can help children deal with the feeling appropriately, versus more destructive ways.
We all get sad sometimes. Being able to look at a caregiver and say “I’m sad, I’m just feeling sad” can help a child get what they need: loving comfort. Read a book together, take a walk holding hands, just be together until the sadness passes. Remind them it’s ok to feel sad, and that good feelings always come back!
“I’m feeling rushed”
No one likes to feel rushed. Feeling rushed is a top cause of meltdowns. Being able to say, “I’m feeling rushed” can reconnect a child and caregiver so they can work together on the same team, achieve the mission before the clock runs out, and prevent a meltdown.
“I’m bored” / “I’m lonely”
Boredom and loneliness can create very overwhelming feelings in a child, even mimicking feelings of danger. This is because children don’t yet have the experience or tools to understand or cope with these feelings. Without proper guidance, children can develop unhealthy tools for coping, instead of constructive ones. Saying “I’m bored” or “I’m lonely” sets the stage for caregivers to be able to teach children how to cope with boredom. You can respond with something like: “I feel bored too sometimes. When I do, I put on my thinking cap and come up with ideas. I try to think of at least three ideas, and then I pick the one I like best. Sometimes I make a boredom basket with my favorite book, my crossword puzzle from the newspaper, and a deck of solitaire cards, so I have things ready for when I get bored.”
As your child gets the knack of calmly saying their emotions vs. having a meltdown, you will have countless opportunities to validate their feelings, which strengthens your connection to your child. You will also have opportunities to motivate them. The “validate / motivate” combo is a powerful tool to use. It sounds like: “I know you are feeling bored while I cook dinner, but I also know one of your talents is coming up with new ways to use old toys.”
Sudden Increase in Tantrums
If tantrums are suddenly happening more frequently, consider whether your child has gone through a major shift or life event, like a move, a new school, or a change in family dynamic like a new sibling. These events can disrupt a child’s feelings or safety and security, which means they may cry at the drop of a hat. To read our post on how major life events can affect children, READ HERE
One of the most effective ways to handle sudden increases in tantrums is to choose one single repetitive activity to do in the face of every tantrum, like grab any nearby book and start to read. This brings calmness, familiarity, and repetition to the tantrum, which can make it feel safer for your child. The tantrum itself and accompanying feelings are scary to a child who isn’t used to having them. As time goes on, your child may initiate the activity on their own, like going to grab their own book as the tantrum gets started.
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