Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., THE TANTRUM SURVIVAL GUIDE

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., THE TANTRUM SURVIVAL GUIDE

I’m here today with Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, who’s the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler’s Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again. A clinical psychologist and founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, which helps kids and parents face all sorts of challenges, Rebecca has written many helpful articles about early childhood issues. She’s taught at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and has led many seminars and workshops for parents. A graduate of Yale University with a PhD from the University of Virginia, she currently lives with her husband and two young sons in the New York area where she was born and raised.

Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Rebecca and I went to high school and college together. This will be more of an informal, probably, tone than some other podcasts.

Rebecca: I keep thinking if our sixteen-year-old selves could see us now, their minds would be blown.

Zibby: I still feel like you had the coolest room in high school. I begged my mom to remodel my room based on your bulletin board. Do you remember that?

Rebecca: I do remember that. What was funny is that I had the least design — it was like buy some stuff and hang it on the wall.

Zibby: I know, but it was the coolest. You were the coolest. Your book — congratulations — so awesome. The tone of your book is so great, as if I’m just sitting here chatting with you today. Even the first sentence of your book, it sets the whole tone. You say, “Hi. I can’t believe you pulled it off. You found a few minutes of downtime to start this book.” Immediately when I read that I’m like, “This is going to be great.” I feel understood. You get it. In fact, then you go on to say just that. You say, “I get it. I do. I too am a parent. I have two little boys twenty-one months apart. Did I mention I get it?” It’s so refreshing. There’s so many experts out there. It’s refreshing for an expert to be so disarming like that and be like, “Yeah. I’m in it with you.”

Tell me how you ended up writing this book in the midst of running a psychological practice and raising two little kids.

Rebecca: It’s a very good question. It’s actually a good segue from what you just said. It’s this unheard of thing that happened to me, which is that I just got a cold call from an editor. I was on maternity with my second. I will never forget. I was exhausted and unshowered and all the rest. I was deciding to go for a walk, which as you know is this big decision. I got a call from an unknown number that I didn’t accept. I listened to the voicemail. It was an editor at Guilford Press saying that she had read some of the articles I’d written and particularly been impressed with exactly what you just said, which is that there was an expert voice and a mom’s voice that were very seamlessly interwoven and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book.

I, of course, assumed that this was some quack because who does that? I googled and I was like, “Oh, no. This is the real deal.” I really was hesitant to do it because I was tired and so busy. I’ve always loved to write. I’m smart enough to know that opportunities like that don’t come along every day. Had a real conversation with my husband about whether we could pull it off because of course all these decisions involve family things shifting. Yeah, pulled it off. Part of it was an out-of-body experience. I did it. It was some late nights and some jiggering, but done.

Zibby: So exciting. Let’s talk about tantrums.

Rebecca: Let’s do it.

Zibby: Ready?

Rebecca: Let’s do it.

Zibby: Why do kids have tantrums? Go! Take it away.

Rebecca: Why do kids have tantrums? There’s so many reasons. The book obviously goes into it. At its most basic level, a tantrum is an expression of an emotion that’s too overwhelming for kids to process without having a tantrum. Where tantrums tend to emerge, they can be a little earlier or a little later, but roughly between eighteen months and five years when part of the brain that can do things that prevent us from having tantrums like exert our judgement, plan, express ourselves, is not fully developed. What is fully developed is the emotional part of the brain, which we’re born with. When kids are calm, you see them have various skills that they’re developing. Once they’re emotional, the emotional brain hijacks the thinking brain. They’re off to the races. Adults have that as well. We’re better at controlling it. The times when we lose our minds is the exact same thing. It’s that our emotional brain isn’t really talking to our logical brain. You may know that what you’re upset about makes no sense whatsoever, but you’re still there.

Zibby: That never happens to me.

Rebecca: Of course not. Zibby, even when you were younger, never.

Zibby: Then in your book you say you can’t totally stop the tantrums, but you can help manage them.

Rebecca: That’s a really — I’m sorry. Did I just interrupt you?

Zibby: No, no, no. You also said you don’t want to extinguish them all together. There are some benefits to tantrums.

