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David Baxter PhD

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Top Temper Tamers: Quick tricks to stop tantrums in their tracks
June 17, 2004
by Jacqueline Kovacs, Today's Parent

Got kids? Then you can expect tantrums. “Tantrums are perfectly normal,” says Sarah Liddell, manager of the mother-infant program at Toronto’s Mothercraft Society. “They’re just an expression of the other side — the chaotic side — of our emotions.”

Emotional chaos may come with the parenting turf, but what do you do when the turf is not your own? While you may be able to reasonably handle your three-year-old’s tantrum at home, reason is often in short supply when Madison has a meltdown in the mall.

Enter the temper tamers: Band-Aids to quickly soothe emotional booboos until they can be properly treated at home. And who knows? Maybe by the time you get there, the booboo will be better already. Here are a few to try:

Put the Squeeze on Screaming
When my two oldest were five and three, and one of them was clearly en route to a tantrum, I’d get the little powder keg to squeeze my index finger. “Have you started yet?” I’d jokingly ask. “I don’t feel anything. Come on. Squeeze harder!” Inevitably the squeezer would start to laugh. Then, I’d shake all the angry feelings out of my finger and into the toilet, or garbage or outside. The kids liked this trick so much that even the one who was calm would want a squeeze too.

For Your Eyes Only
“If Matthew, my 3½-year-old, loses it in public, my first thought is to get us both out of sight as soon as possible — behind a clothes rack, in a fire escape, change rooms, whatever I can find,” says Ottawa mom Jennifer Latimer*. “You just feel like everyone’s looking at you. It’s embarrassing and I don’t want my son to be the centre of attention. I know I’ll react more calmly if I can deal with it privately. I also find removing him from the physical situations makes it easier to get over whatever it was that triggered the tantrum. Once in private, I try very calmly to wait it out or talk him down with lots of praise when he has control of his emotions.”

Back at Ya!
Imitation is not just the most sincere form of flattery — used carefully and without shaming, it can also be an effective cooling agent when tempers are heating up. “My son, Nathan, is 2½ years old, and he whines and cries a lot,” says Christine Lee of Edmonton. “My husband and I have found that if we cry out, ‘WAAAAHH!’ when he’s whining, he starts to laugh and forgets what he was so crabby about.”

Use Foresight to Forestall
Before you go out with your child, try to think of what tantrum-triggering temptations lie ahead. By laying down some ground rules, you may be able to prevent the problem. “I do try to anticipate what will set my son off and then talk him through it,” says Latimer. “I’ll say, ‘We are going to the park, but we’re not going to buy ice cream from the cart, even if other children are getting some. We will have a treat after supper instead.’” This approach works for a lot of kids, agrees Liddell, “because then they know what they’re supposed to do.” As for Latimer, she reports hearing her son calmly reassuring himself that his treat is coming later, even when the dreaded ice cream cart arrives at the park.

Bribe — I Mean, Reward
Valerie Ellis, a mother of five from Aurora, Ont., admits to using “incentives” to keep bad tempers at bay. “If I can see that Flynn (three) is on the verge of a tantrum, I get down to her level and quietly say, ‘If you start being good, you’ll get a treat when we get home.’” Used sparingly, she says, it does the trick.

Laugh It Off
Humour can do wonders to defuse your tiny time bomb. But proceed with caution and avoid mocking, warns Latimer. “You have to read a situation or sometimes humour can make it worse,” she points out. “The other day, my son stubbed his toe and was losing it. After checking his toe, I knew he wasn’t really too hurt. While checking the toe, I counted and said, ‘Oh no, there’s only four toes. We’d better find that missing toe.’ He burst into laughter and said that he found it!”

The World Is Watching
When an emotional storm is brewing, sometimes being in public can actually work to your advantage. When my son, Riley, was about age four and was in the early stages of a tantrum, my husband would crouch down beside him and whisper in his ear, “All these people are watching what you’re doing.” Becoming aware of what was around him seemed to break the tantrum spell.

Abandon Ship
Of course, there are times when no matter what you do, you can’t stop your child’s tantrum. So what’s the best course of action when you’ve got a cart of groceries and your kid is flailing in the frozen food section? “Leave the situation completely,” advises Liddell. And while she acknowledges that, yes, it’s hard to turn your back on the week’s groceries, this gives your child the message that a tantrum won’t get him what he wants. The result? According to Liddell: “It will probably be the only time you’ll have to do it.”

Heat on the Home Front
When tantrums erupt at home, you usually have more options than you would at the park. So what are the best ways to cool things down? First, says Sarah Liddell, of Toronto’s Mothercraft Society, try to stay calm yourself and get the tantrum in perspective. “A tantrum is a child’s expression of a lack of control,” she explains. “All of their inner control mechanisms — their ability to manage their anger and frustration — have fallen apart. And their bodies react as well, so you get the yelling, the kicking, the screaming.” Once that happens, she says, you need to give your child time to get her body back under control, and you need to help her along.

What to do depends on your child’s age and temperament. For some children, the best way to help is to put them in a safe place — like their bedroom — to let the tantrum fizzle out. They also might find a release for their anger by punching a pillow or stomping their feet. Older kids might choose to play their music louder or draw an angry picture or two.

Others, says Liddell, need a parent to sit with them or even hold them. Don’t worry that this somehow endorses the tantrum. By offering to hug a child or just sit with her, you’re reassuring her that she’s not being rejected. “They need to get the message that it’s OK to be mad,” Liddell says, “but you can’t hurt anyone.”

* Family’s name changed by request.
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