Controlling Children’s Tantrums: 6 Tips to Foster Self-Control

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MY PARTNER STILL recalls the day our son decided to throw a royal tantrum. He was about three then. It happened on an afternoon when he had accompanied his father to do the family shopping. My partner doesn’t quite remember what sparked the tantrum. What he remembers, though, are the feelings of helplessness when our son did everything but throw himself on the ground.

The worst thing, he said, is that he tried everything to calm him down. Everything failed. The last straw was when other shoppers began to look at him suspiciously (he says they looked at him as though he were a kidnapper) and he felt that the only choice left was to leave. And so he did. Leaving his shopping cart and everything he had bought in it, he picked up our son and walked out.

Five years later, he still occasionally speaks of the tantrum. I suppose he was caught off guard as our son had always been what we often proudly referred to as an “easy toddler”. Little did we know that there would be other occasions when we would feel as though we were on a furious rollercoaster. When the tantrums came, they were large and mighty. On those occasions, our son seemed especially big, and as we watched helplessly, we felt especially small. We were lucky, though, because the tantrums were few and far between. We had what were “normal” tantrums.

Dealing with tantrum-throwing kids is one of the scariest things out there because parents don’t always know how to react. What’s more, they always feel somewhat responsible for being unable to “tame their child” (nasty sideways looks and snide remarks in public don’t help either!). Dealing with angry children is scary business because if anger in children is not conquered and thrust aside, it can fester and have far-reaching consequences.

Self-regulation has been found to be an effective way of managing anger in young children. It is defined as the ability to control oneself. It has been associated with school readiness, wellbeing and academic achievement during childhood and adolescence (you can read about some of these studies here, here and here).

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Children lacking self-regulation have a greater tendency to experience problems complying with rules and limits. Self-regulation helps these children learn to take responsibility for their actions. Self-regulated learning has been linked to success in and beyond school. Self-regulated learning is about building individual accountability for one’s actions by taking control of and self-evaluating behaviour.

According to Professor Adele Diamond, cognitive skills are critical for school and life. Developing children’s cognitive skills enhances self-regulation. Professor Diamond argues that experiences available to ALL cultures such as music, dance, storytelling and play help foster these skills. She insists that failing to teach young children cognitive skills places them on a negative trajectory that can be extremely difficult and costly to reverse. She teaches that:

• Neither fancy equipment nor specialists are required to help your child develop cognitive skills.
• These skills can be developed in very young children.

Teaching your child self-control is an important step on the path to self-regulation. Self-control is the ability to do what is appropriate rather than what your child wants to do. This includes keeping to the task at hand, reducing impulsive behaviour and teaching your child to pay attention despite distractions.

How can you help your child?

1) Teach your child to express him/herself

Young children are not always able to define their feelings and can find it difficult to differentiate between feelings. Professor Diamond asserts that putting feelings into words can help your child develop self-regulation.

This can be achieved by encouraging your child to express their feelings out loud. Young children can express their feelings appropriately only when they have learnt to accurately identify their emotions and those of others. Help your child recognise different kinds of feelings. Resources such as The Feelings Book, Feelings Flash Cards and The Way I Feel are great for illustrating different moods in vivid ways.

2) Teach your child to identify and respond appropriately to warning signs

Helping your child identify warning signs is an important step in helping him/her manage anger. Identify acceptable ways of responding to feelings with your child (jump on the trampoline, draw a mandala, paint, change rooms). For instance, give your child a paper on which you can ask him/her to identify warning signs by drawing on one side of the paper what he/she feels when the anger begins (How I felt) and drawing on the other side how he/she responded to those feelings in a healthy way (What I did).

TIP: It can be helpful for your child to pair feelings and reactions (for instance, when I start getting angry I ride my bike; when I start getting bored, I colour a mandala).

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3) Teach your child to manage stress

Young children need to be taught to regulate their behaviour and develop acceptable ways of expressing their emotions. Exercises such as breathing exercises, relaxation, imagination and distraction have been found to be effective when dealing with angry children.

Mandalas are an excellent art therapy for calming children. A mandala is a circular complex and abstract design that uses evenly distributed patterns to create a feeling of balance and harmony. You and your child can create these designs or you can download them for free here. You can also get a paperback version here.

4) Reward rather punish
Rather than punish your child for bad behaviour, reward him/her for good behaviour. For instance, at the end of every week, reward him/her for responding appropriately to his/her emotions over the past week. It is important to keep the objective in mind, though: your child’s ability to identify his/her emotions. Reward your child when he/she writes down his/her emotions.

5) Walk away
By trying to calm your angry child, you’re bound to get stressed and angry and make the situation worse. Distancing yourself from your child can be an effective way of dealing with the situation. It will do both of you good.

6) Ask for help

Sometimes, simply speaking with other people about your child can offer much relief. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from parents, teachers and other professionals if you’re having trouble with your child and if nothing seems to be working.

Would you like help with your child’s anger or anxiety? Join my free 4-week email course to get practical tools and resources.

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