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“My Tantrum-Taming Recipe”

Start with calmness. Add generous amounts of sympathy and connection, and perhaps you can stop the screaming in its tracks.

He is screaming again. I asked him to clean up the toys I’ve piled in the middle of the living room. He said, “No, I always clean, you always make me clean, and I don’t want to.” I told him again, calmly, to clean them up. He said he’s tired of cleaning. I said that whatever he didn’t clean up would be thrown away, because we can’t keep toys I have to clean up.

That’s when the screaming started. At first, it was a coherent stream of “You always make me clean and I hate cleaning and I was playing Lego and you interrupted me and you always interrupt me and those toys are mine and you’re a bad mama, and…” Then it degenerated into screeches and yells and stamping and roaring, with perhaps some throwing of the aforementioned toys.

What do you do?

First, make sure your child isn’t hungry, thirsty, or tired. My oldest son, who has ADHD, throws epic tantrums when he’s “hangry” — hungry and angry. Even he recognizes it now: “I’m getting hangry,” he’ll warn. Everyone knows tired children can’t control themselves, and thirsty children are the same. Children with ADHD lose control if they’re over- or under-stimulated, or if they’ve lost their predictable schedule for the day. These wouldn’t solve your child’s tantrum, but they may give you some sympathy for it. I’m terrible at this, and my husband often has to remind me that my sons are exhausted.

You need to sympathize with your child, preferably before it gets to the screaming and roaring stage. That’s when the brain shuts down, and you can’t get through to them.

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“I know you don’t want to clean,” I might say, “but everyone in our family takes a hand in keeping the house picked up. I’ve already cleaned up the whole living room. As part of the family it’s your turn to pick up the toys, which are all I left you, because you are six.” If I can squeeze this in before the epic tantrum, Blaise will usually huff and puff and clean up the toys. He recognizes that he’s valued and cared for, and needed as a part of the family.

If your child’s whining for candy, you can try something like, “We don’t have money for candy. Everyone in the family can’t have everything we want, or we’d have to buy out all of Target. I see a dress I want, but I can’t buy it because we don’t have the money. It made me sad. Are you sad?” The key is to develop a connection with your child.

If you didn’t manage to get that empathy part in (I rarely do), there are still some steps you can take. First, stay calm. It’s difficult when someone is screaming at you, throwing himself on the floor, and making everyone in Target glare at you as if you were the leading candidate for Worst Parent in the World. Take some deep breaths. This gets more oxygen to your brain, and allows you to think more clearly. Encourage your child to take some deep breaths, or to see how long he can hold his breath. Either one will derail the tantrum by helping your child think more rationally.

This never works for my son. He screams, “I hate taking deep breaths!” and keeps on keepin’ on. Continuing to stay calm, I do one of two things. If we’re out, I remove him from the situation to the car. If we’re home, I ask him if he’d like to be upset alone or with me. If he says he wants to be alone, I help him (pick him up or strenuously lead him) toward him room. Be prepared to be kicked or hit, and be prepared to ignore it. When we get to the door of his room, I ask him again. If he still wants to be alone, he goes inside, and I tell him he can scream and roar as loud as he wants without hurting my ears, and he can come out when he’s calm.

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Usually, he says he wants to be sad with me. So I put him in my lap (or next to me on the couch), and hug him while he’s upset. Usually this is when the screaming degenerates into tears. Ride that out together. The connection with you is important. In fact, if your child decides to stay in his room, go in frequently to ask if he’d like to be sad with you.

Once he’s settled down, talk about the tantrum. For us, it’s usually, “I feel like you always make me clean up toys.” I respond with, “I feel like I always clean up toys. I cleaned them up into a pile for you. You can show me you’re sorry for saying (insert the terrible thing) by putting them away. Once it’s done, we can do something together, like read a book, play Lego, or do another activity.” This gives him a reward, but one that emphasizes connection and cohesion as a family, and which builds self-esteem. It might feel like you’re rewarding your child for doing what he or she should have done in the first place, but this is a learning experience for both of you.

Remember that your child can’t get over tantrums overnight, and he may need to grow out of them. Until then, you need to ride it out the best you can with sympathy, calm, and connection to one another. It may not be easy. It may not go like the script I just laid out. But you can ride out your ADHD child’s tantrums without yelling or rewarding him. It takes connection.

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