Rebecca: Tantrums are normal. They’re expected. They’re happening at a time when little kids are figuring out who they are and how the world works and how relationships work and how feelings work. Most kids — I’m going to say most because I would never say every single one — most kids have tantrums because it’s part of a developmental trajectory that’s healthy. I take objection when articles say, “Ten Quick Ways to Stop Tantrums Once and For All.” That’s just not going to happen. You wouldn’t want it to. When I’ve seen, rarely, a child or a family in my office where the child is having no tantrums, there’s often a sign that something is going on. There’s some real anxiety or things don’t feel safe at home, like somehow there’s a military school atmosphere and so yes, kids in that extreme circumstance can possibly hold it together, but you don’t want that. Does that answer that question?

Zibby: Yeah, sounds good. That’s great. You said there were five possible red flags that signal that tantrums may be a sign of something to worry about.

Rebecca: Yeah. I always hesitate to talk about them simply because parents freak out. I will, and I’ll tell you what they are. Before I say them, I want to say that one of the things I say in the book that’s extremely important to remember is that there really is no formula. The idea that if your child has three tantrums a day and one is more than an hour but two — it’s false that that’s going to be a way to figure out if there’s something to worry about. Generally though, the research has shown that there’s five things to look at when you’re looking at, “Are these normal developmentally appropriate tantrums or potentially correlated with a later mental health diagnosis?”

They are frequency. Is your child having ten to twenty tantrums a day over thirty days at home or some fewer number that I’m not remembering exactly out of the home? Duration. Are they generally or typically more than half an hour? I’ll have parents say to me, “Oh, my gosh. Yes. I remember this one time my kid lost his mind for an hour.” I always say, “Right. You remember that one time.” It stands out in your head because that was so bizarre. Most of the time, tantrums are between two and eight minutes. That’s what “ideally” you want. Then there’s self-injury. Again, nothing to freak out about. It is completely normal for kids to hit themselves, pinch themselves, bang their head into the wall, mostly because they’re looking at you at the same time and they know that’s what going to make you come running. If your child is repeatedly scratching him or herself, biting him or herself, really doing that kind of extreme self-injurious behavior, that’s often something to worry about. Similarly with aggression — the forth one is aggression toward other people — it’s the same caveat, totally normal to a certain extent. The last is self-soothing. Can your child calm down with your help, perhaps with a teacher’s help, with a caregiver’s help? Is it incredibly effortful to get your child to calm down every time? Again, I don’t want any parents listening to say, “Oh, gosh. Last week I could barely calm my kid.”

This all happens to all of us, which is I why I hesitate to make it a formula. It’s important for parents to know that if those five things are ringing a bell, it may be worth seeking professional advice. That person may still say there’s nothing to worry about. Those are the flags that signal, “Let’s get somebody else in here to take a look.”

Zibby: I always like to go to the worst-case scenario, so thanks for covering that up front. Your kid’s having a tantrum. It’s eight minutes. For instance, this morning my son didn’t want to put on his socks. How do you know the different between “Okay, fine. Are socks that important? It’s pretty warm out,” but not giving in. Once they start tantruming, you can’t change your mind. Isn’t that the whole deal?

Rebecca: No.

Zibby: He ended up not wearing any socks.

Rebecca: It’s delightful out. I just came in. I’m not wearing any socks. That’s a misconception. In part, it’s a misconception because it’s a “easy rule.” Once this happens, never do this. It’s easy to say that and to have parents say, “Now I know what to do.” It’s not realistic. What you want to do, and what I think the book emphasizes, is get to a point where you can pause in that moment and make a thoughtful decision about whether you want your kid to wear socks or not. You’re not saying, ideally — again, if you did this this morning then you’re still a fantastic mom. It’s not like, “You know what? Fine! Forget it. Don’t wear socks. We’re not wearing socks.” It’s more like, “Let me pause for a second, think about whether this is a battle I want to fight, think about the pros, cons, whatever,” and then say, “I’ve thought about it. Here’s the deal.”

