“No,” I replied firmly. Again. My son, almost 4 years old at the time, stomped his foot, stuck out his tongue, and began to wail. His cries grew louder and louder, his thrashing bigger and bigger. This time, thankfully, we were at home. The meltdowns in public traumatize me to the core as onlookers question my parenting and often shake their heads in disbelief at such a sweet little person’s intense volume. I wish there had been a reason for his outburst, and while technically I had said no to a second cookie, his reaction far outweighed the situation. But that’s how it goes with temper tantrums. Or so I thought. In actuality, responding to no more cookies was merely the surface of my son’s temper tantrum. Below that was so much more.
Don’t try to fix it, just listen and hear the child.
What propels a child into a tantrum might seem like a mystery, but Brendan Mahan, an educator and parent coach specializing in ADHD awareness and other childhood troubles, states, “Temper tantrums are developmentally appropriate responses to a child being overwhelmed … they’re about emotions, and specifically emotions that are stronger than the child can manage on their own.” And that is what we as parents need to remember: Where we have learned over the years to manage our emotions, our young children are still mastering those skills. That’s why almost anything and everything can set them off. Think of the things that shift your emotions into overdrive: when you’re sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated; when you lose control over a situation; when you feel hungry; or perhaps you simply have an off day. It’s the same with children. Our role as parents is to provide a safe place and de-escalate our children’s emotions when they reach extreme levels. When on the receiving end of a tantrum, it’s easy to feel embarrassed or judged. I know I do. But every parent has been there…or will be. Elisabeth Stitt, certified co-active coach and founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching, claims that parents with easy-going children might experience fewer tantrums, but no parent can avoid them completely. So remember, approach your child with love and understanding when a temper tantrum strikes. Then, utilize the tools below to diffuse the situation and collaborate with your child to effectively deal with the next tantrum—it will inevitably happen.
Find the source.
“Once the tantrum starts, it is best not to get angry. Let them know that you understand how they feel, [say] ‘I see you are feeling frustrated.’” Kathy Walsh Rothschild, the creator of parenting/child resource Peace Place for Kids, shares. “Don’t try to fix it, just listen and hear the child. Encourage them to express feelings, and it will help get to the underlying cause.” Elena Mikalsen, PhD, a clinical psychologist with expertise in parenting, lists an array of potential reasons for a child’s temper tantrum: hunger, exhaustion, frustration, worry, sadness, sensory overload, illness, pain, feeling ignored, and lacking attention (just to get the ball rolling). After a temper tantrum ends, immediately think back, and see if you can match a source with your child’s outburst.
Looking back, there is no doubt that many of my son’s tantrums were linked to two triggers—hunger and routine modification. Almost all of his tantrums happened leading up to a meal. Or if he had missed out on a protein-rich breakfast, I could almost guarantee a crash midmorning. I also noticed that on weekends when his grandparents visited, and there was extra excitement, modified naps, and more people to engage with, a tantrum might ensue. Not knowing what to expect and having his routine thrown off was no doubt a way to welcome a tantrum. If temper tantrums are peaking with your child, consider keeping a diary to truly watch and catalog their individual triggers. Then, you can work to avoid those triggers—or at least prepare yourself for an upheaval.
Increase communication and touch.
It’s never too early to talk to your children, no matter how young they are. During the tantrum, you won’t be able to reason with them. “When things are calm, talk over the reasons they had it,” Mahan says. “Maybe something was bothering them that you didn’t know about. Getting that information can help avoid future outbursts.” Each of my children have spoken later in their toddler years, but with each of them, I have learned that they understand some things far before they can articulate their feelings. By talking to them, I give them words and validation when things feel out of control. Most recently, at the close of my toddler’s tantrum over having to turn off Paw Patrol, I simply asked, “Do you need a hug to feel better?” And he nodded. Stitt encourages parents to keep a physical connection during a tantrum if the child will accept. “A hand or a hug or a lap,” she says. “If he won’t, just sit as close as he will allow.”
