It’s a common occurrence. Children, especially those who have lived through trauma, experience a trigger. They become agitated and anxious, which can lead to a tantrum or other outbursts.

It might happen suddenly and with seemingly little warning, and parents and caregivers can be caught off guard and potentially unprepared with how to address the child’s seemingly oversized feelings and behavior.

Hopefully, it helps to know that when an individual is under stress, they experience physical changes in their brain. Commonly referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response, it affects all of us. However, children, especially those who have experienced trauma, often have a lower tolerance for stress and lack the executive functioning skills that help them to control their impulses. This can result in aggressive and sometimes destructive behaviors.

To help you get out ahead of these situations, we are sharing some possible triggers for children, some warning signs to keep in the back of your mind, and some techniques to de-escalate the tantrum.

Possible triggers for children:

• Talking with their biological family on the phone (if they are separated).

• Being told “No.”

• Transitioning from one activity to another.

• Having a bad day at school or daycare.

• Struggling with a difficult task.

• Sharing possessions.

• Feeling vulnerable or unfairly treated.

Warning signs when kids are agitated

Catching these physical signs of a child’s increasing agitation and frustration, provides you with an opportunity to defuse the situation proactively.

• Gritting teeth, clenching fists, crossing arms.

• Glaring, frowning, and pouting.

• Twitching, stomping, or eye-rolling.

How to de-escalate the tantrum 

Safety first – In the case of a severe tantrum, remove any objects that can be unsafe if thrown and make sure that other children/people are clear of the area.

Stay calm, but firm – Don’t match the child’s intensity or volume as it will only escalate the situation. Rather, lower your voice, slow your movements, model patience, and give the child a way to mirror your behavior.

Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into the conflict – you may need to give them time alone without an audience.

Redirection to a new activity or toy may help to distract the child from whatever has triggered them.

Keep communication clear and simple – It’s not the time to bargain, reason, or use discipline with a child who is struggling with their basic reasoning skills.

Try mindfulness or relaxation – This is a good practice to develop with the child before times of tantrums. Teach your child to pause and count when they feel angry or take calming breaths. You can agree on a word or phrase you can say to help remind them to use this technique.

Every child is different, and triggers will vary from person to person. Pay attention to patterns in the timing of your child’s tantrums to recognize triggers. When they are calm, help them to understand the things that make them feel frustrated and come up with alternative responses.

Make sure that you have clear rules, and reinforce a safe, nurturing relationship with the child to facilitate open non-threatening communication. Make sure that you praise and encourage good behavior as well.

To learn more about this topic check out these resources specifically for foster or adoptive families:

Informed de-escalation techniques - The North American Council on Adoptable Children (nacac.org) which can be found at https://bit.ly/41y40vN

Mandatory training – de-escalation (nvfs.org) found at https://bit.ly/41sVBcX

The Parenting Education Program is enrolling participants for upcoming classes at https://bit.ly/3IYuNtO. Join us for more information about positive and effective ways parents and caregivers can interact with their children at every age and stage of development. We would love to hear from you. If you have questions or feedback about the topic in this article, send an email to us at parentingeducation@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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