At some point, your child has or will have a temper tantrum. It’s a fact of life, like birth, death, and taxes. Your child is going to become so overwhelmed that they will lose control and physically express their distress. Temper tantrums can be embarrassing and frustrating for caregivers. Let’s look at unpacking and normalizing tantrums, what they are, and why they occur, but more importantly, how you can diffuse and support your little person when they get overwhelmed.
What is a tantrum?
A tantrum is an external show of internal distress. You might notice disorganized behavior such as screaming, crying, arching their back, stiff limbs, kicking, punching, and running away. They might even harm themselves in some way. Vomiting, self-injurious behavior (banging head, scratching self, hair-pulling), or holding their breath can also occur. Tantrums are equally present in male and female children and usually occur between the ages of one and three. For some children, tantrums arise infrequently. Some have them often. The intensity and behaviors displayed will also differ between children.
So why do tantrums occur?
When tantrums are most common (one to three years), our children are doing a lot of social and emotional development. But they don’t yet have the words to express their big feelings. All our children can comprehend is the physical sensation of the emotion, which can be very uncomfortable. However, the feeling itself can present unpredictably. It can be intense and also confusing, resulting in our children feeling out of control. Feeling out of control or confused can lead our children to become more overwhelmed because they don’t understand what is happening in their body or why. This can feed into or exacerbate their distress.
At this age, our children are also really trying to exert their independence. Another reason our children might have tantrums is that they start to realize that their behavior impacts and influences other people’s reactions/responses. A tantrum might be the only way our kids can express themselves or control their environment.
8 Strategies to Help Tame Tantrums
1. Identify triggers.
You can’t and shouldn’t avoid big emotions. We all need to learn how to accept and cope with our feelings. But you can plan better to help your child (and yourself). If you know that your little person gets overwhelmed when you go for groceries (the trigger here is potentially being tired/overstimulated/hungry, etc.), then you wouldn’t avoid getting groceries. But you would figure out what the trigger is and try and ensure their need is being met before you go. For example, have a nap first and take some snacks with you. Or go and play at a park first to exert some energy and then get the groceries.
2. Fill their cups.
We all have cups (needs) that need to be filled each day. When our cups are full, we are more resilient. We have needs such as hunger, thirst, sleep, emotional connection, safety, attention, etc. When these primary needs are met, our stress levels are reduced. So ensure that your child’s cup is filled each day so that they feel less overwhelmed and are better able to cope instead of having a tantrum.
3. Reduce stimuli.
Our little people’s brain is growing at a tremendous rate, and they are learning so much and taking in so many new concepts each day. This means it is easy for them to become overstimulated. So, if you reduce the stimuli they need to process, they have more capacity to regulate and calm down. To reduce the stimuli, try this:
- Drop your voice down low and slow the pace of your words
- Remove stimulation (screens, loud noises like crowds, or the situation they are in)
- Provide sensory regulation. It could be touch (a firm hug, or no contact, a soft toy to stroke or playdough to squeeze hard), sensory (provide essential oils or fresh air, calm breathing), sound (peaceful music or potentially silence).
4. Acknowledge and name their big feelings to help give them context.
It seems too simple but think back to when you were having a hard day, and you told another person about that. A response like, “Oh, it’s not that bad, calm down!” is likely to result in you feeling more frustrated. However, a response like, “I can hear how angry you are right now, that must have been such a tough day for you!” results in feeling connected, heard, and acknowledged. The appropriate response can be calming and soothing as our emotional connection needs are being met, and we feel secure/safe. Your child is also learning how to make sense of their internal processes. So when you name their feelings, you help them to understand what is happening and why. The situation feels less confusing, and in turn, they feel less overwhelmed and more capable of coping. Here are some examples of appropriate responses to a tantrum:
- I can see you are so angry right now because your brother took your toy without asking.
- You must have felt sad when you didn’t win that game.
- It sounds like that made you feel really frustrated.
