What would you do if confronted with angry, tantruming toddler? Paul Dix assesses your options…
When Daniel throws a tantrum the lid properly comes off. Deep sulking and shaking is interspersed with screaming, hitting and a barrage of abuse an angry bricky would be proud of. Through a mist of tears he grabs for objects or people to damage. He wants what he wants and is used to getting it. The Christmas break has re-taught him that adults will eventually bend to his will. You cannot continue to… Hold on, here he goes again. What are you going to do this time?
A Hard and fast – be firm with him, you have had quite enough of the tantrums and their negative effect on the other children. Show him that you are in control, stamp on the behaviour and make it clear that you are not going to put up with any more tantrums.
B Ignore – you know that he is trying to get attention so starve him of it. Refuse to be drawn into his chaotic behaviour, refuse to respond. Use diversionary tactics to distract him away from his negative behaviour and tempt him into a calmer mood.
C Script and repeat – use subtle changes in your behaviour to affect his. Try a repetitive scripted response to the tantrum making sure that you win the peace one step at a time.
Dodging a few books and paint trays you move in to confront the behaviour. Daniel is surprised by your frustrated response. As your volume increases to try and silence him, his tantrum temporarily gives way to a frightened wimper. The words that fall from your lips are not being interpreted but your change in attitude is.
After the initial shock Daniel feels he now has something to really complain about. Your anger is fuelling a deeper tantrum and he lets loose again. Instead of a tantrum contained in one area of the room you now have a chase around the tables as he tries to get away from you. In the mêlée a table falls onto one of the other children and you now have a child in pain and another locked in the playhouse demanding to see mummy/the management/his lawyer NOW!’.
● Is castigation ever justified in managing the behaviour of very young children?
● Is it OK to show children that their behaviour makes you angry?
● How can you protect the other children when one child exhibits aggressive and dangerous behaviour?
Your fake ignoring is a test of your resolve as well as your acting ability. Sensibly, you move the other children onto the carpet area but Daniel’s tantrum is not subsiding. As you begin to read the children a story, you hear the uncomfortable sound of the box of paint tubes being opened. Like a scene from Rambo Jnr, Daniel emerges wielding bright red and yellow paint tubes, safety catch off. As you shield the other children from the arc of paint you regret wearing your favourite jumper to work. And your new skirt.
The game has changed. Daniel now refuses to give up his weaponry and delights in redecorating as much of the room as possible before you finally wrestle them off him. His tantrum is certainly over but it has been messy. As the nursery manager wanders past your room, the full extent of the incident is laid bare. It appears that your room has been converted to an orangery filled with the delightful giggles of the children. In their eyes Daniel is a conquering hero. A tempting new level of misbehaviour has been unveiled in front of their eyes.
● Which behaviours cannot be ignored?
● In a dangerous situation, whose safety is the priority – Daniel’s or the others’?
● Does allowing a tantrum to run its course teach the child anything useful?
You know that Daniel is not in the right frame of mind to deal with an angry adult or lots of instructions all at once. Your preparation of a quiet space where angry children can go was obvious after the first tantrum last week. As you lead Daniel to the quiet space you gently ask that he stop crying before you can help him. Each time you gently but firmly repeat this demand you step away and give him 30 seconds to try and stem the flood. Your refusal to get drawn into the ‘Who did what to who’ means that it is difficult for him to direct his anger onto you. You are only concerned about communicating the simple message, ‘I cannot talk to you until you stop crying’.
After four minutes and some ear-splitting “I can’t stop crying!” responses, Daniel draws breath and you seize the opportunity to beat his tantrum with kindness. You immediately thank him for stopping and listen to his complaints. Telling him that you understand and that you hear he is upset helps him to feel listened to, even if you don’t agree with his point of view. Instead of unpicking his complaint you decide to remind him of the good things that have happened this morning, of the kind and gentle boy he is, and how the other children love his softer side. Before sending him back with the other children, you run him through a simple set of questions so you can be sure he knows what to do as well as how to do it. “Who are you going to play with now? What will I see you doing when I come over in two minutes?” Later on in the afternoon you find some time to sit with Daniel and begin teaching him other ways of being angry, other ways of getting his needs met.
● What other scripts do you use with children who are so upset they cannot listen?
● How can you repair the trust that has been broken by Daniel with the other children?
● What would the ‘quiet space’ in your room look like?
Some behaviours demand urgent responses but the anger of an adult has no place in defusing the anger of a child. You can act swiftly but still calmly. Take care not to give the loudest and angriest children your instant or undivided attention. Your emotional intervention will always create a less predictable and often more chaotic outcome.
Ignoring small irritating behaviours and focusing on good behaviour is a useful technique. Ignoring dangerous behaviour is not an option as you have children to keep safe. Even when it appears that you are having no effect over the tantrum, you cannot afford to step back or give up. The other children need to see you being calm and controlled. Pretending to be calm is a better strategy than pretending to ignore.
In this urgent situation a simple, focused plan is most likely to have impact. You understand that distressed children are unable to process complex instructions or read tone/body language accurately. By focusing on observable behaviours (stopping crying) you unravel the tantrum and open the door to a conversation not an argument. Daniel will have won small battles along the way but the final outcome is your victory.
Paul Dix is a multi-award-winning behaviour specialist and managing director of Pivotal Education.