You can probably feel it coming. That particular combination of tone of voice and sudden amped up energy that gets your mom-sense tingling. There’s a tantrum about to happen. Can you feel your body tensing up, hoping to hold off the tantrum onslaught? You may be feeling overwhelmed and wondering what to do.
Thoughts vs Feelings
In the moments before a tantrum you’re probably having a lot of reactions. Your body is tense, you may feel a bit of panic coming on (especially if you are out in public), maybe your teeth clench together or your face turns red. Feelings are the way your perceptions of an event show up in your body. You could be feeling scared or frustrated or overwhelmed and your body will show it.
You may be having thoughts like “oh no not again” or “this has to stop”. A thought is an idea that your brain has. For our purposes here we can consider thoughts during emotional events (like a tantrum) as stories we tell ourselves to help us understand things.
Our Thoughts Matter
So if your child is having a tantrum about something we (usually almost invisibly because it happens so quickly) tell ourselves a story about it. There might be yelling and door slamming and eye rolling and throwing and if we think something like “oh no!” or “this can’t happen” our brains go right into fight or flight mode. Fight or flight mode steps in to protect us and treats the tantrum as basically the equivalent of a charging rhino. Charging rhinos are not to be trifled with so suddenly we find ourselves shouting or threatening or grounding for a month. Later on, when our rational brain is back in charge we may feel guilty or regret our actions.
Getting Some Space
So what to do about it? How do we get through a tantrum without our fight or flight brain taking over? We have to get a little space. We have to create a space between the thought we are having and the response we make. Think about it like this, if the thought is “look out- rhino about to charge- must stop it” or “I cannot allow this kind of behavior” or “this always happens and I can’t take it” we are going to react as fast as we can to protect ourselves. By inserting some space between the thought and the reaction you have time to engage in a healthier response than the one reserved for pointy charging animals.
Respond Instead of React
Try practicing creating a space when you don’t really need one so that your body knows just what to do when you do need it. You can practice this by periodically (like at red lights or on commercials) so that it just becomes second nature to get yourself some space.
- Stop whatever you’re doing inside your mind (pause your thoughts and stories)
- Take a deep breath (turn on your parasympathetic system’s stress brakes)
- Use one of your 5 senses to observe a detail around you (notice something you can see or hear or touch, etc)
- Carry on what you were doing before while bring the feeling of appreciation of that detail along with you
For example, at the first sign of an emotional challenge, I might pause my old fear story that I have to do something right now, then take a deep breath in, as I release this breath I’m looking around. Just now I spotted the bananas on the counter. I turned my thoughts to their beautiful yellow color and my appreciation of the energy they give me when I eat one before a workout.
This practice of pausing, breathing, noticing, and appreciating can strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system response. This system is responsible for slowing your heart and breathing rates and putting the brakes on your body’s stress reactions. Practice this when you don’t need it and the next time you do, like during a tantrum, your body will know what to do. You’ll take that deep breath and give yourself the space you need to respond in a healthy and loving way.