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The Best Response to Your Tween’s Temper Tantrums? Silence

To the untrained eye, Jason appeared to be having a pretty epic little temper tantrum. But I could see he was working hard (in his own unique way) to process some bad news and to self-regulate. He just needed some quiet time and space to get there.

Let me tell you a story about Jason and the rug.

Jason is a 12-year-old 6th grader who is, socially and emotionally, closer to age 9. Jason takes his ADHD medication once he gets to school, which can be problematic as he waits for it to kick in.

Today was one of those days. Jason was supposed to go on a field trip today. During homeroom, one of the kids made a joke about having a food fight and Jason threw food at this student. Jason was then told by the principal he wasn’t going on the field trip. As expected, he got very upset and he wound up placing himself under a rug.

During the time he was under the rug, I didn’t speak to him. He yelled out a bunch of times from under the rug how he hates the principal, said a few curse words about him. I didn’t respond.

He got up on his own, came into my office, saw the Connect 4 on the table, and asked to play a game. We played one game, he explained to me why he wasn’t allowed to go on the field trip. I didn’t comment on it. He went to his first period and was fine the rest of the day.

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The key here was not trying to process the sequence of events that happened, not trying to talk to him about what he would do differently next time, and not responding to the comments he was yelling out. There was no need for me to talk; my best course of action was to wait.

Sometimes, parents talk too much, which can escalate a kid who is trying to get back to a state of self-regulation. Trying to reason with a kid in this state is completely useless. I’m sure I was guilty of that many times when my son was younger and I’m sure it didn’t help the situation.

Less talking or no talking often leads to faster self-regulation. I have a saying I tell parents: “Use 80% less words.  If that’s not working, stop talking altogether.”   The rug that Jason put himself under was an effective tool for him — we just needed to let him use it.

I wish mental health graduate programs would teach the value of Jason’s rug in the same way they teach theoretical orientations. Understanding the value of not talking is more practical than any theoretical orientation I learned in graduate school. And I think Jason would probably agree.

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Updated on February 7, 2020

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