Parents learn to cope with child’s tantrums
By Shannon Mullen, Staff Writer
It is hard to watch, especially if you have ever experienced something similar yourself. The blond-haired preschooler, enraged that she was denied a seat beside her friend, flails her arms and fists and wails like a fire engine in a red-hot hurry.
Five minutes pass, 10 minutes, and still she rages. It is “the mother of all meltdowns,” said Grace Hanlon, a Fair Haven child development specialist who videotaped the episode for her documentary “Challenging Behaviors in Young Children.” Hanlon said the tantrum went on so long, in fact, that she had to edit some of it out.
The clip was shown during a panel discussion Friday titled “Tantrums: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — How to Respond.” The hourlong session, held at Pollak Theatre on the campus of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, was part of the Two River Film Festival, which concluded Sunday.
While a “good” tantrum may sound like an oxymoron, the main theme of the session was that tantrums are a normal means of human expression.
“We can all have tantrums,” said Judith Kramer, a licensed clinical psychologist and a director of the Colts Neck Consulting Group. Kramer said she was on the verge of a tantrum herself recently when a contractor postponed her roof repairs in the midst of October’s weeklong nor’easter.
When children have tantrums, Kramer said, what they’re saying is, “I know what I want and I want it now.” To resolve a tantrum satisfactorily, it helps to know what “it” really is.
Isabel Kallman, co-founder of a cable television channel for parents called Alpha Mom, available via Comcast on Demand, said parents and caregivers often have to be “detectives” to uncover the root cause of a tantrum. She recalled her young son having a “mystery meltdown” that was so extreme and out of the blue that she called her mother for advice — something, she said, “I never do.”
“I actually said, ‘Should I take him to the hospital?’ ”
Kallman related. Eventually, it occurred to her she had worked late the prior evening. She asked her son if he was angry at her for not being home and he told her that he was. And with that, Kallman said, “the meltdown stopped.”
Kallman and Kramer offered the following suggestions on how to respond to a child’s tantrum:
Don’t patronize. Kallman, a former Wall Street executive, recalled how angry it used to make her when a male colleague would respond to her emotional outbursts by asking if she was menstruating. Bear that in mind before you respond to your child’s tantrum by asking a question like, “Are you tired?”
Don’t immediately try to distract the child. Think about it, Kallman said: If you were trying to ask someone for something you felt you desperately needed, how would you feel if that person responded by saying, “Look! Over there!”
Offer alternatives. If your child has come unhinged because you won’t buy a certain toy, offer some inexpensive stickers instead. “I try to give him choices,” Kallman said of her son.
Help your child express himself. Children get frustrated when they can’t explain how they feel or articulate what’s bothering them. Asking them “Are you angry?” or “Are you upset that you can’t have that toy?” helps to give them a voice.
Keep your own insecurities in check. Parents dread public tantrums most of all, and it’s only natural to assume that those who witness these unnerving episodes are mentally cocking an accusing finger in the parent’s direction. So be it. Just remember that adding your own insecurities to an already tangled web of emotions only makes a bad situation even worse, particularly if you react harshly.
Remain calm. It’s not easy, is it? Kramer suggest taking deep breaths or imagining yourself in a more pleasant place.
Commiserate. Even if your child’s reaction seems ridiculously out of proportion, empathy will go a long way toward diffusing a meltdown. After watching the clip from Hanlon’s documentary, Kramer said the teacher who tended to the child during her tantrum deserved “an Academy Award for calm compassion.”
The teacher never raises her voice, even as the girl is pummeling her with her fists. Seated on the floor, in a nonthreatening posture, the woman deflects the blows and uses her body to block the girl from re-entering the classroom.
“I can’t let you go back into the classroom until your body is calm,” she tells the child. “I know you’re very mad.”
Frankly, none of this seems to work, initially. But after the teacher takes the girl on a brief walk, she quiets down.
“How can you let me know, in a safe way, you’re disappointed?” the teacher asks as she rubs the girl’s back. Together they decide that saying, “I really wanted to sit by Carmen. Can I sit by her tomorrow?” would have done the trick.
In the end, the woman offers to write herself a note so that she remembers the girl’s seating request the following day. The girl seems to like that idea, and hopefully, Carmen will, too.
One audience member, Christina DelBene, 35, of Howell, thought the woman’s approach was commendable, but not very realistic. The documentary was shot at a preschool run by researchers at the University of Cincinnati’s Arlitt Child Development Center.
“That’s Fantasy Island a little bit, that preschool,” said DelBene, the mother of a 2-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Her daughter behaves well at home, DelBene said, but she has had some problems with tantrums at school.
DelBene said it would be nice if teachers could devote so much time and attention to one child’s tantrum. But, she added, “It’s not like that in New Jersey” because teachers often must manage up to 25 children in a classroom without an aide.
The session was sponsored by the Alpha Mom and Prevention First, an educational resource agency based in Ocean Township. Mary Pat Angelini, executive director and chief executive officer of Prevention First, moderated the panel discussion.