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Overcoming Tantrums

Tantrums are a normal part of every young child’s life. If we are honest, we throw our own “tantrums” as adults. When working with young children, especially those with a language delay, we have to understand that tantrums are a mode of communication when emotions become overwhelming. Marci Melzer offers five steps to handle tantrums with late talkers. 

Watch the video here and we will explore each step. 

Children under three are driven by emotions and not logic (Prencipe & Zelazo, 2005). Think about this statement and what it means for the families you serve. Often, a parent’s expectations for a child’s behavior may be unrealistically high for the child’s developmental age. Further, tantrums are stressful for the caregiver and the child. In order to access the frontal lobe (top brain) to make good decisions, the reactive part of the brain (bottom brain) needs to calm to access the top functions of the brain. The caregiver needs to be calm to make good decisions on how to react and support the child. The child needs to be calm in order to learn. This is why each of the steps Marci Melzer provides can be helpful. Let’s discuss each step.

Step 1: Acknowledge and react as if the child was injured.

Marci describes this as the “stop, drop, and roll” method. This is where a tantrum first sparks and you need to put out the fire by providing an empathetic response. “You have to give that tantrum the same kind of attention as if was an accident or illness because in your child’s heart, in their feelings, they feel the same when they want a cookie and they can’t have it as they do when they are running and skin their knee and get hurt physically.” The difference is the empathetic response given by the caregiver in both situations. The child feels the same because both situations are out of their control and they are communicating those feelings. You would give the tantrum the same response of love in both situations (cookie before dinner vs falling and getting hurt). Both instances are “bummer situations.” Once you respond and the child knows you care about the message he/she is communicating, you move to the next step. 

Step 2: Understand the message the child is trying to tell you.

In this step, the caregiver is calm and can access his/her frontal lobe to problem-solve what message the child is trying to tell him/her. Every behavior is communicating a message (hungry, too loud, attention). 

Step 3: Be a language facilitator and translate the message.

The caregiver now becomes the language facilitator for the child by helping to find the words to express the message. Supporting the caregiver to model the words the child is trying to communicate is key. “You deal with the behavior with hugs and cuddles, but you translate this communication into words” (for example, modeling “all done” instead of throwing a cup off the high chair). Marci makes a good point; most caregivers are already translating their child’s language in their heads (“Oh…he is hungry). It is a matter of modeling the language for the child, but step four takes that a bit further.

Step 4: Model the message in words the child can process.

Most children in early intervention are late talkers. This is where we want to make sure that we are modeling the language on the child’s level. This may be a single word or short phrase. It is important to make sure the child is calm and engaged or go back to step 1. After you model the message when the child can process and understand, move to the final step.

Step 5: Make sure the child is ready to move on.

This is all about empowering the child. You acknowledge the feelings and calm the child, understand and translate the message, make sure the child understands the replacement behavior, and then check in with your child and make sure he/she is ready to move on with the next thing to do (such as help make dinner). 

A big mistake many caregivers make is redirecting or distracting without going through and acknowledging all five steps. Without going through each step, children not learning how to handle the big emotions they feel inside. This type of facilitation shows it is okay to have big feelings and how to properly deal with them over time. Remember, children under three react based off their emotions. It is not until after age three where logic starts to be used and there are a lot of emotions children feel as they learn to walk, talk, and interact with others.  

How do you support caregivers in understanding their children’s behaviors in your program?

How do you communicate typical development for children to caregivers?

Share any successful strategies you have in your tool bag.


Reference: Prencipe, A. & Zelazo, P.D. (2005). Development of affective decision making for self and other: Evidence for the integration of first- and third-person perspectives. Psychological Science, 16, 501-505.

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