10 Tips to Tame a Tantrum

My son agreed to pretend to have a tantrum because I needed a photo :)
My son agreed to pretend to have a tantrum because I needed a photo.

“Tantrums” are normal reactions from kids that almost every parent deals with at some point.  They can be frustrating and scary for us, particularly if we do not have the tools to guide our children through them in a healthy way.  Understanding where they come from can be endlessly helpful.  Tantrums are urgent, overwhelming panic responses in a child’s brain.

The valuable and insightful book The Science of Parenting: How today’s brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children by Margot Sunderland states, “A distress tantrum means that one or more of the three alarm systems (rage, fear and/or separation) in your child’s lower brain has been very strongly activated. As a result, your child’s arousal system will be way out of balance, with too-high levels of stress chemicals searing through his body and brain.  Distress tantrums happen because essential brain pathways between a child’s higher brain and his lower brain haven’t developed yet. These brain pathways are necessary to enable a child to manage his big feelings. As a parent, your role is to soothe your child while he experiences the huge hormonal storms in his brain and body.” [1]

Remembering that this is a biological response can help parents approach the situation with compassion rather than frustration.  I wanted to title this “10 Tips to Tame a Tantrum” because it’s catchy, but I recognize that it could potentially seem dismissive of what a child is going through.  The aim is not quite to “tame” them, but rather gently guide them through their feelings.  Reading tips like this on a regular basis helps me be the parent I want to be!

  1. Empathize, empathize, empathize.  Children are still learning emotional regulation and impulse control.  They have tantrums the same way adults might feel emotionally overwhelmed after a very long, trying day.  Comfort them the way you’d want to be comforted when your emotions feel out of control.
  2. Avoid the panic response.  It can be intense and embarrassing to deal with tantrums, especially in public with many watchful, judgmental eyes.  But panicking can provoke an urge to control and shame our kids, rather than empathize with them.  Ignore the outside world and focus on the best way to comfort your child.
  3. Remember to breathe.  Place your hand on your heart, take a deep breath, and take a moment to center yourself.  This will help calm yourself and your child.  Do this before you react.
  4. Make eye contact.  Get down on your child’s level.  Children have such a hard time absorbing information when we talk over them instead of talking to them.  Making eye contact can reconnect you with your child, calming them and making cooperation more likely.
  5. Show affection.  If your child consents to being touched or held at that time, hug them, rub their back, pick them up.  Physical comfort can have a calming effect on you both.
  6. Offer a snack.  The difference in kids’ behavior when they are content and when they are hungry can be tremendous.  Keep healthy snacks handy, especially when you’re going to be out of the house for a while.  Apple slices, nut and dried fruit bars, carrot sticks, homemade crackers, bananas, etc. are great choices.
  7. Get some rest.  Go lay down with your child for a bit.  Snuggle and take a nap if possible.  Being overtired greatly intensifies emotional reactions, in both children and adults.
  8. Water!  Offer a drink of water and give your child a bath.  Simply changing the environment can help calm kids when they are in the throws of heightened emotions.  
  9. Go outside.  Fresh air works wonders.  Being in nature can be therapeutic for children and adults alike.  Sometimes kids just have extra energy they need to burn off, and being cooped up indoors can overwhelm them.
  10. Use fun/whimsy/distraction.  Distraction can be a negative way to brush off a child’s feelings, but sometimes it is the best way to help them regulate themselves.  Tell a magical story, discuss their favorite new subject, sing a funny song, act silly, do jumping jacks, etc.
Not a tantrum, but an adorable little pout!
Not a tantrum, but an adorable little pout!

1. The Science of Parenting: How today’s brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children. Sunderland, M.

18 thoughts on “10 Tips to Tame a Tantrum

  1. thanks for this! my 20-month old has angry tantrums where he only calms down if i leave him alone to cry it out. if i get near him or try to console him he gets even angrier and sometimes tries to hurt himself. so i let him just scream on the floor. is that normal? would love to hug him, but he doesn’t seem to want me :(

  2. I usually stopped my kids tantrums by critiquing them. “No, not convincing. Try lying down and pounding your hands on the floor and kicking your feet. Not enough volume. Oh, excuse me, I’ll be back, hold that thought. Have you considered your audience? What is it you are trying to communicate?” That usually convinced them that trying to impress me with the depth of their feeling was not going to change my mind about whatever bothered them.

    1. Wow, that approach is completely sarcastic, dismissive, and rude. I hope they don’t internalize those sorts of words to use in future relationships with friends and spouses.

      1. I think tantrums should be handled differently for different kids at different ages, and sometimes dismissing them is the best thing an exhausted mom can do with herself. But I agree that sarcasm is invalidating and implies the child is manipulative, which is a hostile behavior and just not a motherly way to be, even if the child IS manipulating, there are better ways of addressing it.

