This recent NPR story presents a study in which researchers examined in great detail the stages that children go through when having a
tantrum. Consistent with what we know to be the case, the researchers advise not to ask questions during a tantrum, but rather to let the anger pass in order to help the child move fully into the sadness phase where they are more likely to seek comfort. Clearly, asking questions when someone is overwhelmed by emotion is usually not too productive or helpful. But through targeted empathy, sometimes the child can be talked down to the point where they can help you understand what’s bothering them. We of course call that “Emergency Plan B!” And we aren’t proponents of “doing nothing” when a child is struggling. Kids learn to regulate their arousal and emotions from empathic attunement with adults. Ignoring doesn’t teach skill.
In addition, from our point of view, some very important additional information was missing from the discussion on NPR: why did the tantrum occur in the first place and how could that be addressed proactively in order to come up with a durable solution?
It is important to remember that maladaptive behavior (in this case, the tantrum) results when a demand is placed upon a child that he or she does not have the thinking skills to handle. Tantrums such as these are opportunities to identify two things: the problem to be solved and the underlying lagging skill(s). In doing so, we can then proactively solve that problem, using Plan B, ideally before the next time it is likely to arise. And in the course of that problem solving discussion, we are teaching the child the skills they need to better handle those demands.
So, although it is definitely important to help a child through a tantrum, it is even more important to make sure that the tantrum does not go to waste. After the tantrum is over, make sure that you identify the lagging skills, triggers, and unsolved problem so that you can solve this problem once and for all before the next tantrum occurs.
One last word: read the comments on the NPR blog and you’ll see how much we still have to do when it comes to better understanding and
helping challenging kids (and their parents!) in a humane, compassionate way.