I thought my 6-year-old was done with tantrums. She often helps me through her 3-year-old brother's frequent meltdowns and continues to surprise and impress me with random moments of maturity. Yet, there her father and I were on a recent Sunday evening, watching our 60-pound daughter scream, cry, and violently flail her body around because she didn't want to leave the party we were at to head to her much-loved grandma's house and attend the nearby camp she'd been looking forward to for months. I was at a loss for how to respond.
My son's tantrums are equally volatile and irrational, but he's a toddler, and having gone through his older sister's tumultuous toddlerhood, I know what to expect and how best to react (depending on the situation, ignore him, give him time and space to settle himself down, treat him kindly, wrestle him into his car seat . . . you get the picture). How to deal with a child who's old enough to bathe herself, pack her own backpack, and read independently is harder to figure out, and her tantrums, while not as frequent as her brother's, were definitely starting to become a pattern.
Was I expecting too much from her? Not anticipating her needs well enough? Should I be worried about a bigger emotional or behavioral issue? It was time to go back to that old parenting drawing board. Here's what I found.
- Tantrums aren't uncommon in older children. By talking to both friends and experts, I realized that my daughter's behavior wasn't unusual, and the fact that she was able to eventually calm herself down, apologize for her behavior, and speak rationally about the cause and solution were all good signs.
- I need to be better aware of triggers. All of my daughter's recent tantrums have come when she's overly tired or unprepared for what we're doing next. When I know she will potentially be in a situation where she hasn't gotten enough sleep and/or downtime, I need to simplify our schedule and make sure she's well aware of any potentially upsetting situations or schedule changes well in advance.
- Responding with kindness works better than a show of strength. It can be hard to keep my patience when my daughter's tantrum seems nonsensical or is negatively affecting her brother, but allowing her to express her anger and sadness while being physically and emotionally there for her is the quickest way to defuse the situation. She's not being bad; she's just overloaded, and I need to be there to support her.
- My husband and I need to stay on the same page. My husband tends to be the "give them what they want so they stop freaking out" parent, while I'm the "don't reward bad behavior" one. This becomes a bigger problem when we're sending an already melting down child mixed messages — and then inevitably fighting with each other because of it. You and your partner should always get on the same page during a tantrum, and if you can't, one of you needs to exit the situation and let the other take over.
- Follow-up conversations are important. When my 3-year-old son has a tantrum, I find it best to get through it and move on. Talking about it later just reinforces the behavior and very likely causes round two. But with my older child, having a conversation — once she's settled down, of course — seems to be very healing for both of us. We can both apologize, analyze what went wrong, and end on a happier, more loving page.