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Preventing Tantrums by Targeting the Senses

When your sixth sense lets you know a meltdown is approaching, target your child’s senses to help diffuse the situation

Tantrums. The screaming, yelling, often oppositional behavior that all kids display – and usually at the best times. Right in the middle of the store or library, when you are late, when you have just come home from a 12-hour day of work. They almost have a sixth sense to challenge us at our breaking points. Right? Parenting, needless to say, ain’t easy. So, having said that, I’m here to drop some knowledge on how to help prevent a full-on meltdown when you see your child inching toward a tantrum.

I want to talk about keeping kids in that “green zone”: The zone that exists before they fly off the handle straight into the “red”. The anger they display when they are yelling, “You are the worst parent ever. I hate you.” Some of the best parents will try to get down and reason with them, encouraging them to talk through their feelings. In some kids, this may work, but for most, once they cross that threshold, they aren’t even able to process what you are saying, let alone communicate effectively.

So, try this. When you see your child get agitated, pay attention. Right when they start talking back, try to redirect them to their senses:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Sound

This helps them come out of that emotional center in their brain, de-escalating their stress response and allows them hear reason and communicate their needs.

SIGHT

Try commenting on the environment around you, talking about what you see, like the colors, the objects, the clouds. Ask them to comment. But, if they are unable to, comment for them.

SMELL

Next, maybe bring them to their sense of smell. My favorite way to do this is by making a joke about how something stinks like, “What is that, old food? Is that garbage?” Sometimes I get a laugh. You can comment on the coffee smell, ask them if they smell pizza – whatever will get them to use their nose. Once again, they don’t need to answer you, you just need to prompt it.

TOUCH

You can try to poke or tickle them, making it silly. Say something like, “Let’s get those mads out of there. Where are they? Your belly? Your toes?” You can also ask them if their pants itch, or if their shirt is soft? Cue them into to their sense of touch, but don’t push.

SOUND

Lastly, you can ask them what they hear, like the birds, a train, cars – whatever it is. You can comment, “That bird is loud, isn’t it?” Once again, it doesn’t need to be fancy, just a prompt.

While this may seem like a lot, the whole process takes about a minute or two, probably less than would take if you kept pushing them into their tantrum-pick your battles for sure.

When they are calmer, you can ask them what was bothering them or what they needed, or you can redirect them to the next task. They might say, “I really don’t want to go to the doctor,” or, “I don’t like my homework.” Validate them by saying, “Yes I know you don’t, but we have to _____ , when we are done, what is something you want to do?” Giving them a choice in the next step helps them feel control over the situation, as well as helps them increase their awareness of self-regulation. I talked a lot about self regulation in my Executive Functioning blog.

One of my favorite books is “How To Talk So Kids Can Listen.” It’s a great resource for parents to navigate negative feelings in kids. And if you haven’t already, you can check out some great visual cues and schedules to help kids plan and organize their negative feelings online. Etsy has some cute options!

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