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Tuesday, September 05, 2017
Hanan El Halabi
Raising a Ticking-Bomb Child

“Oh boy, here we go again.”

You count the seconds in anticipation of the Big Blast. Your child’s breathing accelerates; his face contorts, and you can almost see the tantrum coming. Then, it begins.

Your local supermarket may not be the ideal place for your child to throw a tantrum, but you of all people know that time and place don’t matter when it comes to the emotional performance. You try to calm him down: whispering quietly to him that he needs to stop, that this isn’t the place, that he’ll be in trouble later. But you finally give up and let him have it. Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. Many parents struggle with understanding and managing their child’s temper tantrums. Once again at etcetera, we speak to Behavioral Therapist, Rola Annan, who walks us through understanding a child’s emotional journey before, during, and after a tantrum. She also offers tips on how to foresee a tantrum, help your child through it safely and constructively, and build solutions together.

Constant Vigilance!

According to Rola, parents can see a tantrum coming. “Watch for physical signs, such as changes in breathing, facial expressions (frowns, clenched teeth, etc.), and body language (stiff shoulders, tight tummy, etc.)”, she suggests. At this point, it’s a good idea to verbalize your child’s physical disturbance and relate it to his emotions: “I can see that you’re breathing quickly, do you feel upset?” Rola emphasizes the necessity of guiding the child to grow aware of his emotional state before the storm hits, since this is likely to allow him to self-soothe.

Confess Your Love and His Distress

But let’s be realistic: sometimes, there’s no stopping the other shoe from dropping. So, what do you do when you’re standing in the middle of a mall with your toddler kicking and screaming bloody murder? “It is imperative that your child understand the necessity to calm down first. Talking about the problem can come later. First and foremost, calm him down.” Whether you suspect your child is going bananas because he’s not receiving enough attention, or he is genuinely out of (emotional) control: validate his distress. It’s as easy as repeating or rephrasing what your child says in response to how he feels”, Rola advises. “I see that you want the toy, and I know you love cars, but you need to calm down first, then we can talk about it.” Sometimes giving him a hug, asserting your love for him, and emphasizing the need to calm down, helps. This is not to suggest that his tantrum-focused behavior is accepted; this is simply to validate the love and support without giving in to the child’s inappropriately expressed demands.

Recognize, Don’t Chastise

Validating distress is one small step for you and one giant leap for your child. “Only when your child is calm and back in control of his emotions can you even begin to discuss what happened”, Rola warns. But what attitude should a parent have about the tantrum? Is this the time for reprimand or acceptance? “The fact that your child successfully regained control of his emotions is in itself an aspect for celebration. The behaviors the child used in the calming down process need to be emphasized. “You are breathing and talking nicely” and “you calmed yourself down” are some examples parents can begin with”, Rola stresses. ”Helping the child find an emotional solution is the real added value in his journey of emotional growth.”

It Takes One to Be One

The next step is building up your child’s emotional awareness and bank for coping mechanisms. Rola recommends involving the child in planning a failsafe method of calming down. “If a child must endure a 2-hour visit to a distant relative’s house (not his favorite place in the world), give him a heads-up. Sit with him ahead of time and lay down the expectations. He can decide on how to spend the time there, calmly and happily, by taking over a toy and discussing the spaces that he can use there. Let him feel responsible for his own behavior. Most importantly, go over the factors that might trigger a tantrum and check the list of warning signs so the child can self-monitor his emotional state”. Giving your child a sense of autonomy and control over small details in his activities can be momentous to his ability to stay in control.

However, in order to stay in control, children first have to learn how to be in control. And guess who children learn that from:

“Parents and children are in the same emotional container”, Rola emphasizes. “Parents need to cope with their own emotions and remain in control to validate the child’s emotions and help him remain in control”. Children do as children see. If you portray tantrums when things don’t go your way, your child will do the same. If you try to force your child into calming down by ruling over him with your screams, he will learn to do the same to you. Instead, Rola recommends that you model emotional control in moments of distress. “When a child sees his mother or father taking deep breaths when stressed, expressing their emotions constructively when annoyed, frustrated, or starting to get angry, or excusing themselves to their room when upset for some quiet time, he is indirectly gaining coping methods to help him build his own repertoire to use in his moments of distress. There is no one right way, each person chooses his coping techniques”, Rola concludes.