5. Consistency is key.
If you don’t have firm or consistent boundaries, it can create a stress or fear response in your child because they don’t know what to expect from a situation. This, in turn, can increase their need to feel in control or they may feel overwhelmed. Both can result in increased tantrums. If you have set a rule, then you need to enforce it gently yet firmly every time. Essentially you want your child to have a clear understanding of what you expect from them. And you want them to feel secure and safe in the knowledge of the outcome of a situation. Being consistent also helps teach them about actions and consequences.
An excellent way to keep consistency is giving lots of warning before you need to transition to a new activity. My daughter is a creature of habit and becomes distressed when we need to leave something she is engaged in and move to the next activity. From a very early age, we implemented the count down and a consequence. I get down on her level and speak clearly and make sure we have eye contact. Then I tell her, “We have one more minute left to play, and then we need to leave. I’ll count down so you know how long you have left.” I then give her warnings at the 30-second mark (30 seconds left to play), 10 seconds (we have ten more seconds to play), and then I’ll count down from 5. At that point, I offer my hand and start to move away.
If she doesn’t come willingly, I will offer choices (consequences) and name her emotions: “I can see you are enjoying yourself, and you feel frustrated that we have to leave. But it’s time to go home now. If you don’t walk with me, then I will have to help you by carrying you back to the car. Which will it be?” Giving her a choice gives her back some control. But I’ve been clear the consequence is me taking her back to the car rather than being able to walk herself.
And yes, I have carried a screaming toddler through a crowded shopping center back to my car! But these days, as I finish counting down and get to about 3 seconds left, she willingly drops the activity or steps away, and off we go. She comes willingly because she knows I will follow through.
6. Don’t be embarrassed!
Even if you feel so mortified that you wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole, try not to sweat it. If you feel embarrassed, you might try to avoid the situation by avoiding triggers entirely or giving in. Your child will also pick up on your unease and play to this by using tantrums to control a situation. You could move your child away from prying eyes and speak quietly to them, or move them to a safe place where they can complete their tantrum.
Who cares if people are looking? You are the parent or caregiver, and this is your situation to manage. And you are demonstrating your skill and compassion as a parent by managing their tantrums with boundaries and in compassionate ways. If you look cool, calm, and collected, people are more likely to be thinking that “you’ve got this” (and you do!).
7. Help them regulate.
Model calm breathing. Get them doing some star jumps to expel excess energy. Get some bubbles out and blow them. Your child will start to co-regulate with you and will slowly calm down. And they will connect with your soothing energy and activities aimed at self-regulating.
8. Walk the walk.
Model to your child how to deal with frustration and deal with them calmly when they have a tantrum. Show them how this looks:
- Lower your voice, get on their level, make eye contact.
- Speak to them about their behavior (no blaming or shaming our children).
- Save lectures or big discussions about behavior for when you are both feeling calm (if they are overwhelmed, they won’t take it any anyway).
- Move on swiftly and don’t dwell on the issue.
Also, show them how you manage challenges. Narrate your feelings and your strategies to cope. “I’m feeling upset right now because I spilled my coffee on my shirt. I’m going to take a couple of deep breaths, and once I’m feeling better, I will start to clean up.”
Regardless of the origin of a tantrum, you want to ensure that the outcome is the reparation of your relationship with your child. Sometimes as caregivers, we bear the brunt of their behavior and their struggles because we are their safe place. Being a “safe place” isn’t always the nicest thing, as you take the brunt of the shouting, angry words, and tantrums. But you are their everything, their whole world.
You should always name the behaviors your child demonstrates, but never aim comments at your child. “It’s not kind to hit” lands very differently than “You aren’t kind when you hit.” Comments aimed at your child (not the behavior) impact our little people’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
It’s so important to remember after each tantrum to reconnect for both of your sakes, whether it’s connecting with a cuddle, a kind word, an “I love you,” a held hand, reading a book together, or one on one time. Reach out intentionally to show them that regardless of their behavior, you love them unconditionally. This feeling of security and trust will go a long way towards taming those tantrums in the long run.