When I first started working at a preschool, I was twenty-two years old, but I’d been working with children, ranging from the ages of seven to fourteen, at a sleep-away camp for over five years. During my time at the camp, I’d dealt with numerous tantrums, and they all had a particular reason behind them, such as bad sportsmanship, homesickness, self-consciousness, hunger, and not wanting to shower. Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to deal with tantrums is to get down to that bottom line. Why are you upset? How can I help fix this problem? Except when I worked at the preschool, I ran into a tantrum that seemed to stem from nowhere.
Our class was outside playing in the snow at the end of the day. One of the girls, standing in the snow, had the zipper of her jacket undone. I went over to her and began zippering her jacket up. She started growing more and more upset and crying. I said, “What’s wrong, Carli?” (That’s not her real name).
She cried out to the clouds, “I DON’T KNOW!!”
It’s true; sometimes not even your child will know why they’re throwing a tantrum. I would like to propose that just because the tantrum may at the surface appear to have no obvious reason, and just because even your child might not know why they’re throwing a tantrum, no tantrum is baseless. Now, that’s not to say that base isn’t something stupid and/or selfish (I once had a kid who threw a tantrum because he wanted to watch his towel dry).
I think, looking back, that Carli was just cold, or she couldn’t handle socializing around all the kids playing in the snow. Her gloves were messed up, and she had snot dripping from her nose, which also must’ve contributed to her tantrum (without a tissue, I bit the bullet and wiped her nose with my sleeve, no big deal, and gained a far more valuable lesson: if you work at a preschool, always keep tissues in your pocket). Then again, Carli was always a volatile case, so maybe something else was running through her head, something from home. Whatever the issue was, Carli’s young mind was unable to put it into words.
At its foundation, that’s how I’d define a tantrum: when a child (or teen, or adult) uses their emotions inordinately to their dialogue because they don’t know how to communicate their problem in a better way. What’s important is to teach them the skills necessary to communicate their problems better in the future.
Asking mothers how they deal with tantrums, my top two answers were ignoring them and sending them to their room. Last summer, one of the mothers of my campers said that when her son throws a tantrum, she locks herself in her own room while he bangs on the door and screams. She asked me for advice on how to get him to stop when he gets home. I said, “Unlock your door.”
At the preschool, teachers do not ignore tantrums or let them continue, nor do we send them to a separate room. By elementary school, they can be sent to the guidance counselor, where they will talk and communicate as well. When a tantrum occurs in class, or a tantrum occurs at my camp, I do what most teachers do. I get down to their level and hold their hands softly (after first getting them to stay put in one place if it happen to be a stomping tantrum). I tell them to look at me, which is something you do when speaking to troublemakers also, to take their attention. With troublemakers, tone should be serious and stern, but with a tantrum, tone should be cool and soothing.
To get Carli to calm down I said, “I understand,” even though I didn’t. I said, “It’s going to be all right.” Try these similar phrases, even if your child is trantrumming for a selfish reason, like wanting a toy. Every tantrum is situational, so what you talk about and what you say to calm them down will always be different. It is true that locking your door will also solve a tantrum (after perhaps an hour or so), but in the end, the problem won’t be addressed, and I have no doubt more tantrums will follow.