Donna Leskosek has spent years working with children and trying to understand life from their perspective. She talks about how she deals with kids of all ages who are in the midst of tantrums. What she doesn’t do is just as important as what she does do.
Some people have strange abilities. Some can walk on their hands, others can fix things. My husband can listen to a car engine and hear what is wrong with it, even though sometimes he does not hear anything I have said to him. My strange ability may be that I understand tantrums: the kind two-year-olds have and also the kind experienced by children way older than two.
I get the full-on, total meltdown, locked-in-a-bathroom-screaming-obscenities kind of anger that some kids carry far past the toddler stage. It is a strange thing that I understand it, because I have never been prone to tantrums myself. Sometimes people think that I have some special training around how I manage the behavior, but I don’t.
I do have some rules around how I respond. First of all, I don’t restrain or touch anyone. Anger needs space. I try to make sure that things that could cause harm to me or the kids having the melt-downs are out of reach. I also position myself between them and the door. I recognize right from the outset that a child who is out of control will likely not be able to make sense of my words, but they will hear the tone I am saying them in. I match the volume of the tantrum but keep the tone of my voice very even and clear — and slowly I turn my volume down. Usually, this brings their volume down as well.
I don’t address consequences, or behavior. I feel that talking to a child who is in the midst of a tantrum is like talking to someone who is drunk. I negotiate for safety. There will be time later to discuss how we got to the place where they threw a shoe at me. When I feel them lose the edge of the anger, I talk about how frightening it is to lose control. Most kids tell me they hate the feeling. I feel it is really important to acknowledge that and to let them hear how calm I am.
When a child has lost the security of being in control of his or her emotions, there is comfort in having someone who is not reacting emotionally. The angrier the child is, the more calm I stay. One of two things happens: they begin to respond to me, or simply exhausts themselves. Sometimes, they may need to cry — the really ugly, sobbing, nose-running hiccuping crying. When that happens I know that the anxiety and other crappy feelings are breaking away into little tiny bits. When that begins to happen, I talk to them about having good thoughts. I find age-appropriate things for them to imagine, like being a noodle floating in a bowl of chicken soup.
Sometimes we can talk about the their feelings. We save the talk about the incident that preceded the tantrum for later. I don’t allow escape from responsibility, but I save that conversation until I will be better heard. Sometimes, they simply falls asleep. My voice and actions always communicate that they are safe, that it will be okay.
Sometimes the anger of these kids anger drains both them and me.
I don’t mind.
I think that children are worth it, and I have learned to duck.