Tantrums are quite common in adopted children even long after they have passed the toddler years, and this behaviour can be tricky to deal with. The normal practice of sending the child to his/her bedroom will not work for most adopted children as they are likely to feel rejected and often they need close supervision, otherwise they will probably damage belongings or hurt themselves or others. Ignoring the child is often not the answer either, as his behaviour is likely to escalate in an attempt to gain the parent's attention: any attention - negative or positive - will do.
About the practice of restraining a child who is out of control by holding them. I am not talking about a discredited "holding therapy", but I would not recommend restraining a child physically anyway, as it is easy for the parent to get hurt or unintentionally hurt the child, especially if the parents are not trained in safe restraining techniques. Even if this might work when a child is 4, you will have your hands full when they are 8; and when they are 12 you are likely to need a black belt to have some sort of physical control. What I really want to say is that children grow up very quickly, and it is best to find a method that does not involve testing your physical strength long before they are bigger and stronger.
OBSERVING THE CHILD
It is very important to consciously observe your child: you will learn to spot the signs when tension is building up. Sometimes parents say that tantrums and aggression come out of nowhere, but that is very unlikely. The reason the child loses control might not be found in the minutes just before the tantrum; there can be a slow buildup and then something very small may trigger a tantrum. Being able to spot those subtle signs of trouble gives the parent a possibility to interfere with the child's behaviour when he is still responsive.
I believe in preventing tantrums; I do not think that it is beneficial to the parent or the child when the child tantrums to the point of exhaustion. It is not that once the distress is out of their system, the reason why the tantrum started is gone. Adopted children are very complex: surely the cause of a tantrum cannot be a simple request of putting on a clean pair of trousers in a 7 year old or just hearing the word NO. Complex issues are interfering with healthy functioning. There is so much the children do not understand, and they will not understand until their brains have matured enough to process such issues as abandonment, neglect, adoption, etc.
TIME TO CALM DOWN
As soon as I observe the first signs that the child becomes oppositional or stressed I tell the child to come and stand close to me, to fold his hands and put his feet together. Depending on the child, I have him face me or not. My youngest will stare me down, so he stands facing away. Hands are folded on the belly, but can also be on the back, which I prefer for my youngest as he still 'uses' his hands when he can see them (fingers in his nose and mouth). And of course the mouth is closed - this will happen when they calm down. These things depend on the child. (Click here to play a video file Coming out of tantrum)
The child is calm when he is: standing straight, hands folded, feet together, mouth closed, no sounds, no bad attitude, a pleasure to be with. When he stands trying to calm down, the clock stops both for him and for the parent. Whatever was planned, will not go ahead until the child is calm again. If, for example, they normally get a snack at 16:00, and it is 16:00, they will not get it now. And then if you have an appointment at 16:00 for the hairdresser, sorry this has to wait too. The moment the child looses it, you need to make time for them to sort it out properly. Nothing will happen, the parent will not reply to requests, questions, will not touch the child or have eye contact. All the parent concentrates on is the fact that the child's hands are folded and their feet together. These are the only behaviours that the parent corrects by requesting or, in the beginning, holding the child's hands together if necessary (when they are still leaning to stand), or maybe holding on to his/her clothing to prevent running away if the child is very hyper.
Standing is never a punishment, and I never threaten the child with it. Sometimes standing can result in a natural consequence, for example if it takes very long to calm down the swimming pool might be closed, food is served later etc. But standing is not a consequence or punishment for unacceptable behaviour, it is a way for the child to learn self-control and for the parent - a help with controlling the child. It is a lot easier to calm your child when they start showing bad attitude or you see other symptoms building up to a tantrum than to wait until you have a full blown tantrum. Do not hope that the child (may be this time?) will not lose it. Interfere at the moment YOU feel slightly uncomfortable. Even if you judge wrong nothing is lost, nobody ever died from standing still a few minutes. And the parent may ask the child if he does feel calm or if he can continue with ... (whatever they were doing). And then life continues as usual, no dramas. If the child is not quite finished and starts again after standing, say: 'I see you are not calm, come over here, fold your hand, etc'. Repeat as necessary, soon you will learn when the child is really calm or when they are pretending.
I do not think that endless conversations afterwards with the child about his behaviour are very helpful, as often the child is not fully in control of his behaviour even if you feel that he attempts to control you. He would not do that in the first place if he had an emotional connection with a caregiver in the earlier years of his life, and he is likely emotionally too young to be able to change his behaviour consciously.
THE PARENT'S ATTITUDE
The parents attitude is very important and needs to be one of "if needed you can stand here all night/day". But the parent also has to be in control and never let that happen, of course, especially when it is past the child's bedtime. You can always say when the child stands a bit sloppy: "You go to bed now, and we will practice standing tomorrow again." And then you follow up next morning. Practice standing until they understand, in a matter of fact way. The child also needs more practice if they do silly things like laying on the floor etc.
The most important thing is that the parent makes the decisions not the child, and it is the parent's responsibility to know when enough is enough. I cannot say what time is OK for standing and what time is bordering on irresponsible. All I know from my own experience is that most standing sessions are over and done with in less than 30 minutes (around 15 min on average). In the beginning when the child is learning to stand, it might sometimes take several 'sessions' for the child to realize that I mean business.
