5 Tips for Taming Tantrums

How to move through these trying moments of parenting

In many of my parent groups and private sessions, tantrums seem to be the topic of choice. Tantrums are not a new childhood challenge but it seems that every day an expert has a foolproof way to end your child's tantrums. My advice? Stick with the tried and true.

Toddler tantrums
When a toddler has a tantrum, it's often because he's tired or hungry and isn't able to calm his body and regain control on his own. He needs you. I recommend that you sit on the floor next your child and tell him you see he is having a hard time. Reassure him that you are going to help him calm down.

Some children like to be held. Others do not want to be touched at all. Ask your child what he prefers, or just try what you think might work and see what happens. To be clear, this doesn’t mean giving in to your child's demands. It just means helping him regain control of himself – something he needs but cannot give himself at that moment.

Tantrums in older children
As your child gets older, think about her temperament and try these techniques:

Reflect your child's emotions. Bend down to her eye level. Try saying, "You are so [name the emotion] right now. I know you really wanted that fifth scoop of ice cream, but you may not have it. I understand that makes you feel angry and sad." Then move on. Give your child a choice about what to do next, like playing with blocks next or getting out the crayons.

Give positive alternatives. Explain to your child that banging a block on her infant brother's head is not a choice, but she can bang the block on another block or play the drums if she feels like banging. Remind your child that banging on another person's body is not allowed because it isn't safe. Ask her for suggestions about safe places to bang.

Keep it light. Use a little humor to diffuse the situation. When your child is begging you not to go out to dinner, remind her that you have to come home to sleep in your bed. Say, "Can grown-ups sleep in a restaurant? A car? On the table? No! How silly! Grown-ups have to come home to sleep in their beds." You can even use the humor tactic during meltdowns that happen at other times when you are separating from her (like at school drop off). Reflect her feelings and be silly, "You are so mad, I wonder if you can stamp your feet as loud as I can."

Ignore it. There are times when the best thing you can do is simply ignore a tantrum. Make sure your child is safe, but keep yourself out of it. In time, your child will calm down on her own, and you can be spared riding along on her emotional rollercoaster. 

Remove your child from the situation. For some children, it's too much to have a conversation while being distracted by the item they want, the child who has it, or something else that upset them. In this case, removing your child from the situation can mean going into the next room to work through the tantrum in a quieter place without that distraction.

And sometimes there is no other option but to remove your child from the situation entirely. If your child has gone past the point of no return, leaving the grocery store or the playdate gives her the opportunity to calm her body in a less stimulating environment and helps her understand that her behavior is unacceptable.

Deciding how to deal with tantrums has a lot to do with your child's temperament. I say this often: Parents know their children best. Think about your child and the way she handles different situations. Children give us a lot of information every day, from whether they need to be prepared for something new a week before or an hour before to how to handle their tantrums.

When a tantrum begins, assess the situation, decide on a technique, and set the limit. As with any other behavior, the consistency of your reaction to tantrums will help your child develop the ability to regulate her own emotions and behaviors. You can do this!

A version of this piece originally ran on danaskids.com, and it is reprinted here with permission.