Seven tips for defusing a child’s tantrum.

Seven tips for defusing a child's tantrum.

TantrumEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for defusing a child's tantrum.

We all know we're supposed to set reasonable boundaries, have clear expectations, follow predictable routines, blah, blah, blah—but what can you do right this minute if your child is starting to howl with frustration after learning that no, actually, we're out of Cheerios?

These are strategies that have worked for me.

The secret is to acknowledge the reality of children's wishes. This sounds obvious, but think about how easy it is to deny their feelings: "You can't possibly want another Lego set, you never play with the ones you have." "That toy is just junk." "You can't be hungry, you just had dinner." "Of course you want to go, you love going to Grandpa's house." "You're not scared of clowns."

When you don't fight children's feelings, they're better able to handle frustration.

1. Write it down. This is weirdly effective, even with kids too young to read. Seeing you put words on paper reassures them that you've registered their desires. At first, with the Big Girl, I would explain that I was writing a list – for the grocery store, for Christmas – but then I realized she didn't need a promise that her wish would be fulfilled. It was enough just to say, "I'm going to write that down!"

2. Wave your magic wand. This works especially well if your child loves a particular magic story. We've gone through, "If I were Glinda, I would wave my magic wand to make the rain go away!" to "If I were Willy Wonka, I'd make a medicine that tasted just like Tootsie Rolls!" to "If I were Dumbledore, I'd conjure a magic carpet so we could fly the rest of the way instead of walk!"

3. Listen for the true concern. When the Big Girl said to me, "Everyone pays more attention to the Little Girl than to me," I had a rare moment of wisdom enough to bite back my first responses: "You know that's not true," or "Didn't I just play ten game of Blink with you?" Instead, I said, "No matter what, you know that you are our most precious, darling girl, and no one would ever forget about you, or think that someone else is more important than you." She skipped off.

4. Accept that your child might feel differently from you. You're cold, maybe your child isn't. So why insist on a sweater? What's the worse that can happen if a kid goes outside without a sweater?

5. Make an unannoying joke. This is extremely effective, but also practically impossible to pull off, because a whining kid will suck every particle of humor out of your head. But if you can manage it, you'll feel great. The Big Girl complained to me, "I don't want to go to Tae Kwon Do." I wanted to say, "You always say you don't want to go, but then you have fun," or "I don't like to hear all this griping." Instead, I said, "You're a poet and you don't know it!" After a minute I added, "I don't give a snap about going to Tap." The Big Girl answered, "I want to stop going to Hip Hop." I hate every kind of bathroom humor, but she loves it, so I whispered, "I don't give a fart about going to Art." We laughed until our stomachs hurt. Remember, though, even if you think you're being funny, if you're annoying your child with your jokes, you'll only make things worse.

6. Repeat the desire aloud. Crazily enough, just repeating what a child is saying, to show that you understand the message, will often restore peace. "You're having fun at home. You don't feel like leaving to go the school picnic, you want to keep looking at your book of optical illusions. But now we have to get ready to go."

This last tip also works with adults. For example, the Big Man asked me to send a particular tricky email. I sent it, but it didn't say exactly what he'd wanted. He complained, "I asked you to send a particular message, and I don't know why you didn't just do it the way I wanted." Instead of answering defensively with something like, "Well, I think my solution was better," or "Then you should have sent the email yourself," I said, "You wish I'd sent the email the way you wanted." And that was it! We both instantly felt the air clear.

7. Don't pay TOO much attention. Notwithstanding the six tips above, I've realized recently that I think I've fallen into the habit of paying special attention to the Big Girl when I sense a fit of pique approaching. That's not good, because it means I'm rewarding behavior I want to discourage. So I've been working on applying the six tips above without making a big song-and-dance out of it.
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I just discovered a site, Kiddley, with great parenting information — projects, links, tips, information, great graphics. It inspired me to try to come up with a new project to do with the Big Girl. I also found Finslippy, a blog kept by a very funny mother (although why it's called Finslippy, I'm not sure).

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