I bet you can relate—last week I ran errands with my youngest, who was in a perfectly fine mood…until seemingly out of NOWHERE he crumbled into a huge meltdown. Who knew the bank being out of green suckers was such a crisis? 😩
Luckily, now I have an easy 4-step strategy that helps me figure situations like that out, so I don’t descend into tears and yelling myself.
Many of our hardest parenting moments come during tantrums—they’re enough to drive anyone over the edge. I’ll admit that my first reaction has often been anger or frustration. Which…doesn’t help.
Instead, I found what *does* help is to understand what’s really going on with my boys (and their brains!) before addressing their behavior.
Here’s what I learned: Yes, preschoolers completely freak out, usually for what seems like no real reason—but believe it or not, there IS a reason!
See, the part of little kids’ brains that handles logic, thinking before you act, and problem solving…HASN’T ACTUALLY DEVELOPED YET—not until age 5-7!
That means ANY amount of anxiety or frustration floods kids’ brains with cortisol, nature’s powerful “flight or fight” hormone, and kids literally CAN’T regulate their response—not being able to watch Daniel Tiger is basically just as stressful to them as being chased by an actual tiger. 😳
So, tantrums are inevitable—they’re part of how our kids are wired. BUT, the part we can control is how we react, which has a huge impact (on our stress, and theirs). These four P’s help me remember the steps to staying calm:
My son really had his heart set on that green sucker—and when they didn’t have one, my (fully developed, logical) brain thought, “Oh well, pink suckers are good too!” But his emotional brain had no way to process his disappointment and frustration, and no way to think about a solution…thus his total end-of-the-world meltdown. For him it DID feel like the end of the world.
Plus, tension and little frustrations build up in little ones throughout the day, until they finally EXPLODE—which is another reason tantrums seem illogical. Many times they’re upset over a lot of things, not only whatever just happened (and frankly, I do that too!).
I’m not saying that makes dealing with tantrums fun! But it really helps me be more understanding about his feelings when I stop to think about where he’s coming from.
Then I can meet him where he is (in the thick of his emotions) and reflect it back.
Really empathizing—saying, “I see you’re really mad!! You’ve been looking forward to that lollipop ALL DAY!”—might get a, “Yeah, I AM mad!” in response—and an end to the escalation.
Whereas Qs like “Why are you crying?!” get me nowhere, because he can’t think straight. That would take logic, which he just doesn’t have. 🤷
Ok, the next two “P”s will take you from *understanding* their tantrum to *dealing with* it.
Instead of taking the behavior personally (“Why can’t you just let me finish these errands in peace?!?”), see if you can observe it like a scientist. Think about when and where this type of behavior rears its head, and maybe you’ll find a pattern.
I was so busy, I didn’t realize that it was past lunch time when we finally got to the bank. My son was hangry! Finding patterns to your kiddo’s behavior—maybe they tend to melt down in crowded places, when they’re tired, or when they haven’t gotten enough physical activity—can help you understand and end tantrums, and sometimes even avoid them to begin with.
Try to figure out what they really want or need from the situation—in other words, the purpose behind their behavior. Maybe they’re feeling insecure in a new place, and need reassurance that they’re safe. Maybe they’re acting out because they’re bored and need stimulation, or maybe (like my kiddo) they just need some dang lunch! Finally, the last P…
Whenever possible, let your kiddo know what you DO want them to do, instead of what you DON’T want them to do. It’s all too easy to say “stop” and “no,” but your kid has a better chance at improving their behavior if they have a positive path to follow.
Think, “Please touch the table gently” or “Show me how quietly you can put your cup down this time,” rather than “Stop banging on the table—it’s too loud.”
And of course patience (accompanied by deep breaths) goes a long way, too. Remember that your child is only a few years old and may need juuuust a bit more time before his logical brain catches up with his emotional one. 😉