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Parenting through Tantrums

September 23, 2010

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It’s not uncommon for kids who have been adopted, experienced trauma, or been in foster care to have more frequent and more intense tantrums than children who have never experienced trauma or had a significant attachment disruption. At times, these tantrums can get so intense that the child is making statements about wanting to harm themselves. These tantrums are often alarming and terrifying- both for the child and for the parent. Children feel overwhelmed and out of control. Parents feel scared, frustrated, and even embarrassed. When our children “misbehave” it’s easy to internalize their behavior as a direct result of our parenting. It’s hard to ask for help when you’re concerned about the judgment that will be passed.

Consider your child’s tantrum an attempt to communicate with you. A child’s tantrum says:

  • My feelings are too big for me to manage right now
  • I don’t have the words to talk about my feelings
  • Something has happened that triggered my “flight or fight” response and I have lost the ability to make rational choices
  • I’m dysregulated

How do we help children who are having a tantrum?

First and foremost, parents need to help themselves. If your child is dysregulated, she will need to “borrow” from your regulated energy. If you are feeling frazzled, internalizing your child’s tantrum as a direct insult on your parenting, or simply want to burst, your child’s dysregulation is likely to increase if you attempt to intervene in her tantrum. Be sure your child is physically safe and then take a brief moment to regulate yourself. When your child isn’t having a tantrum, you can improve your ability to stay regulated during difficult times by practicing good self-care. Once you feel your own emotions have regulated, determine the level of intrusion your child is willing to accept. Some children won’t want to be touched, others will. If your child isn’t willing to be touched or held, use a calm, low voice to join with her emotions.

  • You must feel so sad right now
  • You really are feeling just awful
  • That is so sad

Be genuine. Acknowledge your child’s overwhelming pain. Remember that this is not about discipline. It’s about your child learning skills to regulate himself.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin and Bastrop Texas specializing in adoption and attachment.

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