I talk to parents about exactly this. Each scenario is a choice point. You’re not going to make or break your kid’s general behavior by one incident. Do you want to trend toward consistency? Of course. That’s why we’ve all heard that rule. Of course ideally most of the time once your kid is tantruming, you’re not giving in. That doesn’t mean that if sometimes you do for various reasons you’re messing everything up. I always give the example, my oldest Henry, he must have been about three. We’d sort of talked about how he could only call me in in the middle of the night if there was an emergency. We defined emergency. At one point, he called me into his room about two in the morning and said there was no more ice in his water. He wanted more ice. My first reaction was, “That’s insane. No way. It’s three in the morning. I’m not going downstairs to get you more ice. You can have lukewarm water at three in the morning.” He started to have a tantrum.

I was able to — this is not always the case — I was able to pause and think. What do I want to do here? Do I want to really tow the line on this and really not give in and not give him the ice on principle? Or — this is the path I chose. Am I exhausted? Do I have long day at work tomorrow? I don’t know if this is something he’s going to do every single night. If he does, then I’ll deal with it. Right now, I am going to choose the path of least resistance and get him the ice, the way that you did this morning and told him not to wear his socks. That’s fine. You’ll see. If that happens every morning as it gets colder and colder then you’ll say, “It’s time for me to draw the line on this one.” We need the data to know if towing the line in that way makes so much sense. It was a long answer.

Zibby: I like it. It actually took some pressure off. Every time I don’t do what I think I’m supposed to do in a tantrum situation and I give in a little bit, I feel like some sort of failure. Oh, god. I was supposed to let this tantrum derail the whole morning, but I don’t have time for that right now. We have to get to school.

Rebecca: Nobody does. Again, tantrums are emotions. Every tantrum is different. The book, I hope, takes a complicated topic and simplifies it a little bit. Is he having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to wear socks? Yes. Is he also maybe having a tantrum because he didn’t sleep great last night? Fine. Is he having a tantrum because he didn’t spend time with you over the weekend and is missing connectedness? Ideally, you want to be able to — this really takes practice — in the moment anticipate what’s going on with your kid. If your kid is not a kid who tends to, most of the time, engage in these behaviors as a way of pushing you to give in, then you don’t have to worry about it as much. There’s no one-size-fits-all for this stuff. In this age of punchy headlines and so on and so forth, people try to make it seem like that’s the case. For good and bad, it’s not that simple.

Zibby: What about the advice to ignore tantrums? Sometimes I end up doing that. I know that’s not necessarily in the book.

Rebecca: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: Is it? You can ignore them?

Rebecca: I talk about something called strategic attention.

Zibby: See, that was so well said. It didn’t just say —

Rebecca: — I’m glad you missed that point entirely because it means my book is really well-written.

Zibby: No, I’m sorry.

Rebecca: I’ll start talking about strategic attention. Parents will always say to me, “This is not about attention. My kid gets so much attention.” It’s not about that. It’s about when we give our kids attention. I see this as it gets colder, not today because your son didn’t wear socks. As it generally gets colder out I’ll see that all the time with, “Put on your jacket. Put on your shoes.” If a child doesn’t put on their jacket, they suddenly get ten more minutes with you. You put your phone down. You stop paying attention to the siblings, whatever it is. You are just focused on getting them to put their coat on, whereas if they actually put their coat on the first time you ask, maybe if you’re really tuned in you’ll say, “Thanks so much.” Then you’ll go onto something else. It ends up rewarding them to not do what you want.

If that’s what you feel like is going on as a general trend, then those are great tantrums to ignore. “Come put your coat on.” “No. I’m not going to put my coat on.” “Okay. You let me know when you’re ready. In the meantime, I’m going to hang out with your sister,” or “I’m going to return some emails.” I say take out your phone. We all take out our phones when our kids are being terrific because we’re like, “I have some time. I can return some emails.” The best thing to do is shift that and take out your phone when your kid is starting to be, again, not having a full-on tantrum. I would say once your kid is having a full-on tantrum, it’s best to maybe say something empathic, something kind, before totally ignoring. In the lead up to it when they’re starting to potentially get there — I’m talking a lot.

Zibby: Keep going. That’s why you’re here. I want to hear what you have to say.

