Updated: Jan 9
*In this article, "throwing a fit" is used to describe the times when a child expresses an emotional outburst, sometimes accompanied by flailing appendages (i.e. having a temper tantrum), going limp when being picked up or carried, and/or loud complaining or whining.
In all my years of working with young children - and those who care for them - I have OFTEN heard adults say, "He's doing this FOR NO REASON." Mamas, you have to get this:
There is ALWAYS a reason; we just don't ALWAYS know what it is!
I promise you, changing your thoughts and words from, "She's throwing a fit for no reason!" to "I wonder why she is having such a hard time?" is going to help your brain shift from figuratively throwing up its hands in defeat into a problem solving mode. This doesn't necessarily mean the reason is going to magically appear - but it DOES mean that it is much more likely to do so!
Let's consider some possibilities why a child may throw a fit - and how to handle it in four easy steps:
They are egocentric.
Being self-centered is the default position of the human race. It means that we want what we want when we want it. It is our job to help children know we understand it's difficult to wait for something - or not get it at all - and to give them tools to successfully navigate these feelings. You may have seen grown adults acting like spoiled children when the world doesn't go their way. While we are ALL guilty of this behavior at times, if we don't make the conscious effort to help our children process these hard situations now (rather than giving in to them to avoid them from throwing a fit), everyone is going to suffer for it later.
They may have some physical discomfort.
Have you ever been so hungry you feel angry at everyone around you? Yeah, me too (and we're adults). In our home we call it being "hangry." Imagine being three years old, not aware that low blood sugar is causing you to feel and act irritably, and since you don't yet have the skills to regulate those feelings, you fall on the floor kicking and screaming! What else would we expect? Or, if your child recently ate, perhaps he is experiencing a food sensitivity. Or maybe she is tired, worn out or is getting sick and doesn't yet have the words or awareness to tell us this!
They may have an emotional need.
ALL of us - kids included - have more stress today than ever before. If we are feeling anxious, our kids are going to mirror this. If we are constantly going from activities to play dates to errands to other events, without allowing time for family connections (I mean unplugging in your home with no agenda other than to rest and connect relationally), we are all going to burn out. Sometimes kids are feeling overstimulated, afraid, frustrated, or unsure where they fit in this big world - especially if you live in a blended family where they may have to go between households and expectations. Since young children often don't have the ability to process information rationally, these overwhelming feelings can result in meltdowns and fits.
Our expectations or limits may be inconsistent, unclear, or unrealistic.
At times, we take for granted that our kids should KNOW how to socially navigate certain situations. I mean after all, we've TOLD them before, right? In reality, children need to hear and practice a skill at least 400 times in context to really learn it. Understanding this fact can help us adjust our expectations of our children's performance AND help us remember the need to be consistent in modeling. For example, if they can sometimes watch TV before breakfast, but sometimes not, that is inconsistent and confusing.
Or if we are getting ready to leave and tell them to clean up and say goodbye, and then stand there talking with your friend for another 10 minutes, that can be unclear and frustrating. The best thing to do in these circumstances (after the fact) is to recognize what you did, and apologize to your child. "I realize I told you to get ready to leave, but then I wasn't ready to leave. I know waiting is hard, especially when you don't know what's going on. I'm working on doing better with this. Will you please forgive me?"
Finally, make sure that your expectations are age-appropriate. In most cases, a teenager can (and should) get himself up and ready for the day, do his own laundry, and be responsible for other household chores - but of course that's unrealistic for a five year old to manage. How about expecting a five year old to clean his room to your standards? Depending on your child, this could be such an overwhelming task that it could create anxiety that leads to throwing a fit!
Four Steps to Help When Your Child Throws a Fit:
Take a deep breath, praying to see your child the way God does, (breathe again) asking Him to help your child be able to hear your words, (breathe again) feeling thankful you have this opportunity to teach your child a different way to handle overwhelming feelings, (breathe again) knowing that you have what it takes to connect with your child in this moment. (Click here for a free video training on this)
2. Move to eye level and touch (if your child is OK with it) and say:
"You really wanted (candy before dinner/to watch TV/that toy) and you can't have it and that stinks." or
"You're legs and arms are flailing all around. Your body is trying to say you feel (angry or frustrated or hungry or tired)" <---just GUESS at what you think they're feeling! They'll let you know if you're wrong!
"I can see you are feeling really upset. I am going to keep you safe and help you through this hard time. You are not alone. You can handle this."
*Repeat Steps 1 & 2 until your child makes eye contact (Connects) with you.
3. Once you're connected, empathetically set the limit:
"It's hard when you (don't know what else to do/feel frustrated/are overwhelmed), but you cannot (hurt yourself, or hit your brother or throw things or kick me) when you don't get what you want."
4. Continue connecting with eye contact and touch and tell what TO do:
"When you feel like this, you can (say, 'I feel angry' or you can squeeze your toy dog, or you can tell us you want to be alone and sit on your bed) to handle this hard feeling."
I would love to know how this goes with you and your family. Please, comment below!
#ConnectPointMoms helps you create stronger relational connections with the children in your life. This starts with being aware of your own stuff so you can BE PRESENT with your children in the moment you're in, and then knowing and using the best ways to communicate with them! For quick, helpful parenting videos, find "Kate Connects" on YouTube or join the Connect Point Moms Facebook group to find encouraging supportive moms struggling through it all together!