  3. My favorite to use for my 8 year old niece and 3 year old niece is to tell them “Go cry in the next room and come back out when your done..Got it?”
    No kid likes being told to go cry in another room by there auntie, or anyone. Usually gets them to stop! :)

    1. That sounds more like emotional manipulation than tending to a child’s needs. The goal isn’t just to get them to stop crying. If an 8-year-old is still having tantrums, that might be why.

  4. Why do you have to criticize everybody else’s techniques when they don’t line up with what is best for YOUR family? You’re correct, not everybody has the tools to appropriately deal with tantrums, but I am not offering my children a snack when they are throwing fits (like they both did after dinner tonight). My children had to go to bed early because they thought they should scream and fight with each other all night (normal sibling rivalry), but they made their choices and had to accept the consequences…

    1. Why do people have to get all offended and defensive when someone doesn’t agree with them? Some people have specific parenting beliefs, which we obviously do on this blog. It shouldn’t be surprising when we disagree with techniques that are emotionally manipulative or refusing to acknowledge a child’s needs. If you are 100% confident in your choices then it shouldn’t matter if we are critical or not.

      1. That’s not quite the problem. I guess my problem is that you preach this very peaceful, accepting way of parenting (which is great if it works for you), but I’ve seen some of the people (writers and readers) get really nasty with people that disagree. I suppose I have a problem with people who only practice what they preach when it suits them…anyway, good luck and baby ash…

      2. I didn’t think my comment was “nasty” at all, so I’m not sure where your accusation is coming from. We advocate for evidence-based peaceful parenting, but I personally have a tendency to be blunt online. I don’t sugar-coat much because I figure we are all adults and can handle the truth. For instance, Elizabeth’s comment DOES sound a lot like emotional manipulation (shunning a child to another room in order to get them to stop crying). People today are already wayyy too emotionally stifled. Why would I not leave an honest response to her comment, which, to me, is an unhealthy response to a child in need? Our goal is not to pat every possible parenting choice on the back (we really don’t “preach” an “accepting way of parenting”); we have a specific goal of advocating for attachment parenting. I honestly think some people are just uncomfortable with disagreement, because I said nothing wrong; merely disagreed with her. Yet I am being accused of preaching and being nasty. Do you think your own comments are preachy and nasty too, or are you only judging mine?

      3. Kristen I think this is a great article!I am saddened by those who take offense to it or insist on practicing ways of parenting that just re-enforce tantrums. I think the snack thing is a great idea by the way! Children are having tantrums because of the way parents are reacting to the behavior! It’s just a vicious cycle. I really look up to you guys or else I would have had no idea what I was doing when my son was born almost 6 months ago! Thank you for a great page/Facebook page. =)

  5. My 3.5-year-old has frequent temper tantrums, especially when he is recovering from an illness. And after trying various methods to pacify him, I have discovered that what works best is if I just let him be while he is crying and calmly tell him that once he is done crying, he could tell me what is bothering him and I will take care of him. He usually calms down in under 5 mins and then I explain to him that when he is wailing, I don’t understand what he wants. I usually demonstrate it to him by trying to tell him something while I wail…. this makes him laugh and then I ask him if he understood what I was telling him. He says no and then tells me whatever is bothering him. If he is demanding something unreasonable, I usually weave a story around it and tell him Bubbles (his fave story character) had a similar situation and how when his mother explained to him, he understood and then stopped crying. Then I tell him but he knows better than Bubbles that he should not demand such things, to which he usually agrees and even joins me in saying Bubbles was being so silly… :)

  6. Kristen, I’m a mother and foster mother from England. Most of the littlies and teens I’ve looked after have some element of attachment disorder. Your tantrum tips are spot on. I respect what you are sharing and it’s adding to my own learning and sharing in turn. Well done, keep it up!

  7. This is why I love to educate myself in ALL aspects and read everything I can. I want to be the best mother I can to my daughter and so be it if people are to emotional or call me names or don’t agree with my parenting style of a natural, AP, full term nurser, gentle parenting approach. I know that I am doing what is best for my daughter. I can’t thank you enought for putting this blog, page -FB-, information out there. I love MotherWise!! -Motherwisey mommy Bella :)

  8. Great article! Wish I had this info 13 years ago with my son. I have seen this method in action and I learn everyday another way to rephrase a response to another persons reaction. This helps not only with children but also with my partner and co workers. Thank you

  9. I have to remember the eye contact thing, i havent tried that yet! when it happens in public I do freak out, blood pressure rises,adrenaline starts going, ppl give me nasty glares and I start telling ppl to fuck off ( totally wrong I know, but its more strangers giving me the discust look thats makes me more mad than the ‘tantrum’ itself) My girl is sooo sweet and happy and a total free spirit, so when she cant do something like climb the ladders at home depot, she freaks out!!! At home Im good about being totally calm but in public ooooh man!!! I’ve even felt like I wanted to ‘hit’ her omg!! I never want to feel like that!! Uh anyway that felt good to let this out! thanks for the tips, I needed them!!!

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