Managing tantrums in lockdown
by Anne McKechnie, clinical psychologist
For many, lockdown has been viewed as a chance to reconnect with children. For others, it has been a time of extra strain in trying to balance work and home life. Not surprisingly, it has often been extremely stressful for all in the household. At this stage in our response to this health crisis, we will all have had periods where we doubt our ability to cope and are feeling the strain of managing normal childhood behaviour in a highly abnormal world. We should remind ourselves that we are going through a period of personal, national and global trauma.
This impacts on our abilities to cope, regardless of our age or circumstance. So children are likely to “regress” in terms of their behaviour. And parents may find themselves feeling overwhelmed in the face of their offspring’s tantrums.
The reality of tantrums
We’re used to living in a world where portrayals of childhood and parenting are awash with images of happy children, laughing into the faces of calm, adoring parents as they engage together in a fun but purposeful activity. When planning for parenthood, we probably focused on images of happy or sleeping babies. Perhaps we were aware of vague references to “The Terrible Twos”, or witnessed frustrated and embarrassed adults trying to manage a toddler’s tantrum in the supermarket. Perhaps we saw such behaviours as reflecting “bad” parenting or as evidence of a “disturbed” child. Or maybe we thought it was “only a stage” and were then shocked to witness an adolescent screaming in rage at their parent.
When parenthood arrives, it can be alarming to realise that dealing with temper tantrums is a task that is fairly constant as a child grows up; it does not start at two nor end with teenage years. Rather, as children mature, thwarted requests leading to ill-tempered outbursts often tend to be harder to resolve.
Managing difficult behaviour is hard enough when our lives allow contact with others, support from other parents and alternative activities for children; all of this has been removed during lockdown. This current period adds to the stress already experienced by children and parents, sometimes leading to an increase in frustration on all sides and making tantrums still harder to manage.
Why tantrums are, sadly, inevitable
As small babies, human beings do not understand where our own bodies end and the world begins; we have no concept of controlling ourselves or our external world. Think of the fascination a baby shows toward their own feet or of the sheer delight when they kick a mobile to make it move.
As children develop, so does their understanding of cause and effect. The infant begins to associate their movements with a reaction from other objects, including people. Over time, a matter of weeks or months, they learn to associate their behaviours with responses from others – a cry will bring a parent; a smile brings attention.
Gradually, babies become aware that not all of their needs are met immediately or with the deaired result. They begin to learn the hardest lesson of all – that the world does not revolve around them and that every desire is not met. Frustration builds and often results in screaming, crying, even kicking and punching as all means are deployed to demonstrate their feelings and attempt to change their world to meet their needs.
Sometimes, the tantrums persist even if the needs are met. We are all familiar with the distress that seems to have no remedy as even the culprit themself has no idea what they want.
Alongside this growing realisation that the world will not meet all needs is a sometimes opposing need to be reassured that the main carer or parents will be consistent and constant. Good parenting is all about consistency, calm and clarity. Unfortunately, this is the “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” side of being a parent!
It is this which makes management of tantrums so hard, even in the best of times. While our child seems to be demanding something, at the same time they need to know that the parent is in charge of rules.
As adolescence approaches, our children have to learn to make decisions independently; as parents, we have to learn to support them in making mistakes. Whilst they are often eager to make their own way and are absolutely certain that they know best, they also frequently rely heavily on our support. This leads to a lot of confusion and anxiety. Add to that the fact that hormones are raging and the adolescent brain is reorganising, we have the perfect ingredients for frequent disputes and irritabilities.
The impact of lockdown on good parenting
Under “normal” circumstances, in the face of tantrums where we, as the parent, have decided not to give in to the demand, we may be able to distract with another activity, threaten to stop a treat, remove a favoured activity, sooth, or ignore the behaviour as we remain resolute in our decision. If it gets too much, we may go for a walk or drive. We may also be fortunate enough to be able to find a babysitter and go out with other adults. Many parents share responsibility at this time with “relay parenting” if one shows signs of strain.
Outings with friends are very important to both parents and children. Parents benefit from sharing success and failures; children learn to socialise and play with peers. This important activity is only just returning for some of us and will have been sadly missed by all.
For many families, contact with grandparents and other family members is very significant. Even if we have been able to see one another at distance, it will have been for very short periods. This will be distressing and confusing for young children. As we move to seeing loved ones outdoors, the strain of no physical contact will be hard to understand.
In adolescence, we learn to pull away from parents and identify more with peers. Clearly, social contact is crucial at this stage and a lack of this at the moment, will be particularly hard for our teenagers.
In recent weeks, we have all been dealing with major changes to our lifestyle and threats to our health. In adjusting to this change, we will have been on an emotional roller-coaster – sometimes up, sometimes down, with constant fluctuations. This depletes our emotional and psychological energy. At a time where children are confused, anxious or sad, we are expected as responsible adults to stick to being consistent, calm and clear; when what we really want is a quiet life to help us manage this new normal.
The emotional impact on children, unfortunately, will be that they are more likely to be frustrated, anxious, angry or sad and this may result in more tantrums. They are also so highly attuned to our moods as parents that they may also worry that we are not coping and if we are not coping, the world really is a dangerous place. Our moods are also awry at this time, making it harder for us to do an already demanding job.
Tips and ideas
– Be kind to yourself. Being a parent is the most important and therefore the hardest role you will ever have. Mistakes will be made on the way: acknowledge and learn from them.
– Seek support from other parents and avoid the parenting competitions”.
– Take time out when you can.
– Alter expectations of yourself and your child.
– Anticipate situations were you and your child may clash and offer choice. For example: “Do you want to have a bath now or do you want it after this programme is over?” (The message is: You are having a bath and you can decide when!
– Allow your child to make decisions where possible.
– Pick your battles. Sometimes we have to decide what is really important and what can be left for another time. For example, if you are clear that you are going to restrict use of computer games, do not decide to restrict access to sweets at the same time.
– Don’t offer choice where there is none. We are often tempted to say, “Would you like…?” when there is no room for refusal.
– Remember that a screaming, distressed child or adolescent cannot hear you when they are in mid-tantrum. On such occasions, keep calm!
– After the tantrum is over, be prepared to give lots of praise and acknowledge the effort required to get their feelings under control.
– Be consistent.
– With adolescents, try not to make snap decisions or judgements. It is often easier to give an unwelcome response when you have had time to carefully consider it and plan the message delivery. Taking time also indicates that you consider the request is worthy of consideration. But do tell them when they can expect your answer!
– Identify and validate the feelings expressed, even if your teenager reacts with scorn! They still need to know you are hearing them!
– Agree approaches with your co-parent or anyone with whom you share child-rearing.
– Keep language simple and do not over-explain.
– Make time for fun activities.
– When calm is restored, praise yourself if you feel you managed it well.
Above all, remember that this is a very challenging time for all but it will pass.
Anne McKechnie is an independent consultant clinical psychologist who specialises in the understanding of psychological and developmental trauma