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Talking Down Tantrums

Dan Saelinger

HE SAYS “I'm not listening to you. I'm not talking to you. Leave me alone!”

YOU SAY “If you're going to have a tantrum, go to your room and come out when you're finished.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “You're so mad. You say ‘I'm not listening to you, Mommy. I'm not talking to you.’ But it's OK. I'll be right here.”

New York City mom Alicia Harper has a master's degree in psychological counseling, but she admits all that training sometimes goes right out the window when her 4-year-old son, Aiden, is uncooperative. “I've said things like ‘Please go to the bedroom to throw a tantrum, and when you're finished, you can come back out here with me,’” Harper explains. “Depending on his mood, it'll set him off even more.”

Exiling your kid isn't a viable option, which is why Dr. Karp devised the “kind ignore.” Rather than sending your child to time-out or walking away, simply narrate your child's words back to him, and then turn away to do something else (but stay close by). Reassure him that you'll be there and give him a few seconds to calm down. Some kids will require two or three narrations before they get over it, but this technique allows your child to see that you care and that you don't reject him for having these feelings. Walking away will only make him feel more ashamed and alone.

SHE SAYS “I'm going to hit you!”

YOU SAY “Your brother never hits.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “No hitting. It's OK to feel angry, but it's not OK to hit.”

First things first: You have to deal with the hitting. “Setting limits is particularly important around behavior that will hurt other people or themselves, so a very firm ‘no hitting’ is in order here,” says Dr. Gold. But just as important, you want to validate your child's emotion. “There is a difference between bad feelings and bad behavior,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. In the moments after a tantrum, especially a physical one, you may be tempted to just forget the whole thing, but once your child has calmed down, you want to make sure she understands it's OK to feel frustrated and angry, but it's not OK to hurt someone else. Talk to your child about why she acted the way she did and what she should do differently the next time instead of getting so angry and upset. “What you do after the tantrum is so important because that's your real opportunity to teach,” says Carter.

And what about that sibling comparison? Avoid it at all costs. “Parents think comparing children is a motivator, but it isn't,” says Griffin. When you compare, your child doesn't get mad at you, she gets mad at her brother or sister, and ultimately you're setting the stage for sibling rivalry.