How to handle tantrums lovingly

Confused about how to deal with tantrums? I sure was. I couldn’t figure out why my students or charges would just flip out over seemingly trivial things like the color of their socks. There were times when I changed the color of a child’s cup so many times I had a huge pile of dishes by the end of lunch. Sometimes I felt like I was dealing with a crazy person.

I KNOW you’ve experienced this. One minute, things are fine and the next, your child is screaming, throwing herself on the floor and crying so hard she can hardly even catch her breath to tell you what happened. Then, when you finally discover what set her off, you’re left wondering how that could possibly matter enough to create such a huge reaction.

As a parent or caregiver experiencing a child’s tantrum, we can feel confused, powerless, and overwhelmed. I’ve often thought, “Oh no! What went wrong? And how can I get her to stop?”

But after experiencing more and more tantrums, I began to discover that getting kids to stop isn’t always the most connecting thing we can do. Not only that, but when kids freak out, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In my own life, I’ve really valued being able to release my feelings through crying or raging, so why would I want to take that experience of release and relief away from the young people in my life?

I’ve found that by relating to tantrums in a new way, I have a completely different experience. Now, when I see a child “lose it” I feel compassion and understanding and sometimes even joy in the knowledge that they won’t be carrying around the weight of that emotional baggage for the rest of their lives, instead, they’ve released their feelings fully in the moment.

And, after being with a child during a good cry, I’ve had some of the sweetest, most connected moments. I’m always amazed too that kids can let go of their upset so quickly. I’ve had countless experiences where a child was screaming one minute and happily playing alone the next.

So, my advice is to remember that emotions are always moving and changing, no matter what you do, so why not celebrate and enjoy them?!

The other thing I’ve reailized through my many many hours with young people is that tantrums are often preventable. Try following the guidelines below and create a more peaceful and connected life for you and your kids.

Prevent– I’ve found that many tantrums come from a child’s frustration with unmet needs for autonomy, play, and attention. By addressing these needs throughout the day, you can prevent many tantrums from happening. “How?”, you ask? Here are a few ideas for how to address these common unmet needs that most children have.

  • Autonomy- Let them do it by themselves, allow them to choose, and let them be in charge sometimes. You could even assign a task to your kids, put someone in charge and let them figure out how to accomplish the task. Be available to help if they really need it, but resist the urge to jump in to add your suggestions.
  • Play- Get down and dirty, be silly, wear a funny hat and talk in an accent. Children learn by playing, so if they don’t get enough play, they crave it. You might be surprised at how little time it actually takes to turn something into a game.
  • Attention- The next time she has something to tell you, stop what you’re doing and really be present with her. Give her your undivided attention. Ask questions to draw her ideas out more fully and let her know that her thoughts, opinions, and new skills matter to you.

Educate- Teaching kids how to identify and express their emotions BEFORE they’ve lost control is another great way to prevent tantrums. But you can also use a tantrum that happened earlier, to teach your kids what precipitated it. “Wow, sweetie, remember earlier when you were crying and hitting? It seems like you were feeling really frustrated because you really wanted to continue playing your game. Is that right? I wonder if the next time you’re feeling frustrated you could say, ‘I’m frustrated, I really want to play with my train Mom!’ That way, we can figure out a solution that works for both of us.”

Listen- If you’re unable to head it off at the pass or talk your way through it, the most connecting thing you can do is to take a few minutes, sit down and listen to your child cry. By supporting kids in expressing themselves, and staying with them through the storm, we let them know that we’ll love them no matter what and it’s ok to have big feelings.

For more great tips about how to deal with tantrums and other big feelings check out our audio program Perspectives on Feelings. It comes with a workbook, transcript, and an 11 week e-course to help you integrate what you’ve learned.

Oh! And I have an interview coming up! You can sign up, ask your most pressing questions about tantrums, and listen in on the call. I hope to connect with you there.

I’d love to know how it’s going at home. Please leave your comments below!

Thanks, Shelly

5 comments
Chris Fretwell
Chris Fretwell

I think the source of the tantrum and its timing play into it too. A tired or hungry child will react a bit more extreme (as would an adult) and no matter the trigger for tantrum, you need to address the underly factor first.
For us safety comes next(for example getting across the road rather than lying in the middle of it or removing child from the objects being hurled at his brothers face).
Then the source of the tantrum comes next in how it will be dealt with. I dont think there is a cookie cutter approach to them. And while I'd rather not have to endure the glares of others with a public tantrum, my kids come first. (I once had someone tell me to hit my toddler to shut him up, like that would really work)

rose
rose

if i just walk away, my boy will slowly stop his tantrum. he knows that his crying will get nowhere. if i talk to him, he cries more and more... and i get more and more upset!!

What's Going On
What's Going On

you need a lot of patience to handle tantrums - especially if they happen often

joel
joel

very good article...tantrums is normal for young childs...just talk to them calmly & they listen

Rob
Rob

Great article. I found when paying attention to your child, getting down on their level helps a lot.

During a tantrum (that I have no idea what started it) I grab my child's hand and say: "Show me what you want"

She usually gets up and walks with me to what she wants. If she shows me something she is not allowed to have, I know to give her a good distraction right away and move on. Sitting there and telling her NO over and over never seemed to help :)