Rebecca: The other thing that I think is so important is that ignoring doesn’t have to mean. Ignoring, ideally, doesn’t come from a place of, “You know what? Fine. I’m not going to pay any attention to you until you ‘blah, blah, blah.’” You can communicate. It’s so valuable to communicate that you are on the same team with your child. You’re just giving them some space. You’re saying, “It really is time to put your coat on. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with that. I get that you really love T-shirts. I’m going to write some emails. I know you can pull it together. I know you can do this. I know your body knows how to calm itself down.” That way you’re still doing the desired thing, which is pulling away the attention so you’re not reinforcing the tantrum, but you’re not adding this other element of, “I’m angry at you. I’m shaming you. There’s something wrong with this. You’re messing up our whole morning.” It’s a much simpler just remove the attention.

Zibby: The other morning my daughter didn’t want to put her coat on — this is exactly what you’re saying — on the way to school. I was like, “You should put it on. It’s cold outside.” She’s like, “I don’t want to wear my coat. I just don’t.” All of a sudden I’m like, “These poor little kids.” We tell them what to do all the time. If somebody told me what to do as much as I tell my kids what to do, I would want to run away and never come back. I was like, “You know what? Why don’t you hold onto your jacket? If it’s really cold outside, you’ll probably want to put it on.” She’s like, “Okay.” She holds onto this cute, little jean jacket she just got. We go downstairs. We walk two blocks. She looks at me. “Mama, I’m cold.” I was like, “Good thing you have your jacket.” She just put it on.

Rebecca: That’s such a great point. So much of being with little kids is seeing the world through their eyes. She’s a human being. She wants to decide. There’s certain things like, no, she doesn’t decide when she gets to go bed or every day what she’s having for breakfast, but to the extent we can build in choice and autonomy, it goes so far. Particularly in this current climate, not to go down the political route, but to say something like, “You know your needs. You know your body. You’ll know when you get cold,” really emphasizes a message. “You, even at this young age, you know yourself better than anybody, even mommy.” You can have some autonomy over some of these decisions, particularly ones that have to do with being cold, which by definition you can’t possibly know if she feels that.

Zibby: Yeah. Maybe she wasn’t cold. Not to keep talking about my kids, last night she didn’t want to have salmon. She was like, “I’m not going to have dinner.” I was like, “Okay.” Frankly, sometimes with four kids if one kid is having a thing like that, I just don’t have time to deal with that. I just wanted to get everybody else to sit down. She went off. She ended up drawing this whole picture of herself. She wrote the word “mad” and then her name and then came back to show up the picture.

Rebecca: Which is amazing.

Zibby: I let her go off and do this thing. I ate with all the other kids. It’s not like I chose to not pay attention. I was thinking to myself, “If this was my only kid, I would be up there being like, ‘Come to dinner. Now it’s dinner. Come on. Don’t do this. I can’t take this.’” I couldn’t. I didn’t have the luxury of doing that. By the time we were all finishing she came back in, showed us her little mad sign, then she walked over, sat down. She’s like, “Oh. This really is good.”

Rebecca: It worked in your favor. Ideally, even if she had been your only kid, it sounds like that was the intervention that worked best. It sounds like that’s exactly what I was just describing in terms of taking away your attention but not in an invested way. You didn’t really care or have time that she went upstairs. That was perfect message she needed. You’re pulling away your attention in this case because you had to pay attention to the other kids. It was in a way that communicated to her, as you were just saying, “Go do your thing.” Then she was able to, within that space, first of all do something incredibly adaptive which was write out her feelings and write the word and express how she was feeling, which then allowed her to come to the table and eat.

Zibby: Don’t you feel like there’s so much second-guessing in parenting? Whenever I make a decision, in my head fifty times I’m like, “Was that the right decision? What message am I sending to the other kids? Now is nobody going to come to the table? Does she always think she gets to choose? Is this going to happen every single night? Oh, my gosh. This is going to happen every single night.” Then I freak out.

Rebecca: First of all, that’s parenting.

Zibby: That’s not just me? All right.

