Stephen Camarata is that rare human who actually finds tantrums fun—at least, to talk about. He’s lived through his share of meltdowns as a parent (he’s a dad of seven) and he’s studied them as a specialist in child development.
What’s so interesting and fun about a behavior that most of us dread? This simple, eye-opening insight, says Camarata, a professor of psychiatry and hearing-speech sciences at Vanderbilt University:
Tantrums are good for kids, not bad, helping them both in the heat of the moment as well as for years to come.
The secret to managing meltdowns, he says, is to understand these key lessons:
Stop thinking: “I must be doing something wrong.”
Start thinking: “My child is doing something perfectly normal.”
Start by seeing a tantrum as an inevitability, rather than a response to a mistake you made, he says. It’s a waste of time to second-guess your decisions or bend over backward trying to avoid triggering them. “Tantrums don’t happen because you did something wrong or because of poor parenting,” says Camarata, who’s the author of The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You. “They’re a natural part of development.”
All kids lose it sometimes. We all do.
Tantrums rise and peak around ages 1.5 to 2.5, he says. That’s because toddlers lack the language skills to express what they want and how they feel, and they want everything RIGHT NOW, which reflects the only sense of time they have. Handled well, they’ll start to subside by kindergarten. (Truly.) But we all know that big kids (even really big teens and a few too many adults) can also throw occasional fits when they don’t get their way.
So start by not blaming yourself. That alone will help you react more calmly—very useful when your own stress level is rising in response.
Stop thinking: “It’s bad for my child to have bad feelings.”
Start thinking: “Tantrums are a healthy—and necessary!—thing my kid has to experience.”
Crying? Screaming? Shrieking? Flailing? Abject misery? It’s all okay.
Nobody likes to see their child sad. But that doesn’t mean yours shouldn’t be sad. It’s a myth, Camarata says, that it’s psychologically damaging for your child to experience unhappiness. To the contrary, it’s how they learn the necessary idea that life isn’t always rainbows and warm fuzzies but we get through it anyway.
So next, let yourself get comfortable with a little discomfort. Your child’s social-emotional development depends on it.
Stop thinking: “How can I make it better?”
Start thinking: “I can wait.”
It’s sorely tempting to rush in to distract a forlorn “limp noodle” on the carpet with a toy or soothe a kicking wailer with the offer of a snack. Or to give in, just this once, for the sake of peace and quiet—or because you’re plumb worn down.
Please don’t, he says. No matter how loud or prolonged the tantrum, just wait it out. Ignore it as best you can.
It will pass. Really.
Okay, it could take awhile. Some strong-willed kids can shriek an impressively long while. But if you dive in to the rescue, you’re just teaching your child that it’s your job to make him feel better. What’s more, you’re depriving your child of the opportunity to learn how to handle and overcome adversity himself, Camarata says.
If you wait, this is what happens: Your child will work things out on his own.
When any of us get upset, our brains flood with hormones, we get all revved up, and then things subside and we calm down. All by ourselves. Your child learns only through personal experience that this is how it works:
I throw a toy in rage, and it doesn’t change anything. I scream and kick; it doesn’t change anything. I get hold of myself, and I eventually feel better. I get mad, I get calm. What was so immensely important a moment ago is, in the big scheme of things, not such a big deal. I survive.
Better than that, your child thrives, because over time, she figures out a personal toolkit for how to deal with frustration and adversity, through things like cooperation, patience, using words, or even venting a little and getting over it.Stop thinking: “I’m so embarrassed!”
Start thinking: “What’s my game plan?”
Unfortunately, the current judgy, snarky, mom-shaming climate makes even the firmest parent wobble in the angry face of that most mortifying variety of tantrum, the public kind.
Camarata is all about the game plan, thinking through a strategy in advance for how you’ll handle a tantrum before you go out.
“Kids are pretty clever. They figure out that maybe there’s one set of rules at home, but when we’re out mom and dad get embarrassed if I scream, so I can get away with more,” he says. “They’re not evil. They’re just products of their environment.”
One strategy is to go out in pairs: One adult can remove the tantrumer until it passes while the other runs the errand or eats in peace. If you’re alone, go into the store knowing you might need to leave your cart momentarily. (Tell the clerk with a shrug of your shoulders that you hope to be right back.) The key is to teach your child that you’re not into appeasement. You can wait.
Stop thinking: “Thank goodness that’s over.”
Start thinking: “Now for a little positive reinforcement.”
This is really, really important—and something most of us miss. After all, it’s only natural to feel immense RELIEF when a tantrum is finally over. We just want to move on, right? But don’t. Not right away.
Eventually, even a Mount St. Helens–scale tantrum will subside. That’s when it’s time for a valuable little tactic we parents often overlook: rewarding the calm. A smile or a hug will do. Or a cheerful “I’m so glad you’re feeling better” or “Wow, it’s nice that you stopped crying.”
Positive reinforcement for calming down isn’t the same as giving in. You don’t want to do that, Camarata says. You just want to give a kind of thumbs-up for calming down and coming out the other end of it.
“Parents’ attention and approval are really powerful motivators,” he says.
The best time to do this is right when your child is calming down. A fascinating 2011 study about tantrums in the journal Emotion showed that the shrieks and wails of a tantrum actually have predictable peaks and valleys. They start in anger (yells and screams) and end in sadness (cries and whimpers).
Aim for those declines in intensity to offer your positives. If you give it too soon, during the rage, you’re rewarding the fit—your clever child will throw tantrums in order to get your attention. If the outburst revs back up in response to cuddles or praise, back off and wait it out again.
The good news: The earlier and more consistently you handle tantrums this way, the quicker your child’s brain gets wired to learn to regulate his emotions internally, which makes their frequency and intensity slow down.
“He also learns that unhappiness and discomfort are a natural part of life that will pass,” Camarata adds. That’s life-changing.
Stop thinking: “Oh, he’ll outgrow this soon enough.”
Start thinking: “Today’s capable toddler is tomorrow’s nicer teenager.”
“Teenager emotions are, let’s face it, a replica of toddlers’,” Camarata says. Teens, too, are grappling with hormonal changes, brain maturation, and critical life lessons that lead straight into battles of wills and angry outbursts.
If you’re the parent of a toddler, the ways you respond to tantrums now will help equip your future teen to cope a little better with the turbulence of adolescence, because those emotion-regulation skills will come in handy as life stressors rise.
And by getting a good handle on dealing with outbursts early in your child’s life, well, you’ll be an old hand at it by puberty, when your teen again needs you to be a calm, consistent, limit-setting rock.
If you’re the parent of a teen, Camarata says, know that the basic principles of tantrum management apply at any age. (This is a good place to highlight the mind-bending fact that he’s had at least one teenager in his house for each of the past 23 years!) First, remember that explosions are normal. Second, be patient. Just state your position calmly and succinctly; let them talk themselves in circles as they make their case without getting sucked into a debate. (Expect lots of passion.) Third, don’t give in for the sake of giving in. Reward the calmer, mature behavior.
And that’s it!
Although it’s seldom fun to see your child lose control, it’s always nice to admire the aftereffects: a kid who gets better and better at handling the rules and injustices that life throws at ’em.