Spillover Tantrums

Monday March 6, 2017

Have any of you heard of “spillover tantrums” before? I just came across the term last week and it was a major lightbulb moment. I think it also describes situations that every parent has felt/gone through, but maybe didn’t have a term for.

In “Raising Your Spirited Child,” Mary Sheedy Kurcinka describes a spillover tantrum as “a flood of emotions that overwhelms them and pushes the beyond their temperamental ability to cope.” You can spot a spillover tantrum because the emotions mounts for days or maybe hours, and gets released continuously like a flood. It isn’t about this one instance where you used the red cup instead of the yellow cup, but maybe an entire morning of instances like that. Your kid has lost the ability to cope with minor annoyances, frustrations, and disappointments for the day.

In our home, this exactly describes days where I’m texting Dave at 10am all, “SHE HAS COMPLETELY LOST HER MIND.” One thing after another has sent Bean into screaming fits, and these are usually things that don’t bother her at all. Last week, I wrote about an afternoon after school when Bean went from crying about lunch, to crying about which book to read before her rest time, to crying about how she absolutely needed me to separate these two Legos NOOOWWWWW (howl, scream, repeat.) Completely atypical behavior from The Bean.

According to Ms. Kurcinka, the key is not to treat spillover tantrums as a normal temper tantrum, because the tantrum isn’t actually about the issue at hand at all (Lego separation). She wants you to look back in the day or week and find out what really triggered the surge of emotions (in last week’s case, playground bullying.) Until you address the underlying emotional cause of the tantrums, you won’t get them to stop.

There can be many triggers. Going through a nap/sleep transition. If someone in the family has been sick or traveling. A negative interaction at school. Maybe a busy few days has left your kid chronically overstimulated. If you have a sensitive child, she might be feeding off your own high stress even if you’re trying to shield her from it. All of this can result in a day of spillover tantrums where your sweet angel has indeed lost her mind for the time being.

(And, indeed, I don’t think the spillover tantrum phenomenon is limited to children. See: “Hangry.” Basically, what’s this fight really about?)

SO! What to do about a spillover tantrum? Ms. Kurcinka stresses repeatedly not to leave your child alone — don’t make them go to their room or punish them for the tantrum. This isn’t a temper tantrum, and needs to be handled differently. If your kid is already having spillover tantrums, their emotions are too big for their little bodies to handle and they need you close by to help them recover.

So, she recommends (depending on your child’s temperament) a big bear hug until you feel their body calm down. Or, if your kid doesn’t want to be touched, giving them space but staying close by. Or, encourage your kid to pace around to get out the energy. Or simply talk calmly and tell her to stop yelling and breathe with you.

Once they are calm, it’s time to have the conversation about the bigger trigger that is causing the tantrums. Talk through being sad that Daddy is out of town, or get all the sad details about her day at school. Explain that she got flooded with emotions because of those things, to help her understand the source of her emotions.

“Giving in” to a tantrum might pop up in your head about now. But, we aren’t giving into the tantrum (I’m still not separating the Lego pieces until she asks me like a normal person); we are finding the emotional trigger and addressing it and teaching our children about their own emotions. Actually, if you don’t address the underlying emotional trigger, you’ll just keep futilely going from addressing one tantrum to the next. (Kind of like treating the symptoms rather than the illness.)

If your experiences are anything like mine, your kid will completely forget all about the superficial thing they were even tantruming about once their underlying emotions have been resolved.

Last Friday morning, Bean had a spark in her eye and it was like she was looking for something to battle over as we were getting ready for school. My head went into that lockdown Mom-zone of “Prepare for Battle.” We were about to lock horns over breakfast dishes. And then I remembered the spillover tantrum advice. She began wailing about missing Daddy and I scooped her in my arms, sat down, and gave her a huge bear hug until the stress melted out of her body. We talked a bit about Daddy and maybe also that she was still tired. It only took about 2 minutes, and she was as cheerful as could be the rest of the morning. If we hadn’t addressed it, we would have fought every step through the morning routine.

Have you had experience with spillover tantrums? Every kid must go through this at some point, right?


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