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Tackling Tantrums and Helping Young Children Stay Calm

Emotional meltdowns are to be expected from children under five, but there are ways we can tackle chronic overreaction, says Sue Cowley…

  • Tackling Tantrums and Helping Young Children Stay Calm

The younger a child is, the more likely they are to become caught up in the whirlwind of their own emotional and/or physical state.

If a small child is tired, unhappy, hungry, anxious or feeling stressed, this may result in what we refer to as ‘difficult’ behaviour.

The inability to deal with stress or upset might be expressed via a tantrum, but equally a child could also become withdrawn and unresponsive.

Helping children learn how to regulate their own internal reactions is a key part of helping them build an understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour in different situations.

At the same time, we must be clear with them that it is okay to express their feelings.

The scenario

One of your new starters overreacts to every tiny problem. She clings to her dad’s leg when he goes to leave. She has a tantrum if she cannot play with the toy she wants. She gets very grumpy indeed towards the end of the morning session, and bursts into tears when her dad arrives to pick her up.

You want to support her through her outbursts, but you worry that by doing so you might encourage her to have more of them.

Nothing more than feelings

We must strike a delicate balance when comforting children who are in the throes of emotional upset. If we react too quickly, and focus too much on that moment of emotional reaction, we may encourage the child to see expressions of anger as a means to gain attention.

You should always comfort an upset child, but there are many strategies you can use to help them develop self-regulation as well.

Pre-empt, distract

When dealing with behaviour, consider why it is happening, because that can help us figure out how we might prevent the situation occurring in the first place. For instance, in the scenario above…

  1. Consider how you could make the transition into the setting easier for the child – could a practitioner guide her towards some toys, or read to her, to help her make the separation from Dad?
  2. Let Dad know you would always call if the child remained upset, and encourage him to make the break easier by leaving decisively. Alternatively, perhaps he could stay and play awhile to support her?
  3. Think about why the child is getting grumpy towards the end of the morning and what you could do to counteract this. She’s probably tired, so could you incorporate a restful activity at this time of day? Do you have a quiet space where children can relax?

When a child is tantruming, it’s difficult to resist doing everything you can to quieten them down. Of course you want to comfort the child, but if you always do all the work, the child never gets the chance to calm themselves. It can work well to distract them from their anger, particularly if they are prone to tantrums. You might…

  • Suddenly notice an exciting toy, drawing it to the child’s attention in an enthusiastic voice
  • Get everyone together to do a quick physical activity, such as ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’
  • Move towards the child, but give your attention to a child in their proximity first, who is playing calmly, before you talk to the former
  • Encourage the child to take deep breaths – the out breath is particularly important in calming children and helping them not to hyperventilate

Building self-regulation

One of the keys to helping children learn how to calm themselves is to gradually increase the challenges you set them. You might help your children by…

  • Setting up games/activities in which they need to cooperate and share to be successful
  • Encouraging them to focus for gradually increasing periods of time, for instance, during a show-and-tell session, or at storytime
  • Catching them just as they seem to be getting upset and suggesting self-calming measures, such as taking deep breaths or walking away
  • Using some ‘mindfulness’ activities, where the children have to pause and be still, such as ‘statues’ or ‘sleeping lions’

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool.

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