You know that family? The one with the kid who is way (like 6 years) too old to be having a tantrum out in the middle of a store parking lot?
This time it was quite a show. Twenty minutes of my 8 year old daughter having an epic meltdown in front of Marshalls, complete with screaming, vicious insults, crying, and the final, angry smashing on the asphalt of a bag of things we just bought.
Just another day in paradise, I thought. Struggling not to feel ashamed of how it must look to others. Again.
My oldest two girls had just finished their first week back to school. The change of a new school year, filtered through their bipolar and ADHD, sent my oldest into a fury when she couldn’t sit where she wanted in our van.
We all knew she was overwhelmed, but that never makes it easier. It just keeps us from leaving her there in the parking lot forever.
Friends have often asked how I do it everyday. So here’s the secret sauce (which isn’t super secret… check out my resources page for many good books and sites to help with tough behavior.)
Ignore the on-lookers. They’re staring. Or trying to help. They may think you’re a bad parent, but what they think doesn’t matter. So smile, thank them for their patience, move the meltdown out of the store, and then ignore them. Worrying about it is a waste of energy.
Ignore the misbehavior. Acknowledge the feelings and angst of the tantruming child. Clearly tell her what behavior you expect. Once. Make sure she and others around her are physically safe. Then ignore her. If she yells, insults you or tries to pull you back in to the dance, say, “I’ll talk to you when you find your respectful voice,” and keep ignoring her until she calms down.
Engage and support the siblings. Hold little ones or put an arm around the older ones – to calm and reconnect with them. Explain, “Sis is really mad” (using lots of facial expression to help little ones understand). Acknowledge the feelings you see in them – worry, fear, frustration, embarrassment, anger, hurt – and turn their attention to something calming. Clouds in the sky. Music in the background. Whatever refocuses them and brings balance to the moment.
Make space to refuel when it’s over. Everyone needs a little quiet afterward. Read a good book, take a nap, visit a favorite park, listen to music, or bake something. Be sure to make space to acknowledge the feelings of anxiety, anger, resentment and weariness about what happened. Then choose to release them and move on. To truly forgive. Without this, it isn’t possible to be in relationship with challenging kids – we’d lose too much of ourselves to resentment.
Require more than “I’m sorry.” Words alone don’t always make up for damaging behavior, so allow the hurt sibling to recommend what would make it up to them. They can’t be a tyrant about it, but let them pick as big a task/service as they want. Then the offending child completes the task as amends. It could be laundry, clearing their dishes for a day, or doing a chore for them. This honors the siblings, and helps them feel that even though life isn’t always pleasant, the family strives to be fair, and to honor every child – not just the ones who demand more parental energy.
I use these strategies daily in dealing with our older daughters and their special needs, and whenever needed with our two younger girls. They don’t rid us of tantrums, but they help our family stay safe, be close, and grow stronger.
What things have you found helpful when your older child has a tantrum?
For families of children with special needs, if you’re interested in further reading on how to support siblings’ special needs, check out Siblings of Special Needs (from University of Michigan Health System).