This post was written in collaboration with the Mind in the Making team.
Tantrums are an inevitable and expected part of life with young children that can be very challenging for adults, especially as we deal with the long-term impacts of the pandemic. As children learn how to manage their strong feelings, sometimes their frustration, anger, or sorrow overwhelms them and they kick, push, or they yell.
But what if there were a new way to see and manage temper tantrums?
While meltdowns or lashing out feel frustrating to us as adults, they can provide an opportunity to help children learn critical life skills. Instead of responding to these moments by trying to cope with or control outbursts, you can shift your mindset to see them as teaching moments.
When you see things differently, you do things differently. With support from experts, we have created a series of tools to help you do just that.
Working with the Experts
First Book is collaborating with Ellen Galinsky and Erin Ramsey of Mind in the Making at the Bezos Family Foundation to help educators and families with children ages 4-8, to promote key life skills, such as self-control, communicating, and taking on challenges.
To help shape our work, First Book surveyed 2,500 of our Network members to identify the behavioral challenges faced most frequently in this community. Using the survey feedback and the science of learning and brain development, the Mind in the Making team created a series of skill-building opportunities tip sheets that we share with families and our community each week. These resources have been critical to supporting educators through the pandemic and its related stress.
Managing Emotional Breakdowns and Temper Tantrums
When we talk about emotional breakdowns or how to manage temper tantrums, we really mean how to communicate effectively with a child and how to help them learn to communicate effectively with us. While the challenge may be different – talking back, swearing in public, angering easily – the solution for families and educators begins with how you choose to respond in the moment. When you help children learn to express their feelings and emotions in healthy and respectful ways, you’re helping them build a life skill of communicating.
Implementing Skill-Building Strategies and Understanding Autonomy-Supportive Practices
Simply put, autonomy-support means that adults don’t fix problems for children, and they don’t stand by and do nothing either. Instead, adults involve the children in helping to fix problems for themselves. Studies have identified five key strategies in autonomy-supportive caregiving, which you can use in handling temper tantrums to promote the life skill of communicating:
- Take Your Child’s View: Notice how your child may be feeling. Children often lash out in a classroom or with their parents because they don’t have the right words or feel overwhelmed by their own emotions. Help children process their emotions by modeling behaviors.
- Share Reasons: Set limits and explain the rationale of how their actions can make others feel. Recognize the child’s feelings, helping them understand there are other ways they can effectively communicate.
- Provide Choices: Just as you’ve made a choice to react in a certain way, children need help understanding their own choices when they feel challenged. Offer them options within limits that help them calm down and manage their emotions and their reactions. Provide verbal examples so they understand the decision to be made.
- Problem-Solve Together: Invite children to think of other solutions and ideas for next time. Including them in the process helps create ownership and responsibility for the way they communicate. You can suggest ideas too, recollecting recent memories of ways they’ve reacted. Make a list together and decide which one of their ideas they may want to try next time.
- Scaffold: Build on the child’s efforts. When they try a strategy for controlling anger outbursts or temper tantrums, call it out and if it worked well, celebrate the moment. Appreciate when they are communicating effectively and respectfully; again, modeling the behavior will teach them about the process and show that it takes practice.
Successfully communicating, at any age, means thinking about what we want to share, stepping back to consider how our words or actions impact others, and then choosing how we express ourselves based on the perspective of the other person. This life skill is best developed when children can learn to express their thoughts and feelings, rather than being told what to say or do. Self-control is another critical executive function skill that helps regulate behavior, emotions, and the ability to control what we think. These are just two of the life skills the opportunity mindset tip sheets help caring adults explore to in turn support children.
Resources On the Go
For caregivers and educators hoping to receive quick reminders on their phones, especially when the meltdown is happening, we recommend opting in to receive the Opportunity Mindset Tips series from First Book. The tips are designed to turn the temper tantrum from frustration into a teachable moment. New resources are released weekly.
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To help you get started, you can access a few of our other communicating life skills tip sheets below:
- Talking Back: Does your child talk back? Use these tips to help them learn to express themselves with respect. Available in English and Spanish.
- Emotional Breakdowns: Does your child have trouble sharing strong emotions without outbursts? Use these tips to teach ways to express big feelings. Available in English and Spanish.
- Inappropriate Language: Communicating involves figuring out what we want to say and how our words affect others. Self-control involves resisting the urge to go on auto-pilot and instead, doing what we need to do to reach a goal. Available in English and Spanish.
- Helping Kids Play: Are angry outbursts keeping your child from making friends? Use these tips to help them make and keep friends. Available in English and Spanish.
We have tip sheets about the other life skills as well. Thank you to the Bezos Family Foundation for their support in developing these resources. The Bezos Family Foundation is an independent nonprofit foundation whose mission is to invest in the science of learning and the experiences that youth from prenatal through young adulthood need to pursue their own path for success.
Exploring and learning from our tip sheets give parents the opportunity to turn challenges into learning opportunities. It begins with us.