How to Tame a Tantrum like a Pro

Seven Strategies that Work

Image from NeedPix edited with text by author a.j.gabs

If you haven’t carried your child surfboard style out of a store while they scream — have you ever really parented?

I wish I could remember where I first read that. It spoke to me on a visceral level. I think it helped me feel not alone. Whenever I see a parent with a screaming child in a store, I hold up three fingers Hunger Game style to show my solidarity. Some of them get it and laugh. Some think I’m crazy.

Some people claim their children never have tantrums. Maybe that’s true. Maybe they have children who are biologically hardwired to understand their big emotions at a young age. Or maybe, they are liars.

I remember the first time my daughter had a tantrum. For the life of me, I don’t remember what it was about. It was something as trivial as I opened the muffins before the yogurt. I watched in AWE as she laid down on the ground and kicked her feet, and screamed. So it begins. I thought. I literally just stared at the show for five minutes before doing anything. While I didn’t exactly appreciate the level of crazy that was streaming out of my daughter at that moment, I had to respect her total commitment to it.

I think the hardest thing about tantrums is the fact that not only is your child out of control but on some level — you feel out of control, too. You can’t turn it off. You can’t stop it. Logic does not prevail here.

Why Toddlers Have Tantrums

Before we get into what you can do, let’s talk about why these crazy, sometimes nuclear meltdowns happen in the first place. You’ll be happy to know that tantrums are completely normal and a sign of healthy development.

In some cases, tantrums are simply a child’s response to frustration. Their brains are not yet hardwired to process and manage big emotions like (most) adults’ are. In fact, the prefrontal cortex (the center of the brain that manages emotion, makes decisions, and controls impulses) doesn’t start to mature until around age 4. (It doesn’t finish until age 25). It’s not that your child is choosing to let their emotions control them. More accurately, they physically cannot control their emotions.

In other cases, tantrums have become a learned behavior to get what they want. Children learn that their parents will often do anything to stop the screaming — including giving in. I urge you to do your best to prevent scenario two. It’s very hard to break a learned behavior and will take months of consistency. The minute you give in to a tantrum, you have dismantled all of your work up until that point. As long as it works once in a while, children will still try it.

Strategies that Work:

One thing that frustrated me about research parenting advice online was that most of the strategies for tantrums were proactive solutions. Thanks, Sharon. But that does not help me when my child is screaming bloody murder at the playground, and I am desperately trying to wrestle her into her car seat and ESCAPE!

I’ve broken down strategies into two categories, but this article will focus on what to do once a tantrum has started.

At the moment:

  • Control yourself: Share your calm, don’t join their chaos. They need that from you. I’d be lying to you if I said I never yelled back during a tantrum. They are frustrating, and like you, I am human. But I can assure you that it has never worked. A child will never learn to manage their emotions when led by an adult who can’t manage theirs.
  • Give them space: During a meltdown, my daughter gathered herself enough to let me know she just needed to scream. She ran upstairs to her bed, buried her face in her pillow, and let it out. In fact, we’ve added that to one of her calm down strategies. Sometimes their frustration is too much, and they need to get it out. Give them a minute to get it out.
  • Get on their level: I’m always more effective when I talk to my children at their level. My one daughter does not like to be touched during a tantrum, so I kneel nearby. My other is comforted when I gently put my hand on her. Find what works for your child — but come down to them.
  • Talk quietly: When my child is yelling, I start to talk very quietly. 90% of the time, she stops so she can hear me. Don’t talk for too long, or the yelling will start again. Say something short. “You’re sad. Can I help?”
  • Find the “Good Intent”: It’s easy to get mad during a tantrum. It’s easy to think your child is doing this on purpose to manipulate you. In almost all cases, I can assure you they are not. See if you can uncover their good intent. Maybe your child wanted one jacket over the other because she can zip that one by herself. Maybe he wanted to try to open the toy box by himself. Once the frustration takes over their brain, it’s very hard for a child to dial it back and explain themselves. Their brains are not yet wired to do that! There is only one person in this scenario who can bring calmness back into the equation: you.
  • Toddlerease: Dr. Harvey Karp offers some great advice on talking to your tot during a tantrum. He calls it “toddler ease.” I highly recommend his book on the topic. Toddlerease involves talking to your toddler like THEY talk -think, like a caveman. The first time I tried this, I couldn’t believe how well it worked. I was in a store that ran out of the ride-on carts my daughter was so looking forward to riding in.

I knelt down next to her screaming body, mimicked her emotion, and in a despairing tone said “green cart. Green cart. You want green cart!” She looked at me for a minute, and I sadly looked down while shaking my head. “No green cart.” I tried to look and act as sad as she felt. I was very aware of the parents watching my strange behavior: first with judgement, then with awe as my child accepted there wasn’t a green cart and calmly moved on with shopping.

  • Distraction: While I try not to default to distraction, it can often stop a tantrum in its tracks. Find something else to get your child’s attention, like the spider climbing up the wall, a chance to visit a normally off-limits area, or a snack. A distraction can also be a chance to take your child to another area and de-stimulate.

A note about discipline:

When I was explaining this to someone, they once pointed out: but what about discipline? How do you properly punish a kid who just had a tantrum? I want to point out that discipline and punishment are two very different things. Discipline comes from the Latin discipline, meaning “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” Rather than punish your kids for skills they don’t yet have — teach them.

Kids have to learn several skills that greatly reduce the occurrence of tantrums once mastered. Those include, but aren’t limited to:

  • impulse control
  • problem-solving
  • delaying gratification
  • negotiating
  • communicating needs
  • knowing social expectations and
  • self-soothing.

You can turn problem-solving and delaying gratification into fun games for kids. You can also read them stories where the main character is (or isn’t) doing these and having conversations about what is going on. A lecture on these things never works during a tantrum, so find moments of calm to teach these to your children. And remember, children’s brains aren’t biologically wired for these things until much later. Patience and calm are what they need above all else.

Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

An avid learner of neuroscience and child development. Once a certified counselor and teacher, now a parent, IT Professional and children’s author.

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