Stay away from certain situations.
“Avoid highly stimulating environments: places that are loud, brightly lit, full of flashing screens, etc.” Mahan says. “Basically, don’t take your kid to Buffalo Wild Wings.” Think triggers. You know your child, and you can document when tantrums occur. Then you’ll likely know when they might happen again. If certain places, people, or situations tip them off, avoid them…for everyone’s sakes.
Don’t try to stop it.
Deborah, a mom of four, has researched tantrums in order to aid her own family in more effectively managing them. “I’ve come to realize that [stopping a tantrum] is like forcing my kids to stop laughing,” she shares. And who can do that? Rather, allow the tantrum to run its course and in the midst, stay calm. Easier said than done, I know. “Because our calm helps a child calm down,” Stitt says, “it is important to stay present with a child.” Our self-regulation acts as a type of osmosis for a child mid-tantrum, and, although it might not seem like it’s helping, by breathing deep and centering ourselves, we model what we eventually expect from our child.
Don’t say no.
Imagine this: a world of all yeses! Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Mikalsen encourages parents to say yes as often as possible, or at least choose phrases that aren’t situated around the word “no.” Her ideas include: “Let me think about this,” “I would love to let you have _____ right after…,” and “I can see you really want to _____; next time we definitely can.” My own mom recently encouraged me to do this, too. “Be a yes mom,” she says. No is such a harsh, definitive word that choosing to say yes, or a yes alternative, avoids unnecessary battles.
Give them a tool box.
Liisa, a mom of two, subscribes to the tool box theory: “For each kid, we have a tool box. I have been learning that I need more help from others, and I have to acquire different tools for each kid.” What are those tools? Well, there’s quite a few. Begin with these and tailor them to your child’s age and personality:
- Deep breathing: You start and ask them to follow.
- Meditation: This is something to practice before a tantrum. Then you can be the voice of reason that quietly asks them to close their eyes and focus on their happy place when a tantrum begins to overtake.
- Sleep well: Establish routines that help avoid tantrums in the first place. “Lack of sleep leads directly to emotional dysregulation,” Mahan says. So no skipping naps or staying up past bedtime regularly!
- Find a dark, quiet place: Leaving a situation that triggers tantrums is often enough to stop the escalation.
- Allow hitting within reason: When emotions overload, sometimes a child needs a physical release. For younger children, give them a pillow to pound. For older ones, offer a punching bag.
- Eat a snack: Hunger does crazy things to a child’s system. Mikalsen encourages parents to always keep a snack on hand to curb a tantrum.
As your child’s personality develops and their vocabulary grows, converse with them outside of their tantrums about their feelings, and ask them what they feel might help. Together, you can add to the tool box over time, and reach for options when it’s needed.
An ineffective way for parents to deal with temper tantrums is to have one themselves.
Most of all, I learned from fellow moms and experts, who hear from many parents about their child’s tantrums, that effectively dealing with tantrums is more about dealing with myself than my child. Children will throw tantrums no matter what. As Mahan shared, it’s developmentally appropriate for children to cycle through a season of tantrums. Nothing is wrong. In fact, everything is right! They’re experiencing emotions, and we’re merely tasked with coaching them through those feelings. “An ineffective way for parents to deal with temper tantrums is to have one themselves,” Mahan implores parents. “Getting angry with and/or yelling at your kid over their temper tantrum only models bad behavior and establishes an unhealthy pattern.” So, as embarrassing and overwhelming as your child’s tantrum can be, keep yourself centered.
Finally, Stitt gives parents a bit of hope when they feel lost in the tunnel of tantrums: “Reminding yourself that tantrums peak around 4 years old and then taper off might help you stay calm until the storm has passed!” Hold strong, moms and dads, temper tantrums won’t be around forever! Then again, don’t hold your breath for your child’s fifth birthday, since every child is different.