I have a three-year-old and he can throw some wild tantrums when he gets overtired or is frustrated. While I know tantrums are normal for three-year-olds (he is my first), the intensity of his feelings worries me a bit. While he’s at the height of his tantrum, he keeps saying, “I want to stop”.
I’m just a bit worried that he’s feeling like he can’t control this feelings. Is this part normal?
Also, what is the best way to handle him when he gets so angry and upset like this?
The intensity of a preschooler’s tantrum can take you by surprise. The ferocity and rawness of their emotion can be alarming, even though it is all normal for their stage of development. At three years of age, they are still learning how to regulate and manage their intense emotions and usually they are better able to do this when they start school. It is important to remember that three-year-olds need the help of their parents and caregiver’s to manage their emotions. By listening, being warm and soothing, you help them learn over time to understand and manage their feelings.
In addition, it is perfectly normal for your three-year-old to “want to stop” a tantrum but not know how and indeed it is great that he can tell you this as this is the beginning of emotional literacy. By being reassuring and understanding you will help him cope. Below are some more ideas as to how you can respond and help your son manage his emotions.
If you react or get angry when your son is throwing a tantrum this is liable to cause things to escalate. Critical or angry reactions also give your son the message that there is something wrong with this emotions and does not help him understand them. So the key to managing a tantrum is to pause and respond calmly. This may be far from easy in the heat of the moment, but you can learn to do it by taking a step back, pausing to breathe or counting to 10 etc. While he might get upset, the goal is for you to be calm and to act as a counterbalance to his out of control emotions.
Tune into your son’s emotions
Take a moment to understand and to help him understand his emotions. Empathising and putting words on his feelings can really help – ‘you sound very cross’ or ‘its hard when the toy breaks’ or ‘I know you are very tired’. Be very understanding if he says ‘he can’t stop’. For example, you might say ‘that is ok… we all get upset sometime’, ‘come here and I can help you calm down’.
Soothe your son
Notice what helps your son calm down when he is upset in a tantrum. Most young children need a reassuring hug and/or a warm, soothing tone to help them manage their emotions. Some children might like being held or rocked gently while you repeat a soothing phrase such as “Shhs, it is all fine now”. Others like a little bit of space in a quiet corner, with you being nearby and reassuring. Find out what works for your son.
Managing a tantrum
You ask in your question about what is the best way to manage a tantrum. In truth, it depends on the cause of the tantrum. While it is always important to be calm and understanding, different strategies work depending on the cause. For example:
1) If your son is angry with you because he can’t go out, continuing to talk with him to explain the reasons why he can’t go out, will likely aggravate the tantrum. Instead, he might need less talk and a bit of space to back down. Focusing him on an alternative positive choice might help – “You can’t go out, but you can play with your cars”. Positive distractions can work very well with preschoolers.
2) If his tantrum escalates and becomes a “battle of wills” to get you to change your mind, taking a break is important. You might ask him to sit on the couch for a few minutes to calm – “When you are calm, then we can play”. Make sure your tone is calm and friendly and give him lots of praise when he changes his behaviour – “Good boy, now we can play with the cars”.
3) However, if your son is overtired or overwhelmed, then a completely different approach is needed. Then he might need lots of gentle soothing and contact with you. Sitting with him and holding and soothing him and being warm and patient will all help. It might also work to do a relaxing, low-energy activity with him such as reading a book together or playing some nice, quiet music in the background to change the mood.
Prevent tantrums in the first place
Finally, take time to notice the triggers for your son’s tantrums so you can avoid them in the first place. If he is tired after preschool, set up a relaxing routine for when he comes home with music and perhaps having a lie-down together on the couch. If he gets stressed in a busy supermarket, find a way of avoiding taking him in the first place or go at a quieter time.
If you do have to take him to the supermarket, try to make it a fun experience by giving him his own shopping list with three items and having a nice reward at the end.
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John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Parenting preschoolers and young children. See www.solutiontalk.ie