For many of us, staying calm during a tantrum will be something that requires a lot of inner work.
Experiences with our children can remind us of times from our own childhood. This can trigger us to react in ways that don’t always align with our parenting values. As an example, maybe we were parented with aggression, and so when our need for safety isn’t met with our own child (like when they lash out during a tantrum), we might go into a fight response (from fight/flight/freeze) and yell, slam doors, or behave in ways that we wish we would not. Often these reactions are not conscious. The nervous system automatically and subconsciously perceives a threat which causes us to react before we are able to respond consciously. This is a product of our brain’s neurobiology because our emotion-driven reactions occur in less than a 10th of a second – much faster than it takes the logical, reflective, thinking areas of the brain to respond. In brain-based terms, when we are triggered, we “go limbic,” and our higher-order thinking processes go temporarily offline.
This is obviously a topic that runs DEEP and requires so much more discussion than is possible within a short blog post. That said, what I coach parents to practice is the ability to pause when they notice themselves “dialing up” in their parenting. Remember that reacting is automatic, so if we can find a pause, we can regain our “parental state” and respond to our child in the moment rather than reacting from a childhood wound of our own.
When you feel triggered, pause and work to regulate yourself. Some ideas include:
elongate your exhale
notice your feet planted on the ground
relax your jaw
unclench your fists and drop your shoulders
shake the tension out of your body
We might need to name the pause. “I’m frustrated. I am going to get myself a glass of cold water, and then we can talk about what just happened.”
“I need a minute. I am going to take some deep breaths to calm down.”
Naming our pause models for our children coping tools that they can use to navigate their own tricky feelings in the future. Once you have paused and regulated, try to re-appraise the situation and remind yourself that a tantrum is a child who is overwhelmed. It is not naughty behavior. Respond from this perspective if you can.
If this is an area in which you often struggle (as many parents do), parent coaching, therapy, and daily reflection through journaling can all be helpful. The book Parenting from the Inside Out might be a helpful starting point. Reflection is another helpful step, particularly for parents who are parenting in ways that differ from their experience of being parented.