Parents, we see your struggles, we hear the shrill screams, and we feel your pain. But do you feel your children’s frustration? Adopt some of these tips with your child and let us know how it works out for you; when things go south, only you can get the compass and turn them right back around!

Rola Annan has a Bachelor degree in Mathematics and a Diploma in Special Education from the American University in Beirut. She has an MA from Arizona State University in Applied Behavioral Analysis and is trained in Mindfulness therapy. She is also certified in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. One of her areas of focus is Parental Coaching. She currently works as a Behavioral Therapist Consultant at AUBMC and has her own practice. 


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  • My young daughter has discovered the Internet and now spends a lot of time browsing websites and social media networks. How can I monitor her online activity and ensure that she remains safe?

    Protecting our kids from the darker side of the Internet has never been more important or more difficult. Dealing with this problem is an evolving process. For kids younger than 10, you can set and impose limits on the amount of time spent online. You can also restrict access to mobile devices connected to the Internet and only allow your child to use them in the family room where you can supervise rather than in the privacy of their bedroom. Explain to your child that she should not give out personal identifying information (real name, home address, school name and address, parents’ names, pictures) to anyone she does not personally know. Repeat this lesson until your child can recite it in her sleep. You also have options that allow you to control for the most part what your child can see online. For example, iPads have parental controls and content filtering software that you can enable. Browsers also allow you to block certain websites. You have to make the constant effort to familiarize yourself with those options or enlist the help of a proficient friend or family member. It’s also preferable not to allow your children to register for social media accounts until they reach the age of 13.

    For teenagers, however, open and honest communication is the key to ensuring online safety. At this age, kids are Internet veterans and will often know the Internet much better than you do. Yet, they don’t have your caution or experience. It’s more effective to discuss potential scenarios with your child. Explain that anything he or she posts online will stay online forever and can impact her future choice of university or career. Explain that the internet does NOT give anonymity. Discuss online bullying and posting hurtful comments (remember that your teen may be encouraged to bully others online). Explain the dangers of speaking to and sharing personal information with strangers. It’s never too late to enforce boundaries. If you are worried, you can ask your teenager for access to their social media accounts and inform them that you will be checking in. Do not do this behind their backs. There are many resources online that can help you keep your kid safe. 

  • I read a lot about the benefits of learning how to play a musical instrument. But how can I pick an instrument for my kid to start playing?

    A child will reap the benefits of musical training regardless of what musical instrument he or she is playing. However, choosing the right instrument for your child and for your family environment remains important. Forcing children to learn instruments they have no interest in will not foster a love of music and might cause the child to resent having to practice. However, you also don’t want him or her to choose an instrument that does not suit your family. For example, if as a parent you do not like the sound of the electric guitar, you will not be able to support your child or endure the hours of practice he or she needs to put in. Parents also need to like the sound of the instrument their child is playing. Take into account your child’s body type and make sure he picks an instrument he is comfortable holding and carrying. Also, make sure your child’s choice is not affected by any perceived “social value” of an instrument. For younger kids (4-6) you can’t go wrong with the keyboard or piano as those instruments provide a great foundation and children can easily transition to other instruments later if they would like to. Violin is also a good option as it comes in scaled sizes, but it requires more patience and persistence. Another thing to take into account is your child’s personality type. High energy kids can get great stress relief from playing the drums, and outgoing personalities may prefer instruments such as the saxophone or trumpet. The most important consideration, however, remains your child’s personal preference and passion as those are the biggest guarantees that he or she will stick with the instrument long enough to earn the life-long benefits. 

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