He wanted chocolate cake for breakfast. He even said please. His mommy told him no. He had to at least have some fruit first. Not yet knowing the words to express what he was feeling, he threw himself on the floor, letting out loud, angry shrieks as he kicked his little legs. The temper tantrum had begun.
Hungry; tired; frustrated; uncomfortable—common triggers of tantrums in our children. They often show up in year two, when language skills are developing, but being able to express and manage feelings is quite challenging.
Tantrums can be triggered by just about anything, but experts say one of the biggest causes is a change in routine—starting daycare or moving to a new home, for example. Pediatrician and mom of a toddler, Dr. Julia Pederson, says, “Transitions can put toddlers in newer, different situations that cause a little bit of stress and can lead to those bigger feelings and emotions.”
Dr. Pederson recommends that before doing anything, parents should take a second to assess the situation. Obviously, if you’re in public, you may have to act much quicker than if you were in your home. But either way, Dr. Pederson suggests we pause and take a deep breath before responding.
Sometimes, watching your child have a meltdown can make you feel like you want to join them in their tears. You may feel like you might start stomping your feet and screaming, too. Because as your baby shrieks and sobs, you may feel helpless or even triggered by the behavior. And while it’s unsettling for us to feel this way, we know that more often than not, it just has to run its course.
Stay calm. Raising your voice or reprimanding your child during a tantrum will rarely make the situation better. Dr. Pederson explains, “A tantrum is not a teachable moment. It’s not the time to lecture…not the time to explain to them why they can’t have sugary things at lunch every day. In the moment, you just want to recognize what’s going on. Acknowledge how they’re feeling, and calm things down.”
Remind yourself that the goal isn’t to stop the tantrum. It’s about comforting and connecting with your child during a hard moment. They need to feel seen, heard, and safe.
Here are some suggestions on how handle a temper tantrum:
1. Assess the situation
Ask yourself, how bad is it? If the tantrum can be remedied by offering a favorite snack or stuffed animal or by making them laugh, go for it. If not, take a breath and prepare for the next step.
2. Be present; be patient
Get down to your child’s level. Settle in. At first, just let them feel your presence; don’t be inclined to talk to or touch them right away. Observe them and try to stay as calm as possible. You want to make it clear you’re not angry. Your primary goal is to let them know they’re safe and what they’re feeling is alright. It’s okay to have big feelings. Resist trying immediately to stop the tantrum. The more you try to interfere with reasoning and affection, the longer it’s likely to last.
3. Offer comfort and affection (when they’re ready for it).
When the temper tantrum begins to lessen and your child’s energy is weakened from their kicks and cries, try to offer a hug or back rub.
4. Redirect their attention to something else
Try drawing your child’s attention to something else. For children not old enough to understand reason and logic, this tends to work well. Saying something like, “I know you’re getting frustrated because you can’t get the box open. Why don’t we try this fun toy instead?” takes a negative situation and turns it into a more positive one. Feelings of anger and frustration transform to excitement and happiness.
5. Acknowledge/identify their feelings
By saying something like, “I know you were very mad when I told you not to climb on the table,” you’re helping your child identify what they were feeling and why what just happened, happened.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, more than half of young children will have one or more tantrums per week. It’s a normal, albeit stressful, part of raising a child. “They’re inevitable, and you just have to weather the storm,” says Dr. Pederson. “You want to do it in a way that feels good to you, and you want to do it in a way that respects your child so that they can, over time, learn how to help regulate their emotions.” She also encourages all parents to remember that what our children are experiencing are real emotions, and we have to be adaptable and flexible.
It’s your decision, of course, how to handle your child’s temper tantrum. And when you’re in public versus at home, your response to the outburst may differ. However, yelling at your child or putting them in a time-out are shown to only be effective in the short-term. Remember this.
As your child gets older, you can help them learn the skills they need to navigate their emotions without kicking, screaming, hitting, etc. But this takes time. Be patient. When they can understand, talk to them about what to do when they’re frustrated or sad, and how their actions impact others around them. Eventually, this will mean less tantrums and more honest conversations about feelings.
Tantrums are inevitable. How you choose to handle them is important. Stay calm, and just let them know you’re there, they’re safe, and you’re not going anywhere.
This too shall pass.