Rebecca: Second of all, you got to beware of those “always” and “never” words. That’s what I was talking about with Henry with the ice in the middle of the night. I could’ve easily gone down that path. “If I get him ice tonight, he’s going to want ice every single night. I’m never going to sleep full through the night again,” which is a different thing. That didn’t happen. If it had happened, I would’ve dealt with it. The book is scattered with common question and answers. This is one. “How do I know when it’s okay to give in or not? I’m second guessing myself all the time.” It’s a choice point. It’s one point in time. To the extent you can remember that, and then afterwards if you want to reflect on it in a helpful way, great, but not to beat yourself up and say, “Now that I’ve done this, we’re always be like this. No one’s ever going to eat.”

The message that you’re sending to your kids is “ongoing and all the time.” The only times you beat yourself up about it are those incidents. There’s a million times during the day you’re sending them wonderful messages by just saying, “Hi. How are you? How was your day?” When we’re faced with a behavior that we don’t like, it’s one choice point. We make a choice. Depending on how that goes, we make another choice the next time. Then again if you notice, wow, every time my daughter doesn’t want to eat she’s reacting this way, then you have enough information to maybe say, “What can I change that might change the pattern?” Until there’s a pattern, you’re just dealing with one point in time. There’s no right or wrong answer most of the time. There’s just an answer that you pick and choose and then keep going, see where it leads you.

Zibby: I love that. This also dovetails with the whole section you wrote called “Parenting That Inadvertently Reinforces Tantrums.” Under that you write, “Yup. You read that correctly. You can close this book now because at the end of the day, it’s all totally your fault. Okay, I’m kidding about that last line.” That’s was good one.

Rebecca: Because parents come into my office and they feel like it’s all their fault. We’re all just doing the best we can. I hope that the book — there’s a line in there that’s like, “While I’m writing this part, my younger kid is over in the corner hitting his head with a spoon,” or something, and yet I’m on deadline and have to write. We’re all just doing the best we can. We nitpick ourselves so much. We think it’s about these micro-things. It’s not, which is not to let everybody off the hook. I wrote a whole book about different things you can do. It’s just to say that one of the things that hurts us most is that level of self-criticism and beating ourselves up.

Zibby: All right. I’ll try to work on that. You write that when you are talking to a parent you listen for language like, “He won’t let me,” or “She makes me.” What do you do for people who may fall victim to this? Not that I necessarily know anybody…

Rebecca: It’s just about how you think about it. You could say, “My son didn’t let me put on his socks this morning,” or “My son made me let him go to school without socks.” Or you could say, just to yourself in terms of how you think about it, “My son got really upset about wearing his socks this morning, and so I chose to not make him wear the socks.” It’s just about realizing that you have agency and that this little creature is not the one running the show. That doesn’t mean you can’t choose on many occasions to do what your child is requesting. A big theme in the book is that there needs to be equal bounds of love and limits in the home.

By all means, you’re setting limits. You’re just doing so in an intentional, thoughtful way where you know — back to the ice, Henry’s two AM ice craving. I said out loud to him — I don’t think it went in in a way that he understood, but it was really therapeutic for me and a good habit to get into. I said to him, “You know what? I’m going to get you ice. I’m going to get you ice because I’ve decided that’s what best for me and for our family.” Again, it was three in the morning. He’s three. He wasn’t like, “Oh, okay.” The point is it’s not that he made me go get him ice at two in the morning. The more I can shift my mind-set to saying, “He woke up at three in the morning. He was upset. He wanted ice and then I chose to get it for him because I weighed the different options,” helps us feel and be the ones who are actually, in the big picture, in charge. It’s not so much about never giving into those things. It’s about the semantics of it and the thought process that often lies behind those semantics.

Zibby: Got it. What is your take on time-outs? If they start to have a tantrum, can you be like, “This behavior’s unacceptable. I’m giving you a time-out.” What if the time-out then leads to a tantrum?

Rebecca: Time-outs are one of the most widely misunderstood behavioral techniques out there. There have been huge controversies over them. I’m going to try not to get on a soapbox here. I talk about this in the book. Time-outs are extraordinarily well researched techniques that work as a very basic behavioral tool. Little children generally love attention more than anything in the world. One really good consequence for extinguishing a behavior is to take away your attention in a planned way. That’s all a time-out is. It’s a time-out from attention.

