When your kid is about to melt down, hold on before you pass them the ever-soothing iPad.
As part of its latest guidelines on kids and screen use, the American Academy of Pediatrics says parents not only need to pay attention to how much a kid is using a screen, but also when and why they are using it.
Along with suggesting that children ages 2 to 5 should be limited to one hour of media a day, the authors of the AAP report suggest parents should avoid using media as the only way to calm down children because it may limit children’s ability to regulate their own emotions.
Now, I can see both sides of this one. If I were responsible for the guidelines going out to an entire country of parents, I would also encourage them to find better conflict resolution than just pushing a phone or tablet in a child's face when they're upset. However, I parent actual, real children and I know that sometimes that is the only thing that might possibly work!
As a mom of four and family doctor who sees lots of kids, the thing that helps most to avoid the "Oh fine, here, just watch something!" mentality is... preparation. Know that your child will melt down, and have a few ideas ready to try before you just hand them the technology.
Here are 12 ways to calm a tantrum-bound child, no devices needed.
1. Empathy. Instead of trying to fix the situation or tell them why they're wrong, just identify the feeling they have and mirror it back. "You're MAD you can't have the candy!" Give your child a chance to feel heard. You don't have to give the candy, but you can give them some understanding.
2. Distraction. "Whoa! Is that a double ladder fire engine?" "Do you like that person's shoes?" "What was the weirdest thing that happened at school today?"
3. A trade-off. "If you can get yourself together I promise I won't throw a tantrum myself." Kids over the age of 3 are often distracted and fascinated by the idea that their grownup might also be having a hard time. "If you can hold it together now, I can give you 15 solid minutes of my attention as soon as we get home. Even if you need to have the tantrum then."
4. A game. If you have a game your child likes to play, like "I spy" or who can get the tip of their tongue closer to their nose, try starting to play. Play is a huge motivator for kids, and you're someone she loves to play with any time.
5. Go quiet. The louder and more upset your child becomes, the quieter you get. You may have to get pretty close to his ear to be heard, but most kids unconsciously set their own volume to match us. So get quieter and say interesting, great things. See if he quiets down a little to hear you.
6. Tell her what she's doing right. It's so tempting to chastise our kids for the tantrum on top of being mad at them for whatever led to it in the first place. Instead of telling them how not to feel or how not to act in that moment, find something they're doing well — "I'm proud of you for using your words" or "You're telling me how you feel" — to see if you can get their attention.
7. Ask for options. If your child is verbal, ask for three things that could help right now. One is bound to be the thing you already said no to, but one of the others might be acceptable to you. And if it is, praise the heck out of your child for problem-solving!
8. Sing it! Some kids respond really well to music. Keep a playlist of their favorite songs and, even in the middle of a tantrum, feel free to turn it on. Not too loud, you want them to quiet down to hear it better. Sing along if they like you to, and be willing to dance!
9. Grab a pillow. Hugging, squeezing or even punching a pillow can help a child direct some of their anger or frustration outward without hitting anyone.
10. Run! That's right, challenge your child to a running race or jumping jacks. I know they'll be surprised, but this is a great chance to teach how exercise can help us feel better.
11. Go in for the hug. If you can get past flailing arms and legs, or if you have a screamer but not a kicker on your hands, see if some physical, soothing touch will help. We've been calming our kids that way since they were small and they often reduce their emotional distress when we touch them. It can make us parents feel better too!
12. Ride it out. Tantrums aren't the end of the universe. They end. So, if you can stand it, let your child work it out without intervention. Keep them physically safe of course, but don't feel like you have to fix it all the time. After it winds down, offer a little empathy or a conversation if you'd like. This shows your child that you can handle their emotions and that they can learn to bring themselves back under control.
All of these ideas won't work for every child or every parent or in every situation. That's why there are a bunch of suggestions. Hopefully a few sound possible. Teaching our kids to manage their anger or frustration is one of the hardest parts of parenting. It's also one of the most important.