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How To Deal With a Tantrum Without Having One Yourself

One of my own biggest personal parenting challenges is responding to my child when she’s having a tantrum.  I am sure that this is a challenge shared by all parents, and I have witnessed my friends and fellow parents struggling with this in restaurants, at playdates and on the playground.  My child throwing a tantrum can push all my buttons at once and I become overwhelmed by a feeling that I must DO SOMETHING!  MAKE IT STOP!

But what can a parent do to control a child who is mid-tantrum?  Shout?  Threaten?  Offer sweets and other treats to placate them?  Wave a magic wand that will make the child invisible and silent?  I’ll admit to trying most of these, but even when they do work, they’re all just quick fixes.

In my clearest, calmest parenting moments I’ve found that the most effective way of dealing with a tantrum involves empathetic listening, avoiding judgment, staying present with my child and offering calm support while holding firm to whatever limits I’ve set.  Some people call this “staylistening,” if you add in a bit of echoing back the child’s feelings you might call it “toddler-ese” or “non-violent communication”.  But whatever you call it, to the bystander in the checkout line it usually looks like you’re not doing much at all.  Disregard the bystanders and concentrate on yourself and your child – these parenting tools may appear subtle, but they take some concentration and they really do work in the long run.

How to Deal With a Tantrum Without Having One Yourself

1. Stay Calm.  Nobody will benefit if you lose your cool.  In Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Naomi Aldort recommends pausing for a moment to say what you’re about to say to your child aloud in your head first, as if you are reading the words off a computer screen.  If you’re upset, saying the first thing that comes to mind isn’t likely to be empathetic or helpful.  Ask yourself if you’d feel good about yourself if you said these words to your child.  If the answer is no, stay silent and just listen.  This is often the most difficult part of dealing with a tantrum, but also the most important.  Imagine yourself doing yoga or tai chi – this is the same kind of detached yet observant mindset you want to cultivate when dealing with a child’s tantrum.

2. Listen, Listen, Listen.  Really listen, don’t just hear all the noise and fuss.  Identify your child’s emotions, and reflect them back to him.  “It looks like you’re really angry that we have to leave the park now,” “I see you’re upset because there is no milk left,” “You wanted the blue truck.”  This practice will help you stay emotionally present for your child and will show your child that you understand how he feels (and if you have gotten it wrong, it will give him a chance to correct you).  Identifying emotions also helps children learn the words associated with their feelings, giving them the tools to communicate better in the future.

3. Look Beneath the Surface.  Tantrums almost always have their roots much deeper than the surface incident that sets them off.  A child who throws a tantrum after an extended lunch at a busy restaurant probably isn’t truly angry about leaving, but is more likely to be overtired, might not have eaten enough food and could have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.  Identifying the need that has triggered the tantrum involves a bit of parental detective work, but it is well worth it.  Knowing your child’s tantrum triggers will allow you to plan your day to avoid them where possible and will help you see tantrums as your child’s way of saying, “I need help here, I’m not getting what I need!”

4. Hold Your Limits Firm.  If your child is having a tantrum because you said “no ice cream,” don’t change your mind and offer the ice cream so that she will stop shouting.  Parents do need to be flexible about rules and limits sometimes, but not mid-tantrum.

5. Be There For Your Child.  Staying with your child and keeping him safe instead of sending him to time out sends a message that your presence and love is unconditional.  If the time and place is not suitable for waiting out the tantrum, remove yourself AND your child and wait somewhere else.  When everyone has calmed down, consider planning more special one-on-one time with your child.  It can be hard to want to spend time with a child when frequent tantrums are a problem, but filling up your child’s needs for attention in a positive, fun way can help prevent tantrums from happening in the first place.  Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen is a great resource on the benefits of play and Special Time for parents and kids.

Tantrums are one of parenting’s great challenges, but your approach and attitude can make a big difference.  Remember that it is not a parent’s job to control a child’s emotions, and it wouldn’t be healthy for them if we could.  Discipline is about teaching, not punishment and control, so focus on teaching your child how to identify and gain control over her emotions.  Show her that you care and that you think she’s important by spending time together in a positive way when the tantrum is past.

