The Integrated Mind

From Tantrum to Teachable Moment: A Step by Step Guide

All moms and early childhood educators have been there at least one time. You may have even anticipated the tantrum coming, like watching the birds fly south just before we feel the cold temperatures of winter. Unlike the birds however, as parents and teachers, we need to stay present, and ensure the safety of the child experiencing strong emotion. We also need to ensure the safety of those around the child, and the environment the tantrum is being held in. So, I ask you…..What do YOU do when your child’s emotions are just TOO MUCH?

1. Recognize What Is Happening Within YOU

Check in with your chest, stomach, feet and hands. Are they moving, tight, queezy, clammy, clenched, numb….what is happening physically within you as you witness the child experiencing their own strong emotion.

Scan your body from toes to head. Answer the question, “What is happening within me?” through the felt senses. This will allow you to experience your physical sensations in real time while skillfully distracting the story in your head. During a stress response, the story in our heads tends to be about what should be happening and what answers you should have. This is not a productive way to manage a tense, electric, screaming child. The body scan will shift your focus from the story in your head to to a far more productive response of bearing witness to your shared experience.

If you catch your thoughts at this time, you can replace any “Oh no! Not again!” language with “I see my hands clenched. I feel my toes wiggle. I feel my chest thumping as my heartbeat quickens.” Replace emotional language with descriptive words of the physical sensations being felt. This will support a compassionate and rationale response and decrease the chances of our own tantrum rising up and joining the child’s.

Teacher comforts young boy as he expresses sadness and frustration.
As teachers and moms, we can allow our children the space to express themselves during times of strong emotion with a heart filled presence, and little speech.

2. Listen More Than You Speak

This may be the most challenging of the steps for the tantrum observing adult, however following Step #1 will support listening more than you speak; or yell. As we practice recognizing what is happening physically within ourselves while bearing witness to a screaming, wailing child, we will skillfully distract the planning mind with body awareness in real time.

During times of high stress, the planning mind enters into a state of hyper vigilance, sometimes resulting in an adult who increases the energy of the child’s tantrum with their own, louder, stronger, version. In this moment the adult is modeling having a tantrum to the young child. This reinforces to the child that the way to manage strong emotion is to match it with your own. An adult who yells at a child to stop having a tantrum is reinforcing having a tantrum as a way to deal with life. Enter more tantrums in the future.

When the adult observer models stillness and quiet during the child’s strong emotion, the child will match them. Thereby reducing the climax of the tantrum on its own emotional timetable, with closure, and a feeling of completeness.

3. Allow the Tantrum to Decline On Its Own

Practicing Steps #1 and #2 will reduce the time of the tantrum by giving the strong emotion space to climax and decline naturally. When we allow emotions to have a natural onset, incline, climax, and decline, we leave the experience with a sense of completion. When we force emotion down and in, we leave residual emotion to store and build.

Allow emotion to release on its own timetable, when it is ready. This will prevent an explosive eruption of, like the volcano pictured here.

Think of a volcano that needs to erupt, but cannot because a large crater is blocking it. How does the volcano get settled in nature? Does the pressure that is building in the volcano just subside because the crater told it to settle? Does the volcano say “You know what? I didn’t need to erupt and release that magma anyway. Thanks crater.” OR….Does the volcano erupt bigger, faster, and more explosive than ever, in an unpredictable fashion, when we least expect it? You guessed correctly, I am sure. Explosion city.

Allow your child to experience emotion as it comes. Make them feel safe with your presence and attentiveness MORE that with your words. If you would like to discuss the tantrum or the strong emotions, enter into the discussion oragnically and at a time of neutrailty, begining with an experience that you yourself have had, making the child feel understood and heard.

If you or your child would like support with emotional regulation and stress management, click through to our online one on one mindfulness coaching and online courses here.

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