Parents are understandably eager for “tricks” to stop tantrum behavior in its tracks. When big feelings lead to outbursts of kicking, screaming, whining, hitting, and defiance, no one feels in control. Yes—a caregiver’s response to a current tantrum can have a major impact on the length and intensity of future episodes and overall emotion regulation skills over time. Unfortunately, grown-ups looking for an in-the-moment fix should manage expectations. Once big emotions have escalated, there is no magic emergency brake. The good news is that, with increased awareness of triggers and the swift use of strategies at the first sign of struggle, much can be done to prevent and limit future tantrum behaviors.
Start by looking to history. Is this a situation that has regularly caused your child distress in the past? If so, do they need extra support this time to succeed? For example, if the candy display at the grocery check-out is a reliable point of conflict, consider ways to increase the likelihood of your child’s success. Remind them about the rules, validate their disappointment, and offer ideas for coping, if needed—all before heading into the store. When your child shows an improved reaction after the trigger hits, don’t forget to praise them: “You did such a great job staying calm, even though you were disappointed about the rule.”
Another key proactive measure is to check that your child’s basic needs have been met. Being hungry, tired, or in need of a bathroom break makes everything harder. While it may not be possible to totally counteract the effects of a bad night’s sleep, look for things you can control like keeping an extra snack in the car or pre-scheduling potty trips. Your child’s emotional needs are important, too. A few minutes of daily parent-child play can give children the boost and connection they need to manage stress more effectively outside of playtime.
Lastly, know your child’s early warning signs. You may notice that things like slight whining, silly behavior, or increased fidgeting tend to precede more escalated behavior. These are good cues that it’s time to help your child change course. Caregivers can help through validating emotions (“it’s okay to be upset”), providing redirection, prompting a break, and/or coaching their child to use a coping strategy, such as deep breathing. If your child is not receptive to your offer of support or able to engage calmly, the “proactive” window may be closed.
The Boiling Point
You may start to notice an increase in disrespectful talk, louder yelling, roughness with objects, and aggression. These are all signs that your child has reached their boiling point, and a different approach is needed. At this stage, the best way to help your child learn to self-regulate is by actively ignoring. Active ignoring means removing your attention from negative behaviors and selectively giving attention to behaviors that are neutral or positive. Many parents believe that ignoring a tantrum allows the child to “get away with” negative behavior, as it sends a message that the conduct is acceptable. Others find that it simply does not work or makes the tantrums worse. The truth is that any attention, positive or negative, can be cause an increase in behavior over time—even if it appears to be effective in the moment. In the long run, removing your attention from these behaviors does lead outbursts to become shorter, less frequent, and less intense. Actively ignoring may feel as though you are not supporting your child during their time of need, while in fact, it gives your child the space to self-regulate. Any extra verbal or sensory input you add to the mix can take away your child’s opportunity to work through their emotions independently, or worse, add gasoline to the fire. At the peak of a tantrum, your child needs time to calm down before they are ready for you to reengage.
Active Ignoring Tips
There are a few tricks to ensure that active ignoring is successful. First, ignoring should involve a complete removal of attention from any negative or attention-seeking behavior. This means, refraining from making any statements related to ignoring (“I’m ignoring that” or “I’m not going to respond”) and any non-verbal sign of attention (eye rolls or frustrated faces/gestures). The active part of ignoring means deliberately reintroducing your attention in response to any positive behaviors that you notice. Your attention is the most powerful reward for your child. The contrast of consistently providing attention only for positive actions and disengaging from negative behaviors will allow for your child to learn appropriate and effective ways to communicate and work through big feelings. For instance, you might ignore your child’s whining about going to grandma’s house while simultaneously praising that he is starting to put his shoes on. For some children, it may take time until they are ready to accept praise, and they may benefit more from neutral descriptions of their positive behaviors or the environment. If your child responds negatively when you return your attention, disengage again, and wait for another calm moment. (It should be noted that aggression and destruction are of property should not be ignored. If your child demonstrates these behaviors, neutrally take steps to ensure safety. Keep engagement to a minimum while moving objects out of the way or bringing your child to a safer location.)
Another key to active ignoring is where you are in proximity to your child. When a child is tantruming, it is okay and even helpful to give them some space to reregulate and remain safe. At the same time, you will want to remain close enough to recognize any signs that your child is calming down and provide or return attention to any positive behaviors: “I could tell that you’re upset, and I’m really proud of you for taking a deep breath”.
Look Out for the Extinction Burst
It is important to know that, with the proper use of active ignoring, you will likely notice an initial escalation in behavior. In other words, things getting worse is a sign that they on their way to getting better. This counterintuitive effect is known as an “extinction burst,” and it is the reason why many parents (understandably) abandon this strategy prematurely. After you remove attention, your child may ramp-up the behaviors that they are already demonstrating by whining more, clinging, or increasing their volume. They also might throw some new behaviors your way. This is because you have removed your old response, and your child is testing new ways to achieve the expected outcome. It is crucial to ignore consistently until you notice neutral or positive behaviors reemerging. Returning your attention too soon can reinforce the tantrum behaviors and lead to a quicker escalation in the future. You can think of this like having your favorite snack stuck in a vending machine. It may start with pushing the button again or jiggling the coin return. But if that doesn’t work, you may try hitting, kicking, or shaking the machine. If this finally nudges a pack of candy loose, you will be more likely to go straight to the intensified behavior next time. Be the chocolate bar that doesn’t budge.
Active ignoring is a skill that is often easier said than done. While it is an extremely effective strategy for reducing and eliminating future tantrum behaviors, it can be exhausting and draining in the moment. Make sure to come prepared with your own toolbox of coping skills to navigate these difficult episodes. Strategies may include listening to a favorite song, playing a game or reading an article on your phone, or texting family/friends for moral support. And don’t forget to treat yourself after a long and successful ignore sequence.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
After your child is showing signs of calming down, you can return to validating emotions and coaching your child to use a coping strategy (e.g. deep breathing, fidget toy, or physical exercise). If your child is responsive, great! Sometimes, parents reinserting themselves can result in an increase in a child’s behavior. This is most likely a sign that your child is still simmering and needs more time to re-regulate. Continue to give space and wait for the next sign that your child is calming down to validate or suggest a skill. If your child does not respond well to these or has a hard time moving on, it is okay to change the subject. You can help your child get unstuck by modeling that you are ready to transition to something new.
The path to helping children regulate big emotions can be challenging with many ups and downs. Remember to be patient with yourself and your child. Proactive strategies in place during situations that you anticipate being difficult along with consistent active ignoring, validation, praise, and skills coaching will help ensure a warm and supportive parent-child relationship while providing your child with the opportunity and tools necessary to self-regulate.
Need more parenting support? At Handspring Health we offer parenting sessions with expert clinicians, so that every parent has the tools they need to support their children. Reach out to book a free intake today.