A time-out from attention only works if the rest of the time, generally, in your home there’s a positive, warm atmosphere where your kids are getting attention. When people talk about, “I do a time-in,” a time-in should be generally how things are. A time-out is a time-out from attention. It works for discreet behaviors, behaviors that you can talk about ahead of time. You talk about it with your kid even if your kid is three. “In this house, there’s a time-out for if you try to hurt the dog. There’s a time-out.” That’s an established thing. They agree to it. When they go to hurt the dog, you say, “Remember we talked about this. That’s a time-out.” Then a time-out happens in a very specific way that’s been researched. It’s out in the open, on a chair or on a mat, no toys or books or whatever while they’re doing it. It’s timed. It’s a minute per year.

Time-outs don’t work for tantrums because it’s not a discrete behavior. You’re basically saying, “I’m giving you a negative consequence. I’m taking away my attention because you’re upset.” A tantrum is what being really upset for a little kid looks like. It doesn’t work because you can’t talk about it in advance or plan it or really say with a good conscious, “Every time you get really upset, I’m going to put you in time-out.” It’s not the healthy, good message. What you can do is take away your attention, as we talked about, in a nonemotional way, a non-time-out. They don’t have to go to a chair. Again, it’s an empathic way. “Wow. You’re having a really hard time with the fact that we’re only getting one cookie. I get it. Cookies are totally delicious. I know you can calm yourself down. I’m going to go in the other room. I can’t wait to read a book with you when you’re calm.” It’s that same idea. You’re still taking away your attention. You’re not giving this negative consequence for an action that they’ve taken.

A tantrum, at least when it starts, it’s just a behavioral manifestation of an emotion. If the tantrum then includes aggression, like hitting or whatever, then it’s about the specific kid. I don’t think you are going to do anybody any favors by trying to give a time-out in the middle of a tantrum. We can talk about these specific scenarios or not, but to the extent that you want to think about the discrete behaviors that happen as part of a tantrum, potentially in certain circumstances those respond well to time-out. I still don’t think within the context of a tantrum, it’s the best way to go. Does that clarify? It’s so widely misunderstood and debated in a way that’s not even what it was intended. It’s frustrating.

Zibby: It does clarify. It sounds like time-outs are more like, “Take a moment.” Time-out has become, “Go to your room. Close the door. Stay in there until — this is your punishment,” like when I was growing up, “Go to your room.”

Rebecca: They were never meant to be in the room. Among other things, once a kid realizes they’re in their room, they’re going to be like, “Sweet. I’m in my room.”

Zibby: That’s what I always felt when my mom sent me to my room. I love my room. There’s no place I’d rather be. I’m going to sit and read. This is great.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., THE TANTRUM SURVIVAL GUIDE

Rebecca: A time-out is a time-out from attention for a set amount of time. You can set a timer. If kids can’t understand time, which most can’t, you have a visual timer like they have in a lot of preschool classrooms where they see the time going down in the pie slice. There’s a real difference, what you just said there, it’s “Take a moment,” in the context of a tantrum. In the context of you see one of your kids go over and smack your other kid, which also happens — yesterday we were in the Botanical Gardens. My little one was walking. My older one just came up behind him and shoved him. That’s not a tantrum. That’s potentially a great example of something you could give a time-out. That would be the “formal time-out.” “Now, we’re going to go sit.” Those are really distinct. They both can be useful in different circumstances.

Zibby: When you were saying that part about pulling out your phone when you want to take the attention away, in the book you said that you listened to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” as a way to calm yourself down when your child is tantruming. I feel like you played me that song. You introduced me to Van Morrison in high school. It’s still now one of my favorite songs. Kyle and I danced to it at the wedding. It’s one of my favorites.

Rebecca: That warms my heart.

Zibby: It’s true. I was sitting there smiling, flipping through. Oh, my god. She even put it in the book after all this time, our mix tapes and everything. Your kid started a tantrum. Are you really now going into iTunes? Are you listening to it out loud? Are you putting in headphones?