Once the child is calm I let him stand another 5 minutes or so, then say: "You look calm now, do you feel calm inside?" And of course the child will agree.
How do you know that your child can stand quietly for a minute or so? The answer is you practice this when they are in a good mood at a sunny Saturday afternoon. I do not explain anything to the child, I just say: "Show me that you can stand very straight, now fold your hands". Then praise the child.
If your child is very restless like my oldest who has autism, then you might need to stand close to the child and hold onto a piece of his clothing to prevent him from running away. No talking, no eye contact and only neutral touch as little as possible. You will have to be aware where you stand. I stand at the child's side, so his kicking is less likely. I stand close, but as soon as they understand what is expected I sit 1 or 2 meters away.
The next time your child shows first signs of becoming stressed, you say: "I see that you need to calm down, fold your hands, put feet together, and close the mouth". The great thing is that once the child knows the routine, you can use this in public places as well. If you are in a shop just let the child stand and stand beside the child until the child is calm again. This method attracts minimal attention. If you are in the car, stop at a safe place, turn the radio and other entertainment off, tell the child to fold their hands (seatbelt stays on), sit straight and do not drive anywhere until they are calm. The natural consequence comes when it takes ages to recover and the meals are delayed as well. Do not give the child any snacks when they say they are hungry if the delay is caused by their behaviour.
It is very important that the parent remains calm when a child is out of control. At those moments when my child is losing it, I do not talk with him except that I will say: "Fold your hands, put your feet together". Sometimes I follow it up with some soothing sound. At that moment I do not talk about the cause of the tantrum, what they have done or broken the moment before it started, I do not try to re-connect in any way. I am just there, present. When my children stand (they know the routine) I can read a book now or even do the dishes. I always let them stand in the same room where I am at the moment. There is no set time: when I feel they have calmed down totally, I wait a few more minutes, and life continues again.
Saying less is often more powerful method than talking to the child: the child is unlikely to listen anyway when they are about to lose it. If something needs to be said, use 2 or 3 words, make it really simple.
When the child's hands are folded, those hands are taken care of. When the feet are together and the child stands straight, the child is collected. When they stop moving, they often become calm quite quickly, especially when the intervention was at an early moment.
If a child is wobbly or in the midst of a tantrum, do not multitask. Be there for the child the whole time, but it does not mean you try to talk him out of tantrum, or try to play with him, or distract him, or be emotionally available. Just be in the same room and observe, and intervene early.
TIPS WHEN A CHILD IS HAVING A TANTRUM OR IS AGRESSIVE
If a child is having a tantrum and is also aggressive towards the parent, there are some simple rules to follow:
Always leave doors open so you can step out of the room if needed.
Never leave a key in a door, being locked in or out is not my idea of fun.
Never stand with your back to a wall or get cornered - you need space behind you to step away if the child hits or kicks you.
Always be prepared for what the child can do - hitting, kicking, biting etc. Even if your child has never bitten or kicked you before, still be aware where you stand in relation to the child. Prevention is very important, be always one step ahead of the child.
Leaving the scene is always an option, it can defuse a difficult situation. Even 2 minutes on the toilet gives you a mental break and you can evaluate the next step.
You have to prevent getting hurt by being very aware of your own actions or non-actions. Be especially careful about what you say to the child; for example, repeating something 8 times might irritate the one who is not deaf even more. Ask yourself why you feel the need to repeat. Repeat twice, give the child a moment to process and, if there is no response, give a consequence. Do not respond to the child's questions but be sure you speak clearly. I bet the child knows what you have said. It's just a way to control the parent (at least what the parent says).
It really helps if, whatever the child's mood or emotional state is, your attitude is neutral and the parent stays calm. When the child is naughty, you are 'neutrally angry' and not about to lose your temper with them. Getting really, really angry when the parent's emotions take over, and the child becomes at risk of being hit or hurt by the parent is not acceptable. On the other hand, if the child is doing something good and you are happy with that, you should not go over the board and overcompensate praising them into the heaven. Over-praising a child in the hope that this will improve negative behaviours will not work. Tell them what they did well objectively. 'Good to see that you dressed yourself this morning', or 'Thank you for mowing the grass - it looks so nice now'. Do not make a big deal out of normal things.
If you stop tip-toeing around the child, and you have a plan and follow it up, and are able to stay neutral, it is suddenly not important what the child's mood is at this moment because he cannot make the parent go angry over the top or manipulate the parent's emotions. You will be more relaxed if you know what to do and emotionally uninvolved, and the child will relax.
Unfortunately because a lot of adopted children are not able to empathize much. Saying something like: "It makes me so happy that you listened to me and cleaned up your bedroom at ones", is likely to make the child feel in control of the parent's feelings. Just saying: "You did a good job cleaning up your room, thank you" might be more productive. The parent's feelings should not depend on the child's behaviour; that would really put a huge responsibility onto the child.
My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys age 7 and 12. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday; my oldest - 7 years ago, my youngest - 18 months ago. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse.