Parent Rx: Tantrums and Mass Behavior

My latest ParentRx Q&A Column from the upcoming issue of Tender Tidings.shutterstock_29603572

My five-year-old daughter still throws temper tantrums occasionally, which are usually triggered by not getting her way with something that seems rather trivial to us. Sometimes we have no idea what caused the tantrum, and have a hard time getting her to tell us what happened.  What is the best way to help her calm down and talk to us when she is in the midst of screaming, crying, and writhing in a heap on the floor?  She does sometimes let me pick her up and hold her until she calms down enough to think and speak rationally, and other times we have just left her alone in her room until she calms down a bit.  Once she calms down, how can we teach her to control her response better the next time something upsets her?   Signed, Tired of Tantrums

A:  Between the ages of 4-6, brain changes are occurring that enable a child to engage in self-talk–that inner dialog that we all have that creates and sustains emotional states.  Before this age, parents could deal with tantrums with distraction and calming techniques alone.  Now, however, these techniques aren’t enough because the child is able to keep the emotional fires burning by keeping up a conversation in his or her head that says, “You’re mean!”  “This isn’t fair!” and “I don’t LIKE this!”

It is ultimately the child’s job to learn how to get control of this inner-dialog because there is little you can do from the outside to directly change it.  But you can provide a structure that makes it easier for the child to learn to get control of the negative tantrum sustaining self-talk.

1.  Begin with comfort and empathy–Start by letting your child know you understand that he or she is hurting and upset.   Simple statements like, “You are so upset.  I’m sorry you seem so frustrated right now” and the like can go a long way to helping your child feel understood and, ultimately, calm down.  If your child is receptive to your attempts to help and begins quieting down a bit, coach your child to use his or her words to tell you what he or she is upset about.  Help your child state the problem and begin proposing ideas to address whatever that issue is.  Assuming this works, skip step two below and proceed to step three.


2.  Give the child some space—If your child fights you and is refusing your help as described above, say to your child, “I am trying to help you, but you don’t seem to want my help.  You will need to sit here until you are ready to tell me what’s wrong in your nice voice or are ready to let me help you.”  Place the child in a quiet place and leave the room.  This isn’t a time-out so much as it is some time to let your child cool down.  Check back in after a few minutes and ask if your child is ready to speak to you respectfully about the problem or receive your help calming down.  Repeat step 2 until the child is receptive.  Return to step one.


3.  Rehearse–Now that you have helped your child get back under control, identified the problem and how you can address the problem, have your child rehearse a better way to address this problem in future.  Have your child imagine that he or she is experiencing the problem again but this time, have your child practice saying the respectful words and tone and doing the more appropriate thing to address the concern.  It’s ok if your child has to repeat this two or three times to get it right (any more than that and you’ll need to go back to step two).  Once your child completes this successfully, praise your little one for the good effort and get him to promise that he will do this new behavior instead the next time this problem comes up.


After a week or two at most, the tantrums should mostly stop altogether.  If not, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute for additional support.


Dear Dr. Greg,   My four-year-old daughter has a hard time sitting still during Mass, so I let her look at books and color.  Up to this point I have felt this is reasonable given her age and maturity. At what age, though, do you think I should require her to focus on the Liturgy (with my support) instead of playing and reading?    Signed,   A Mom Trying to Raising Saints

Every child will come into this in their own time, but every child needs help to get there.  Whatever age your child is, begin by at least requiring your child to put down her book or toy and attend to elevation, when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Say to your child, “The bread and wine is becoming Jesus!  Look at the miracle!  Say, ‘I love you, Jesus.'”


As your child gets more mature, take away the activities for the time from the Holy to the Great Amen.  Help your child sing/say the prayers.


Also, make sure that you have read the readings before mass.  Pick a “magic word” for each reading.  Tell your child to listen for that word during the readings and the Gospel.  When your child hears the word, tell them to give you a quiet signal (tugging your sleeve, for instance) to let you know that he heard it.  Praise him and give him a big hug for paying attention.
The key is to use little trick like this to teach your child to attend to as much of the Mass as possible.  Don’t set your child up with toys and books from the start.  Help your child attend to Mass as much as you can and use the activity books and quiet toys to fill in the gaps.  Over time, try to find little ways to encourage your child to delay bringing out the activities, remembering that at every age, these things should be put away–or at least set aside–during the consecration/elevation.


Comments are closed.