Tantrums and Trauma
Should a parent respond to a child’s tantrum differently than they should respond to a trauma response? Yes, no, and maybe – there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to parenting, but there are a few guidelines that are good to follow and can make life easier both for parents and kids.
The first step to responding appropriately to trauma is understanding it. Trauma is defined as any event or circumstance resulting in physical, emotional, and/or life-threatening harm which also negatively impacts the individual’s long-term health and/or wellbeing (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], n.d.). Common causes of trauma in children include but are not limited to past neglect and maltreatment, witnessing violence, and losing a parental figure. Even in times when they are technically safe, having experienced danger in the past can lead a child to enter a state of flight, fight, or freeze which impacts both the mind and body. This is sometimes referred to as a “trauma reaction” or a “trauma response,” and it’s actually a survival response. The body’s attempt to keep itself safe in this way would likely be effective if the individual was in danger, but in the event that the child is safe, it can be disruptive or even dangerous. The good news is: children can recover from their trauma, and one of the most important parts of that recovery is having a supportive family and adults who love and care for them (SAMHSA, 2022).
Trauma vs. Tantrums
When a child is screaming, crying, and/or hiding from adults, it can be hard to tell if the cause of the behavior is simply not getting what they want, or if it stems from something deeper.
Step 1: Allow the child to calm down.
The good news is, you don’t need to know what caused misbehavior in the moment, because the initial response can be the same. Before any learning can occur, both the child and the adult need to be calm.
- Don’t shout. This is easier said than done, but it is especially important if there’s a concern that the child may be having a trauma response. Shouting isn’t productive in de-escalation, regardless of the cause, so practicing keeping a calm and even tone of voice can make life easier for everyone involved.
- Encourage the child to express their needs and respond to reasonable requests. In either scenario, it’s important that a child learns to regulate their emotions in appropriate ways. If they request a comfort toy, a blanket, a quiet space, or anything else that is within reason and allows them to stay safe, responding in a positive way can help them calm down. Note that allowing a child access to something they already own, like a favorite toy or blanket, is not the same as providing them with a reward for bad behavior, like buying them a new toy or giving them a piece of candy.
- Remind the child of their coping skills. Taking deep breaths, counting to 20, drawing, and talking about how they’re feeling are all examples of things that can help a child calm down when they’re upset. Different things work for different individuals, so if you know something that tends to help your child, it may be helpful to remind them of that if they seem distraught.
- Set boundaries. If the child is demanding something that is unreasonable or is unsafe, calmly explain to them why they cannot have it. It may help to offer more feasible alternatives.
- Be patient. Children often need more time to calm themselves than adults because it is a skill that they’re still learning.
If you are believe that the child may be in a survival state, here are some additional suggestions:
- Assure them that they are safe. It’s often scary as an adult to watch a child in this state, but it’s even scarier for the child, so try to convey calmness and confidence.
Tell them what happened to them in the past is not their fault. Even if they’ve acted out, children shouldn’t blame themselves for the traumatic experiences that lead to their extreme emotions. However, children often feel responsible for things that are out of their control and may need help in recognizing that in order to calm down (SAMHSA, 2022).
Step 2: Determine the cause.
Once some time has passed since the child has calmed down, try to figure out what the cause of the misbehavior was so that it can be prevented in the future. A direct discussion may or may not be possible depending on the child’s ability to express themself and understand their emotions, but some of this can be communicated through body language and other behavior.
Indications of a Trauma Response:
- The child expresses that they felt fear.
- The child demonstrated fight, flight, or freeze behaviors.
- The child identifies triggers – specific things in the environment that made them feel unsafe because it reminded them of their trauma.
- The child mentions anything that is clearly related to their trauma, like nightmares, people involved, or events that happened.
Indications of a Tantrum:
- The child expresses frustration at not having gotten something (ex: a treat, a toy, or attention) that they wanted.
- The child expresses frustration at needing to do something that they didn’t want to do.
The child was upset because they were hungry (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).
Note that any of the indications of a tantrum could actually be indications of a trauma response if they’re caused by fear. For example, if the child was upset because they were hungry because being hungry makes them afraid that they’ll starve or that they won’t receive food for extended periods of time, the sensation of hunger likely triggered a trauma response. Not every instance of a child experiencing fear is connected to trauma, so this is where it can be particularly challenging to distinguish between tantrums and trauma responses. Having knowledge of the child’s background can help, but there may be times when the cause is never entirely clear, and that’s okay.
Step 3: Prevent future misbehavior.
Ultimately, children need to learn that it’s not okay to act in a way that is harmful or destructive. Here are some effective methods to teach children to learn from their mistakes and prevent misbehavior from reoccurring:
- Enforce real world consequences. It’s important that children recognize that there are real consequences to their actions. For example, if they hurt someone or break something, even if the behavior stemmed from a trauma response, they should apologize. This demonstrates to the child that mistakes happen and are not the end of the world while also teaching them that respecting other people and possessions is important.
- Provide alternative ways of expression. It’s a good idea to provide the child with more acceptable ways to express their frustration, sadness, anger, or fear. There may be a place in the home that can become their designated “safe space” for when they’re afraid, or a way to signal to a trusted adult that they need a hug, like putting a hand on a parent’s knee or squeezing their hand. Young children can understand this as a “rule” that’s in place.
Reinforce good behavior. Children learn best when their efforts are appreciated, so be sure to praise even the smallest amounts of progress. Using coping skills, expressing their needs, and even apologizing for misbehavior are all examples of behaviors that can be rewarded and reinforced. Rewards should be something that the child likes, but it’s also important that the stakes aren’t so high that the parent is uncomfortable removing the reward if necessary. Also note that immediate rewards work best so that the child can clearly connect the behavior with the reward. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
For trauma reactions specifically, here are some additional suggestions:
- Make a list of triggers. It’s not always possible to identify all of a child’s triggers, but knowing some of them can be helpful to improving understanding and minimizing trauma reactions.
- Make a list of coping skills. Sometimes children know what works to help them calm down better than adults do. When everyone is calm and can think clearly, it may be helpful to have a discussion with a child over what works for them and how an adult can help.
There has never been a clear consensus on what a good parent looks like. Every child and every parent is unique, so it’s impossible to guarantee success with any method, and nothing will work perfectly every time. Having said that, children need time to learn and adjust just like adults do, so if you really want to give any of these techniques a try, I encourage you to stick with it even if it doesn’t work the first time, or the second, or the third time. Challenge yourself to try it for at least 3 weeks!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 8). Steps for Creating a Rewards Program. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/consequences/rewards-devlelopingprogram.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2021, May 2). Temper Tantrums: What They Are, How To Handle & Possibly Prevent Them. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14406-temper-tantrums
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, September 9). Understanding Child Trauma. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Trauma and Violence. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence