What to Do When Your Child is Having a Tantrum

Most of the time, your child’s tantrums leave you either upset or bewildered, but what if you could respond in a way that fostered a deeper connection between you?  Children’s mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn and tantrums are the perfect example of this.  If you’re tired of losing it, too, then try approaching it in a new way.

1.  Just let them do it  

When your toddler has gone over the edge, their rational brains (we are talking the pre-frontal cortex where all the higher processes happen–thinking, processing, rational decision-making) have totally shut down and are overloaded by their rage.  You cannot talk to or reason with a child during a tantrum.  This only escalates the behavior.  It is always best to let them get it all out until they cannot cry, scream, or kick any longer.

2.  Be with them

Have you ever lost it before?  Have you ever cried and screamed hysterically?  Then I am sure you understand how comforting it is to have a trusted person by your side.  Your kids are no different.  Your child needs your support during such a display of raw emotion.  Don’t go anywhere, but be right there next to them.  If they will allow it, provide a loving touch with a calm hand on them.  If not, just be near them and be available to them.  A favorite stuffed animal or doll can also help with this.

3.  Model calmness

This is the toughest one of all!  But, if you can pull it off, it works so well thanks to mirror neurons, essentially a way that the brain works to mimic what is seen in another person.  When your child sees you being calm, their brains will work to calm down too and regain access to that rational part of their brains.  This also helps you maintain control of yourself during this time.  Circle of Security described the role well by saying that as parents we need to “be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.”

4.  Reconnect with lots of hugs and comfort 

Once the storm has passed and your child has finished their raw display of emotion, they are going to need to know that they are still okay with you.  Give hugs, rubs on the back, hold them. Dry the tears and just be with them in that moment.  In doing so, you are letting them know that they are safe with you, they are still loved despite their behavior, and that you are there to help them recover.

5.  Process the feelings and help them move on

Once the tears have dried, it is time to help them process through these big emotions and the situation that led up to it.  This will look differently for different children depending on their needs, cognitive level, and communication ability.  For some it may be a simple conversation to label feelings.  “You were disappointed when it was time to go to bed.  That made you mad.”  For especially young ones or those with communication challenges, pictures or simple drawings are very helpful in helping show them what they were feeling.

Be sure to help your child move on to the next activity.  If their tantrum created a mess, helping you clean it up is a great way to involve them usefully in repairing the damage.  Be sure to provide choices for the next activity.  “Do you want to have a snack or play outside?”  Again, this can be done through simple pictures on a choice board, which can be made at home.

Tantrums are never pleasant for anyone.  But how we approach and respond to them can make all the difference–teaching valuable emotional skills and fostering deeper connection.

What have you found to be helpful for you during a tantrum?  Are there certain strategies that you use for staying calm?  Let us know in the comments.  

(Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt)

4 Replies to “What to Do When Your Child is Having a Tantrum”

  1. Be a Grandma. Second time around it’s not so emotional and experience let’s you know they are still going to be the wonderful person you’d hoped they would become.

  2. That’s wonderful to hear that perspective, Louise. What a hopeful message for parents to hear. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Thank you for visiting the site and for your kind comment, Kelly. I’m glad to hear that you find it relatable.

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