This morning I told my 17-month-old he could not touch my hot tea. His response? He threw his body on the ground and wailed. He didn’t really want to touch my tea – he just didn’t want to be told no. A tantrum is an external expression of an internal problem. It’s about a heart that is testing boundaries and willfully pushing away authority. A tantrum is our cue as parents to say, “Yes, there are boundaries. My discipline will show you that you are safe, loved, and not in charge.” Despite what they might say in the moment, this is what our kids truly want to hear. It gives them security – and it’s the first step in teaching them about the gospel.
So how do we address tantrums? The same way we address any discipline situation: We deal with the heart. Our goal is not to show our kids the best way to get what they want. That only addresses the actions on the surface. “If you ask nicely, you can have the toy. If you throw a fit, Mommy will walk away and ignore you.” It’s not about how to get the toy. It’s about pointing our kids to God. God does not ignore sin. When the child throws a tantrum, we need to communicate, “What you are doing is wrong. Mom and Dad are in charge of you, and God is in charge of all of us. You obey God by obeying Mom and Dad.”
While tantrums might be messy and exhausting, they are far from hopeless. There are three tools that can help us successfully address tantrums. When a tantrum explodes I like to remember the acronym, “ACT:” Alone time, Cause, Teach.
“A” – Alone Time. “Alone time” is different from ignoring a tantrum. Ignoring a tantrum creates a power struggle. Who can hold their ground longer, the parent or the toddler? In a Christian home, the authority has already been established. It’s not about who has more endurance. Parents are in charge, not the toddler. “Alone time” is an intentional and essential first step to dealing with the heart. When a tantrum first erupts, I take my child by the hand and lead him to a quiet place to be alone. (Starting at about one-and-a-half, I take the kids to the crib.) I say, “You may not fuss at Mommy. You sit in here alone until I come and talk to you.”
Being suddenly alone is significant for a little one. For some personalities, that might be discipline enough. It also gives my child a chance to calm down. I might decide that additional discipline is needed, but it will not be very effective if he is already screaming and crying. I want the message of the discipline to sink in. I let him calm down so that emotions don’t cloud his thinking.
Alone time also gives me a chance to calm down. I need a moment away from the chaos so I can make a wise decision. My initial reaction might be based on his initial reaction. It’s easy to be driven by emotion. I need to take a minute to be away from the tantrum so I can be objective and intentional about discipline.
“C” – Cause: Why Is My Child Throwing a Fit? Tantrums are always fueled by something. Although a tantrum is never an okay response, its cause should help to determine the discipline. Why is your child throwing a fit? What sparked it? What’s going on under the surface? Yes, often tantrums are sparked by pure rebellion. But as parents we need to be aware of all possible causes.
My kids are the most emotionally fragile when they are tired or hungry. That doesn’t excuse their tantrums, but it reminds me that sometimes meeting physical needs comes before addressing spiritual needs. Is my son’s blood sugar low? Does he need a nap? As parents we juggle managing hearts and bodies at the same time. We can’t let tantrums slide just because our kids don’t feel well, but we also can’t demand a perfect attitude from them without actively seeking to meet their physical needs. Look for the cause. We need to address the heart by meeting physical needs.
“T” – Teach Appropriate Response. The final step, Teach, also means discipline. Once you have instigated Alone time and determined the Cause, it’s time to decide what form of Teaching (or discipline) your child needs. Let’s take a look at an example.
Example: You tell your child it is time to put toys away. He throws his body on the floor and kicks and screams and says, “No! No! No!”
Time to ACT.
- Take your child by the hand and say, “That is not an appropriate response. Go wait on your bed until I come to talk to you.”
- You look at the clock. Yep. It’s a half an hour past bedtime. He’s exhausted and that’s contributing to the tantrum. That doesn’t excuse his rebellious attitude, but it helps you make an informed decision about discipline. You decide, “He still needs to obey, but he can’t mentally process cleaning up an entire room right now. How can I stick to my original direction, for him to put his toys away, but simplify it so that it’s something he can be successful with right now?” You go to your child, make eye contact, and say calmly, “I know you are tired, but you may not tell Mommy no. I want you to clean up three toys and then get back in your bed. Do you understand?”
- Time to teach. What discipline would be appropriate? At this point you might decide an additional consequence is needed for telling you no. If you think your child is too emotional and tired for additional discipline to be effective, you might decide sleep is the quickest way to resolve this discipline situation. Then, over the next few days, you can keep a close eye out for similar situations. Is this becoming a habit, or was it purely related to his being tired? Be ready to step up the discipline if you notice that it’s becoming a habit.
When we discipline our kids for tantrums we pave the way for the gospel message. We show them that God is holy and we are not. We mimic the loving boundaries God has set up for us. We deal with their tantrums to show them there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. While tantrums can be discouraging, think of every one as an opportunity to lay another brick in the gospel foundation.
Want more practical tips on how to revolutionize your discipline? Check out “For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs.” Preorder your copy today!