Rebecca: You’re like, “Walk me through.”

Zibby: Walk me through how I do this.

Rebecca: Before we get to the nitty-gritty, the context is that tantrums are interactions. The book goes a lot into that. It’s family dynamics and interactions. Your kid is not having a tantrum in a vacuum. Your kid is starting to exhibit some behavior which then causes you to exhibit some behavior. It takes two to really, really amp up, not always. The best thing you can do as a parent in a tantrum situation is to stay regulated and stay calm. There are different ways to do that. You can feel both your feet on the ground. You can take a deep breath. You can close your eyes and remember the first time you held your child as a baby when they exploded your heart. There’s different ways to do it. It’s so important. There’s this great expression that I did not make up so I can’t take credit for. Be the thermostat and not the thermometer. You’re there to set the temperature, not to let your child set the temperature and you just measure it.

One of you has to get calm and regulated for the other one to feel better. Sadly, your kid’s not going to pick up that task. Music is one way that, for me, can really help. Most of the time I do it, frankly, when I feel like the atmosphere is just ripe for a tantrum like after a long day. We got home from preschool and daycare. I’ve had a tough day. I’m exhausted. The last thing I feel like doing is giving my kids dinner. One of them is already complaining that it’s a bath night. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put on “Into the Mystic.” They’re going to want me to put on PAW Patrol soundtrack, but I need that to get myself to a better place so that this whole evening goes smoother.

Occasionally though, what you said is true. My kid will actually start to have a tantrum — I’ve had clients that say this works too — you do go into iTunes. You say, “I really need to get myself to a different place to be able to see this person as anything other than the most annoying person ever. The way I’m going to do that is with music.” It’s senses. It also can be eating something that you like. You get so frustrated with your kid, and then you realize that you haven’t had a sandwich for six hours. It’s getting yourself back in body, back in your senses in a regulated place so that then you can have that pause that we talked about where you can be more thoughtful and intentional about how you want to approach a situation.

Zibby: There’s this other song called “Let’s Be Still.” Do you know that song?

Rebecca: I don’t.

Zibby: “We could get lost in the moment forever.” I’ll stop.

Rebecca: Go for it, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s really good. That’s my go-to song if I’m having a nervous breakdown myself because it’s called “Let’s Be Still.”

Rebecca: You can go the opposite route and put on a dance song. Sometimes when my kids are making me crazy, I just blast a dance song. We all dance. It’s that same energy of that excited energy, except instead of channeling it toward my kids, I’m really dancing. They’re really dancing. Usually, they look so cute that then shifts my mind. Again, it’s about shifting that. It’s being the thermostat. I’m not going to come in and get sucked into your drama that you pulled your hair and you took your LEGOS and whatever. I’m actually going to come in a put on dance music and change the whole tone because I’m the parent and I can do that.

Zibby: Last question, what is the best piece of parenting advice someone has given you? You give everybody else so much advice that’s so great.

Rebecca: I talk about this a lot. It’s not direct parenting advice. I often think about two quotes. One is Marianne Williamson when she says something about how the way to change the world is by changing how you interact with your child, not each individual interaction. I really feel like if we can all start to be more empathic with our kids and see them as people and deal with emotions in a healthier way, we can change the larger scheme of things. More directly, there’s a Maya Angelou quote that I’m not going to remember. It’s something like, “People will forget the words you say. People will forget where you were, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.” I think about that a lot with my parenting, particularly when I’m in a cycle of beating myself up about something I did wrong or said wrong. What can I do now so that my kids remember how I’m — you can go back. You can apologize. You can have a snuggle. I want my kids to feel overall, not every second of every day, we’re all human — overall, how do I help them feel loved, seen, heard, understood? That helps me be less critical with the exact words I choose in any given situation.

Zibby: Awesome. That was great. Thank you. Thank you for giving me some extra little tools for the toolbox of parenting, which is the most important toolbox to carry around these days, and for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rebecca: Thank you. Thank you for doing this amazing podcast and for having me on here. Again, if our younger selves could see us. This has been a real treat. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., THE TANTRUM SURVIVAL GUIDE