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How to Speak Spanish During a Tantrum

As most parents know, you can only truly begin to communicate after a meltdown. These tools can help you cope, no matter what language you’re speaking!

Many of us are on the journey of learning Spanish with our children – while also learning to manage tantrums! Ages one to four are prime tantrum ages, when young children aren’t yet aware of how to manage their emotions, let alone communicate.

When a one- or two-year-old goes into a full-blown tantrum for what seems to be no reason at all, communication is usually the culprit. Because their language skills are still very limited, young children are unable to fully express their desires, and we’re often unable to respond effectively.

From three to four, tantrums are often the result of a power struggle: Kids know what they want, and if you don't give it to them, it’s tantrum city! No matter what the child’s age, outbursts are exhausting. On top of that, trying to manage it in a language that’s not your own is a whole new level of difficult.

Staying calm and collected is hard during a tantrum, but giving in sends the message that meltdowns will get the child what they want. I’ve listed some strategies and language below that I hope will help you cope with the situation at hand — or the situation on the floor!

1. Ignore the Child on the Floor (!)

This tactic sends the message that the child won’t get what he or she wants by throwing a tantrum. It’s also the hardest one to commit to, especially in a public place. Usually, if I’m out in public and I’ve decided to ignore the child on the floor, I talk with a calming voice and say, en español:

“Yo solo entiendo palabras. Cuando estés lista para hablar conmigo, yo te escucho.”

“I only understand words. When you are ready to talk with me, I will listen.”

A child in this state is very hard to communicate with, because they’ve reached a point where there’s truly no reasoning with them. They’re utilizing what’s sometimes called the “lizard” or “reptilian brain,” the oldest part of the brain associated with automatic responses like fight or flight.

After I’ve spoken to my child, I stand up confidently, and if anyone approaches me during this trying time, I say politely, “She just needs a little space while she gets over her tantrum.”

(FYI, the Spanish word for “tantrum” is “berrinche!”)

2. Give Them Space – Or Give Yourself Space!

Tantrums have a way of making our insides boil. We’re tempted to scream back, even though we know that sends the wrong signal. If you yell, it's still attention you’re offering, and kids in this state don’t care whether it's positive or negative. Children love to make you react, whether it be to make you laugh or scream. So, what do I say if my blood is boiling?

“Mami necesita espacio.”

“Mommy needs space.”

This typically creates a moment of silence because they’re so surprised that Mami’s the one who needs a timeout. I usually add very calmly:

“Tus gritos me alteran.”“

Necesito espacio porque no quiero decir algo que te puede doler/herir.”

“Your screaming is making me upset.”

“I need space because I don’t want to say something that may hurt [your feelings.]”

This is when I step away, giving space for both me and my kiddo to calm down.

Once you’ve re-entered a state of calm, take advantage of the opportunity to talk about their feelings. Ask them:

“¿Como te sientes? ¿Por qué estás frustrado?”

“How do you feel? Why are you frustrated?

Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, advises us not to reason with a child who’s in the midst of a tantrum. When I’m calm and in control, I keep my interaction short and sweet by saying:

“Necesitas un poco de espacio?”

“Do you need a little space?"

Another helpful phrase is:

“Creo qué necesitas un poco de tiempo solo.”

“I think you need a little time alone.”

Depending on the child, some need total isolation. My son has a fear of being alone, so I usually find him a place that’s close enough but still provides him some privacy. He tends to calm down fairly quickly, and then we’re able to talk:

“¿Por qué estabas tan bravo?”

“¿Quieres hablar?”

“¿Como te sientes?”

Why were you so upset?”

“Do you want to talk?”

“How do you feel?”

We usually talk about what just happened and what upset him – and I express my feelings because it's important to tell him how his behavior affects me. I avoid an accusatory tone and instead personalize my experience by using words like,

“Me siento…”

“I feel...”

instead of:

“Tu hiciste…”

“You did...”

3. Anticipate Triggers

With my kids, tantrums have decreased over time. Of course, the key has been discovering what triggers them. Understanding their triggers can help you develop strategies to address these challenges — or even avoid them.

The easy triggers to anticipate are hunger and tiredness. As it turns out, for my daughter, transitions often trigger tantrums, especially when she’s engrossed in an activity. She’s the second child, and I’m often running around taking the oldest to his soccer and gymnastic classes. Sometimes that means I have to interrupt my daughter when she’s playing. I realized that the best way to avoid the resulting screaming fits was to prepare her for the transition.

Before any transition, I prepare both of my children for what will happen. I occasionally use a timer or another way of demarcating time — for example:

“Después de esta canción...”

“Cuando esto acabe..."

“After this song…”

“When this is over...”

4. Use Diversion

This tactic works well with one- to two-year-old children when you can easily distract them with something else that’s just as exciting. (It helps to include animated facial expressions!)

“Mira esto!”

“Te quiero enseñar algo!!”

“Look at this!”

“I want to show you something!"

Timing is important for this tactic; it needs to be deployed right when you see the tantrum coming. Sometimes just by changing the scenery, an outburst can be completely avoided.

5. Hug it Out

You’re not likely to find this advice in a lot of parenting books, but I often use this tactic with my daughter. She doesn’t do well if I give her space; instead, the fit escalates. Remember the reptile brain I mentioned earlier? Well, when my daughter is at the point where that brain has taken over — it’s basically “fight or flight” mode — the only way to bring her back to rational brain is to hold her tightly and let her know that I’m there. I don't say anything. Instead, I just hold her until she calms down and then I say something like,

“¿Qué te pasa?“

“¿Por qué estás tan brava?”

“What’s the matter?”

“Why are you so upset?”

As a parent, I’ve learned that for adults and kids alike, you can only truly begin to communicate after a meltdown. Being prepared with the right tools helps, no matter what language you’re speaking!

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