Tantrum Management: Overcoming the Language Barrier by Dr. Kim Masters
Language comes late to children and is preceded by instincts, impulse, and sensory input. For adults, elementary communication skills like these have long since been replaced by words. Why then should it be a surprise when our children greet our disciplinary instruction with whining, defiance, or outright screaming fits?

Here are two approaches for transforming a tantrum into verbal communication:

  • Asking, “What did I just say?”

Asking a smoldering or screaming child, “What did I just say?” will often produce an unexpected halt to defiance because you were not heard in the first place. Negative reactions in the young tend to be triggered by first impressions: the look on your face, the tone of your voice, and the memory of the last punishment. Often you are getting unwelcome feedback from the previous discipline or a nonverbal rather than interest in your current verbal message.

Asking for a repetition of instructions commands, attention, requires eye contact, and teaches verbal communication. Sometimes children need several requests to be able to tell you what you have been telling them. Once the child remembers, then asking for a physical demonstration can help your child to comply.

For example, if a tantrum arises at bedtime, then asking for a repetition of your statement, “Go to bed,” and then waiting to be shown how to go to bed makes the bedtime direction an opportunity to learn, instead of to fight.

  • Playing “What is my face saying?”

Children with anger issues often see anger in faces of anyone disciplining them or refusing requests, which explains fits and complaints beginning at the first words from a parent’s mouth.

I remember a child who had many tantrums asking me before he began one, “Why do you have mean eyes?” This perception justified the behavior for him.

To encourage correct reading of faces and reinforcing a direction, play the game “What is my face saying?” Ask your child to describe your emotion as you make different facial expressions. You will find two positive outcomes of this game. First, your child will learn to search for the face message while a direction is given; second, he or she will learn to recognize your special teaching face. Both can provide emotional comfort even when the verbal message is unwanted.

Two additional tantrum-taming strategies will be explained in the next issue: teaching self-talk and replaying solutions.