Nobody is a perfect parent.  I know I lose my temper now and then, especially when I’m feeling overtired, under-appreciated, hungry or frustrated.  Learning how to deal with tantrums in an emotionally attached, caring way is a slow, gradual process.  Next time your child throws down a stinker of a tantrum, try to do one thing a little better than you usually would.  And the next time, and the next.  Notice how you feel when you respond to your child in a calm, empathetic way instead of losing your patience.  Dealing with tantrums can be incredibly difficult, but responding to one in a positive way feels pretty darn good.

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  • Lauren @ Hobo Mama March 9, 2010, 4:29 pm

    Love this post! I feel like I had all these tools scattered around from having read all those books myself, but you’ve brought them together concisely and made it clear to me. I feel like I have something I can really take away and practice — probably tonight! Wait, am I looking forward to a tantrum?

    • michelle March 10, 2010, 6:36 am

      Thanks! I had to write this post twice as I accidentally zapped it from WordPress the first time. I sure wanted to have a tantrum then! On the bright side, I think it came out better the second time. I guess practice really does make things better – with defusing tantrums and using word processors… :)

  • Satri Joy March 13, 2010, 8:40 pm

    Great post! This is great advice to remember. What about a 10 month old child that is having a tantrum when you take dangerous object away (nope, distraction and subsitution did not work) or something else similar. What do you do before they can speak or understand?

    • michelle March 13, 2010, 9:36 pm

      All these steps can be used for pre-verbal babies too! Just because a 10mo doesn’t seem to understand what you say yet doesn’t mean that it’s too early to start identifying her feelings and echoing them back. Doing this from the start can help reduce tantrums later as she learns to identify the feeling with the word and will eventually be able to tell you, “I’m frustrated,” instead of collapsing into a tantrum. Stay calm, listen & echo back feelings, look for a cause & stay with your child.

      Tears of frustration and tantrums are totally normal and healthy for toddlers and active babies. Little ones who are just figuring out that they are independent and can influence the world want to try everything and really aren’t capable of much just yet – that is a frustrating situation to be in! In Hold on to Your Kids, Dr Neufeld talks about “the tears of futility” and how they prime the brain for learning. Those tears and tantrums are actually helping your child learn and adapt! The best you can do is keep your child safe, offer comfort and wait for the tears to pass.

  • kelly @kellynaturally March 3, 2012, 10:16 am

    Great post!

    “If the time and place is not suitable for waiting out the tantrum, remove yourself AND your child and wait somewhere else.”

    The most difficult, I’ve found, with two children, is when one – particularly if it is the older child – is having a tantrum, and is physically expressing themselves (not just yelling, but say, thrashing about), the younger one wants to be nearby, or, needs to be nearby (if younger is a baby/toddler), but it’s not safe – lest the older child hurts the younger one – even accidentally. Children aren’t themselves when they are tantruming; they are just deep in the midst of expressing emotions they don’t fully understand.

    It’s a challenge to physically be there – unconditionally – for the tantruming child while trying to keep the younger child safe. Physically moving an older child isn’t always possible, and I don’t like the idea of forcing a child to move – it can be violent, and at the least, coercive. Not to mention when you have a younger one, impossible to move both children at once.

    I do wish there was a magic wand to wave sometimes.

    • michelle March 7, 2012, 7:17 am

      If there’s some danger of a younger baby or toddler being hurt by an older child’s tantrum, I’d remove the older child to a safer place whether it felt coercive or not. To me, the end result (forcing a child to be alone in their room while they calm down) is better than the possible alternative (an older child hurting a younger in the course of a tantrum). And, you know, as my eldest has grown I’ve found that sometimes she really doesn’t want me to be there while she’s calming down from a tantrum. I do always go to her after she is calm and talk through what happened, but I am no longer physically present beside her every time she works through all those emotions like I was when she was younger. She’s 5 1/2 now.