“I’m no longer traumatized by her tantrums”

Hannah’s mom had reached out to me because, as she put it, Hannah (who was 10) was “negative,” with a “bad attitude.” “She pushes back on nearly every task,” her mom said. “And she throws huge tantrums when she doesn’t get her way.” When her mom tried to help her get her homework done, Hannah’s initial response – “You’re too stupid to help me” – would quickly turn to rage. Hannah would get up from the table and stomp around the house, all the while screaming insults and throwing anything in her path. Hannah’s outbursts happened every day, and while she sometimes apologized afterwards, this didn’t undo the stress the tantrums caused her mom. “I feel traumatized every time this happens,” her mom told me. “I don’t want to be around her. Her behavior disgusts me.”

Hannah’s parents had punished Hannah once or twice in an attempt to stop the tantrums, but the strategies they had relied on the most derived from both Attachment Parenting and Dan Siegel’s work. Hannah’s mom was intentional about connecting with Hannah when she was angry, and she worked hard to validate her feelings. But these strategies didn’t work with Hannah. Her mom’s attempt to talk with her about her feelings was frustrating for her, and Mom’s attempt to empathize only made her more angry. “It seems like you’re frustrated because it’s time for bed,” Mom might say. And Hannah would respond with verbal abuse: “It seems like you’re a bitch!”

So after explaining to Hannah’s parents that the strategies they were using often failed with strong-willed, “emotionally intense” kids, I prescribed the Wits’ End approach to anger management. And as a first step, we had Mom disengage from the tantrums. “You don’t have to change the fact that she’s furious,” I said. “You don’t have to get her to calm down. Instead, we’ll help her to express her anger appropriately, and we’ll let the anger run its course.” Because Hannah loved to drum and drumming would allow her to express her anger physically, we encouraged her to drum when she was mad, and Hannah also used the area under her loft bed as a Cool-Down Space, as this had always been a place where she would go to read and just chill out.

Hannah didn’t ALWAYS go to her Cool-Down Space when she was angry, of course, and she didn’t always want to drum. Sometimes she wanted to just keep yelling at her mom. But when that happened, Mom would go to her own Cool-Down Space. And she was really surprised at how well these strategies worked. “We’re taught that we need to be SO involved with the kids when they’re having a tantrum,” she said. “But when I just let it be and disengage from it, Hannah deescalates. It’s like it’s easier for her to calm down if I just leave her alone.”

Hannah was learning how to self-regulate, and like most of the families I work with, her meltdowns REALLY decreased in frequency. Hannah went from one meltdown a day to two meltdowns a week by the second week of the coaching program! And by the end of the last (eighth) week, while Hannah’s temperament hadn’t changed, and she still had big feelings and would still melt down occasionally, her meltdowns had decreased by more than 90%. And not only could Hannah self-regulate; in addition, because we had also employed strategies that satisfied her need for control – for example, we had her plan the family’s breakfast menu, and she facilitated weekly family meetings – she was also more adaptable and more cooperative.

“Hannah can pivot now,” her mom told me. “And she’s much more at ease around expectations and reminders. She a lot less negative, and she’s meeting her obligations. And when she does pitch a fit, I’m no longer traumatized.” This last comment means so much to me, because I have a deep appreciation for strong-willed, emotionally “intense” kids and it’s part of my mission to help parents become more accepting of and comfortable with these kids’ big feelings. And I also love that when kids learn to self-regulate, they don’t get angry nearly as often!

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