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How to Deal With Tantrums (Without Losing Your Cool)

Tiffany Naemura

Public tantrums are every parent's headache. (As a former nanny, I can tell you they’re not easy for childcare providers, either.) Instead of fuming, making a hasty exit or attempting to wheedle your child into a better mood, however, you can use those moments to foster acceptance and communication skills.

Below, you’ll find five of the very best positive discipline techniques derived from psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s rules for nonviolent communication to help you diffuse tense moments, keep your cool and make sure both your needs and your child’s needs are being met when those dreaded public outbursts strike.

1. Identify unmet needs and name feelings.

Plying your kids with gifts isn't the answer. Instead, cultivate a vocabulary for needs and feelings so that you can be empathetic. If you have a child that is pre-words or just learning to talk, verbalize for them what need you think they might be having.

For example: “I hear you being loud and yelling ‘no, no, no!’ I think you are feeling upset because you need me to give you some attention.” Or, “It looks to me like you really wanted that toy and you are feeling frustrated when you hear me say not today. Do you need me to listen to you?”

Show warmth while communicating, asking questions and listening to the answers.

2. Don’t make behavior the focus.

It is very, very tempting to try to curb sobbing, kicking, or screaming first. Instead, let your child know you take them seriously and are going to work to hear them and help them.

They may need to be held and soothed for a while, or even closely monitored in a place where they cannot hurt themselves if they are not wanting to be touched. (There’s no shame in using a store aisle or your car to do this.)

If you can’t go anywhere else, remember that the quickest way to deescalate a situation is to listen to the person with strong feelings, repeating back to them (or for them) the feelings you hear them expressing.

Judgment over the feelings will only create more bad feelings.

Sometimes the only thing we can do is simply accept that our child is unhappy at the moment.

3. Use protective force if necessary.

Marshall Rosenberg describes -- and I have put this to use as a nanny -- the “protective use of force” for situations where the child is hurting someone else or you or even themselves. He makes clear that this is not touch that is angry, judgmental or retributive. Protective force is only ever for preventing harm, not for causing it or for use as punishment.

Small children may need to be carried away from a situation where they are hurting another child. Even larger children might need to have arms wrapped firmly around them in order to prevent harm to themselves or others. Protective force should be followed by engaged conversation regarding needs and feelings.

4. Quickly negotiate a solution that works for everyone, if possible.

For an older child you might say something like, “You need attention, and I need relaxation. Let’s make a deal: I’ll play this game with you for 15 minutes and then I will read my book for 15 minutes, how does that sound?”

Be willing to bargain a little, and most importantly, keep your word.

For a younger child, you might tell them, “It’s so hard when we can’t bring home the toy you want. I will help you find some ways to have choice at home.”

Kids can start to see that sometimes parents meet their needs, and that they can learn to meet their own, too.

5. Don't forget to share your needs, also.

Connection is a two-way street. Remember that kids are savvy when it comes to equity. "Acting out" is often simply an unskillful plea for connection.

It's important that you model the naming of and meeting of your own needs for peace or cooperation or respect, for example, using age-appropriate terms. This will reassure your child and help them understand what non-judgmental connection is supposed to look like.

Start wherever you are at; don't fret over situations that have already transpired. Model self-acceptance.

There is no perfect resolution to times of tension or outburst, but there can be forward motion as we teach our children that being upset is not the end of the world and that strong feelings pass when we identify what we're needing.

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Tiffany Naemura

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