Our primary job as parents is to teach our children healthy habits of self-discipline and self-regulation. I wholeheartedly believe the most successful way to do this is by connecting to our children in a calm, safe, attuned, and curious manner. When children feel safe, they have the freedom to explore, take risks and develop in healthy ways. On the contrary, if they are scared, confused, or feel shame, the part of the brain that helps them learn (the pre-frontal cortex) shuts down, and the “crisis response center” (the Amygdala) is activated. This is what is commonly referred to as the “fight/flight/freeze” response or the “hot system,” and it is at the root of all outbursts and temper tantrums. One of the most common questions I get as a therapist is, “how do I get my child to stop having fits and just listen to me?”
Here are five tips to help you reduce the frequency and severity of your children’s temper-tantrums (“fight/flight/freeze” response):
- Reflect on your emotional health: This might be the hardest tip here, but it is by far the most important one. Ask yourself, is my reaction or response to my children getting in the way? What was my childhood like growing up? How was I disciplined? Did it work well? Are there things I wish my parents would’ve done differently? Do I have the relationship with my parents that I hope to have with my children? What strategies seem to work well, and what do I need to change? Self-reflection may help us identify things within ourselves that require some work. We set the tone and role-model appropriate and/or inappropriate behaviors for our children. If we want them to use gentle hands, kind tones, cooperation, honesty, and kindness then we first need to model those behaviors for them. For those of us that grew up with developmental or relational traumas, such as emotional or physical abuse, we might have an overactive “hot system” making it difficult for us to regulate our own emotions. If this is the case, I encourage you to first take care of yourself. This might mean talking to a close friend, having an exercise routine, taking a yoga class, or starting therapy. Healthier parents make for healthier kids.
- Focus on the Four S’s: (Seen, Safe, Soothed, Secure): All people and especially children want to feel seen, safe, soothed, and secure. When a child feels seen, safe, soothed, and secure they are less likely to become angry, overactive, or irritable, and if a tantrum has already started, then their “hot system” begins to cool much faster when they feel engaged with the Four S’s. Many of our underlying emotional pain stems from a lack of the four S’s in our own life. When a child feels ignored, unsafe, agitated, and insecure we are much more likely to see anger and opposition because their flight/flight/freeze system is activated and the behaviors that follow are often labeled “bad behaviors”. Help your kids achieve the four S’s and you will see fewer outbursts.
- Set age-appropriate limits and structure: Kids need child-sized challenges, rules, limits, and structure to develop resiliency; the ability to bounce back. It is not helpful to use fear, threats, corporal punishment, or shame to “toughen them up” or “teach them a lesson.” They need to learn how to manage failure and problem-solve challenging age-appropriate situations. Setting limits lets them know what they can expect, which helps them feel safe and secure, even if they do not like the limit being set. Make sure that these rules and limits are flexible at times, when appropriate. For example, our kid’s bedtime is 7:30 pm, however, at times, we might be watching a movie and allow them to stay up a little later. Rules are important, but some can be flexible. Other rules cannot, for example hitting siblings.
- Apologize when you “lose it”: There is no such thing as perfect parenting. We all “lose it” at times. This does not mean we are bad parents or doing anything wrong. The best thing we can do in these moments make a repair with our children. Repairs are taking accountability for our own emotions and actions that may have been scary and confusing for our child to witness. Young children internalize everything, which means that they may blame themselves for a parent’s outburst, often creating fear and shame. This may sound scary as if our mistakes will cause everlasting damage, but the truth is that a sincere apology repairs our relationship and it heals the fear and shame that they may have initially felt. This is another opportunity for us to model the behavior we want to see in our children. Children do not want or need “perfect parents (whatever that might be) but they want parents who can own their mistakes and apologize when appropriate.
- Validate their emotions: This does not mean giving in to everything they want. We can validate emotions and still set limits on the behaviors that result from that emotion. “I understand you are really mad right now, but it is not OK to hit your brother. I will need to remove you to keep you and others safe.” We must be careful not to minimize, mock, or ridicule our child’s emotions, no matter how unwarranted we think their feelings are. “Stop being a baby, It’s no big deal”. Invalidation creates a child who believes certain emotions are bad, wrong, or shameful and in turn that THEY are bad or wrong. It is unrealistic for us to think children will never be mad, upset, afraid, shy, embarrassed, etc. When we mock or minimize these feelings, we are giving the message that their feelings are ‘bad.’ Then, when they feel those same feelings in the future (which they most certainly will), they will be more likely to engage in behaviors to suppress them, push them away or disconnect from them. We want to give the message that all feelings are okay, but that some behaviors do need to be corrected to maintain safety. Eventually, we can help our children learn how to regulate and manage those feelings to prevent outbursts or dangerous behaviors.
We do not need to be perfect parents to be effective parents. And the good news is, that it is never too late to affect positive change and have healthy relationships with our children. As you are working on putting these tips to use, I encourage you to begin looking at your child’s “bad behavior” as communication from them. What he or she is really saying is, “I do not yet have skills in this area, and I need your help.” As hard as it is in the moment, we are better off setting our anger and frustration aside so that we can spend time exhibiting the 4 S’s while helping them develop new skills. The question is always, “what can I teach my child at this moment from a place of love?”