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Attachment Parenting

Tantrums!: Managing the melt-downs
by Gaye E. McKinnon
No parent enjoys dealing with their children's tantrums! They are distressing to all parties involved and even potentially quite embarrassing in public. We all hope that as our children make their way through infancy, toddlerdom and childhood, they will come to learn better ways of coping with frustration and anger than throwing a tantrum. Opinions as to how to achieve this aim differ widely however. I believe that as attachment parents, we can deal with tantrums in a way that is both effective and consistent with the philosophy of our parenting style.

Prevention is better than cure!

Life can be pretty frustrating for babies and young children! There are SO many interesting things that they want to touch, play with, taste, climb and so on and yet for their own safety and to stop things being broken, there are boundaries. When a child is tired, hungry, teething or sick, the tolerance for frustration tends to be particularly low.

Probably the best way to deal with tantrums is to prevent them whenever possible! Knowing your child well can really help here. As an AP parent, you know your children so well, what fazes them, what they tolerate well. You can sense when they are starting to get tired or grumpy and change activity BEFORE things get to tantrum stage. You know your child's best time of day so you can plan on doing the grocery shopping then. You can even use a "confectionery-free" check-out if normal check-outs tend to create problems for your child.

Child-proofing the home as much as possible will assist in keeping frustration levels to a minimum for babies and toddlers. No one likes hearing (or saying) "No" all day everyday! Children ideally should be able to explore and play without undue restrictions. If you don't want baby to play with something, either for his own safety or because you don't want it broken, then keep it out of sight and out of reach!

Some young children, even more so than others, need a lot of preparation before doing something like leaving a playground. Elizabeth Pantley suggests in her wonderful book Kid Cooperation to use the 5-3-1-go technique, of giving five minutes, then three, then one minute warnings and then always going when the time is up. This book has other fantastic parenting skills explained that can also help avoid melt-downs. Keeping some humour and fun in the way you interact with your child is one idea that is particularly helpful.

When a tantrum strikes!

Despite our best planning and interventions, it is inevitable that tantrums will occur from time to time. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to create a perfect world for our children nor to protect them from all difficult emotions. Some children will be prone to having more than others, due to their inherent personality, and parents should TRY not to take this as a sign that they are "bad" parents. Tantrums are normal behaviour in young children, no matter how they are parented.

I think it is important for children to feel that they are allowed to have and express "negative emotions" without being rejected or unloved. If they feel they must always "put on a happy face" then they grow up with the idea that anger, frustration and so on are unacceptable emotions and to be repressed at all costs. I do not believe this is healthy. On the other hand, I think that it is important to learn that there are acceptable ways of expressing these emotions, and tantrums are not amongst them! Alternatives need to be learnt and of course as always, parents are in an ideal position to set an example. If the parents regularly shout and throw things when things don't go to plan, the child can hardly be expected to behave any better!

Once a tantrum has already begun, depending on the age of the child and his temperament, you MIGHT be able to stop it in its tracks by using humour, distraction, using a suggestion to the child such as telling him to take deep breaths, giving the child a cuddle, or showing that you sympathise. Some melt-downs are not going to be mellowed quickly, however, and sometimes the best you can do is to be there for your child, giving as much or as little physical and verbal support as he seems to want or need. I don't believe a child should be forced to stop tantruming if he isn't ready - sometimes he needs to get it out of his system. In the long term, of course, you want him to learn other ways of dealing with it, but you have plenty of time on your side! I do not agree with the notion of ignoring tantrums: even if the child is pushing you away, staying nearby and being ready to help if necessary shows your child that even when they are out of control, you will not abandon them.

Empathising and validating your child's feelings are so important. Sometimes just saying something like, "You really wanted to play with that light. It's frustrating when you aren't allowed to," can help the child calm down and even if it doesn't, at least the child knows you understand. In a child who is able to talk, encouraging him to talk about his feelings will also diffuse the situation. Allowing your child to fantasise can also be helpful. If he is upset about not getting lollies at the supermarket, you could let him talk about how many truckloads he would like to eat, what sorts and so on. By the time you have finished your daydream the whole mood is likely to have changed: you might even both be laughing!

A baby or toddler who has a melt-down is in need of our help! He or she needs to be comforted through the experience, which is bound to be pretty scary, and helped gradually over time to develop the skills necessary to cope without tantrums in the future. The older and more verbal the child, the more likely you are to have success in teaching ways of calming himself down. What you teach will depend on you and your child, but some ideas include taking deep breaths, talking through angers and frustrations BEFORE things get to melting point, having some area in the home that is set up as a quiet/calm area, with books and/or music, where the child can go when he is starting to feel stressed (won't work if you are out of course), patting or playing with the dog. The list is potentially endless!

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I don't believe that babies and young children start throwing tantrums with the intention of manipulating their parents. However, I do think that if parents make a habit of "giving in" in the heat of a tantrum, children can quickly learn the best way to get what they want! Children are pretty smart after all: if a child sees that he doesn't get attention or has his request answered until he is as loud and violent as possible, that is setting the scene for some future bad behaviour.

It is a good idea to not say "No" in the first place unless you are sure you want to stick by that decision. If you are not sure, then allow yourself time to make a decision. I think it is acceptable for a child, especially older ones, to discuss with you a decision you make. I also think that on the very odd occasion, given that we are all human and might sometimes change our minds, it is okay to change a "No" to a "Yes". The important thing I believe though is that if a child is to discuss a matter with his parents, it is done in a polite manner. A child who knows by experience that a tantrum will get him nowhere, but that by talking through the issue calmly and respectfully he will at least have a fair hearing, will quickly learn not to deliberately throw tantrums.

Tantrums are not a pleasant part of parenting, but parents can get through this phase with the use of good humour, persistence and responding to their children's individual needs. Attachment parenting is a great help!

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