Here we go again. Your little one is yelling, screaming, flailing around. They’re red in the face. Maybe they’re even kicking. You’ve seen it before — this isn’t their first temper tantrum, and it certainly won’t be their last. But the big question is, what are you to do about it? Sometimes, temper tantrums can feel terribly timed and overwhelming both for the child and the parent, but there are healthy, productive ways to deal with tantrums that can even offer growth and connection.
While you may have heard lots of different accounts of how to deal with temper tantrums, some will work better than others. Not all tantrums are equal, and not all children require the same methods of quelling that rage. But when you tune in and take the time to address a tantrum with healthy and intentional methods, you may find much better results in the moment and going forward.
What is a Temper Tantrum?
Before we start to deal with the tantrum at hand, we should address what a tantrum actually is. While it can be easy to define any disruptive outburst or crying fit as a tantrum, it actually isn’t that simple. Temper tantrums are defined as “acting out” behavior and emotional outbursts as a response to unmet desires or needs. They usually begin around 12 to 18 months old. They get worse between age 2 to 3, then decrease until age 4.
This means a few things, for those who don’t already know. A child crying because they’re hurt or in pain? Not a temper tantrum. A child genuinely upset about a life event? Not a temper tantrum. A baby or infant crying in order to get their needs met properly? Also not a tantrum. When we learn what properly defines a tantrum, it becomes easier to address them appropriately.
First, the Don’ts
Before we get into what you should do to deal with a temper tantrum, it can be just as important to address what not to do. First and foremost, it’s both cruel and ineffective to use violence or anger to respond to a child’s tantrum. Physical discipline, yelling or screaming back at them will often only exacerbate the tantrum, because it increases the negative experience. Tantrums may be disruptive, but they’re not a form of conscious bad behavior or misbehaving, and treating them as such can give children a negative association with their emotions.
Similarly, invalidating your child’s emotions, using sarcasm, lying to them, telling them how to feel and using other forms of manipulation or bating can create a negative emotional relationship, and usually don’t address the issue head-on. Most of these can cause more harm than good, in addition to making the tantrum worse in the moment. But all of this begs the question — what should you do when a tantrum starts?
Offer Positive Attention
This might seem a bit counterintuitive. While giving in to the tantrum isn’t a good idea — as it usually just reaffirms the tantrum and encourages future ones — positive attention and intentional action is different. Often, children want attention and compassion when they have an outburst, and when you offer that compassion, they’ll likely respond by calming down.
What this positive attention is will probably vary from child to child. While some respond best to touch stimuli, others respond best to soothing words and positive affirmations. Whatever your child responds best to, you can incorporate that into the positive attention you give to them.
Often, the natural response to overwhelming behavior is to mirror it back and yell in response to your child yelling, but it’s important to remember that you’re the adult in the situation. Your child looks to you as an example of how to behave, and when you yell and scream, you encourage aggression in them, too. Speaking calmly, on the other hand, is a great way to encourage a serene environment. Try taking a time-in with your child where you spend a calm moment empathizing with them until the tantrum calms.
Speaking of time-ins, meditation, deep breathing and mindfulness can be great ways to quell a tantrum in its tracks. Whether your child is throwing a tantrum at an inappropriate time or you simply want to teach them the mindful ways of slowing down, sitting in meditation with them, holding them close and truly tuning in can make all the difference in quelling a tantrum healthily.
Allow Them to Feel It
So, just let them have a tantrum? Well, no, not quite. Sometimes, compassionately acknowledging their feelings and frustrations can help children feel held and seen, and allowing them to feel their emotions and fully experience them is a great way to do that. There are times when — as adults, too — we simply need to let go and let our emotions flow. Your child deserves to feel validated in their emotions just like you do.
By taking a deep breath and telling them that you are here, you see them, you see their emotions and that they are safe to let it out, the tantrum can naturally pass.
Healthy Ways to Deal With Tantrums
Tantrums aren’t an issue of discipline or bad behavior — they are simply about children learning to process their emotions and sit with them. As a parent, it’s your job to guide them through that growth and learning experience. By tuning in rather than tuning them out, tantrums can not only be a healthy process but an opportunity to grow.