I offer to all parents, with great love, a gentle way that we have found for dealing with tantrums. Not that I always manage it myself; far from it. When I am stressed, tired or overwhelmed I do not live up to my ideals. But when I can and I do, it brings peace, calm and love back to my interactions with my child.
I have been blessed with a tropical typhoon of a second child. Her tantrums started when she was just eighteen months old and although she is nearing three, they show no sign of abating. She tests me to my very core on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
Witnessing her tantrums is truly like watching a storm blowing in. And if I can keep myself in a space of loving detachment and observation, of witnessing, I can ride the energy rather than getting caught up in her anger, upset and need to control and be right.
Holding the Space
The first step is to be there, to observe, to offer her help and support to try and alleviate the cause of her suffering. This is crucial in case it is a genuine frustration at a specific problem, but usually it has no effect but to make her worse. Once the storm cycle has been set in motion it must run its course.
And so I withdraw a little, breathing consciously all the while, holding the space emotionally and giving her the physical space for her full expression of anger and frustration, so that she can writhe and scream and wail and pound her fists into the floor. She knows that I am there, but she has the floor.
And then after a little while the worst of the storm has passed over. I hear a change of tone, from anger to sadness. I approach and gently bring her to my lap. I hold her to my chest so that she can hear my heart beat, and I breathe, consciously, breathe to keep my centre, breathe my love and peace into her, and rock her gently. No talking at all, just physical holding.
When her sobs are beginning to space out more I ask if she would like to light the Happy Candles. These magical beacons mark the point of transition from stormy seas to sunny skies.
My eldest child discovered these when my daughter had her first full blown tantrum. For nearly 25 minutes she screamed and screamed and we could find no way of consoling her. He suggested lighting candles and immediately the atmosphere changed; she calmed down as if by magic. They worked just as effectively the next day, and Happy Candles have since become a family tradition.
Many religions use candles to create a sense of sacred and peaceful space. The candle represents stillness and the light within us all. The flame of a candle is slightly hypnotic and has the effect of drawing us into ourselves. Furthermore it has a biological function. The reduced light means that the reptilian (primitive) brain responsible for fight or flight, which is activated during tantrums, is calmed, as it is stimulated by bright lights and loud noises. This sets off the calming system within the child so that adrenaline stops being released and the body can rebalance itself to its normal hormonal equilibrium. Research shows that young children are unable to do this on their own and need help to calm themselves.
Happy Candles help to quieten your child when she is ready but cannot stop crying, by giving her a slight distraction and focus outside of herself, allowing her mind and emotions to “reshuffle” slightly without being repressed. We have developed a firm ritual to Happy Candles, and I believe that keeping a predictable format lays down behavioural pathways in the brain which signal the end of a tantrum.
We set up the candles on a table and lower the lights. We tend to use pillar candles that we have on our mantlepiece, but any candles will do. Then if we have our mindfulness bell on hand we ring that first and take a breath in and out. Then we mindfully light the candles, she blows out the match – again a way of getting her to take a deep breath in and out – and then we watch the candles flickering as I hold her close to me. We watch them together until she is completely still and calm. Then I ask if she is ready to blow them out. If she is, we take a deep breath together, blow them out, sometimes with a wish or a silent prayer or blessing from me, and watch the smoke spiralling up, as she tries to catch it.
A simple hug and kiss and normality resumes. She is included lovingly back into the family and whatever we are up to with no grudge-holding, no reference to the tantrum or bringing up the subject that started it all off. To do that now will often take you back to square one.
Hold the vision of the candle in your mind’s eye and your heart as you go back into your day. Continue to breathe mindfully. And be appreciative and loving of yourself for having dealt with your beloved child with gentleness and good grace.
The Aware Baby, by Dr Aletha J Solter
The Science of Parenting, by Dr Margot Sunderland
Lucy Pearce is full-time mama to three little ones. She is also a freelance writer and contributing editor at JUNO magazine. Visit her at Dreaming Aloud, and access her archive of previously published work on pregnancy, birth, natural parenting and health here.