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Talking About Tantrums

The Big Bad: What is a Tantrum?

Ahh…tantrums. Every parent is familiar with them and wants to avoid them. These episodes of emotionality come in all shapes and sizes ranging from stubbornness and whining to kicking, screaming, and throwing things. Every child puts their own flair on broadcasting their feelings. WHY kids engage in tantrums often varies; however, there are some common reasons. Several reasons include 1) feelings of overwhelm, 2) an attempt to establish boundaries, and 3) a loss of a sense of control. A child might feel physical or emotional discomfort that drives them beyond their capacity. Additionally, a child might have established their own set of rules for a situation and are attempting to enforce their beliefs. Finally, a kid may feel such a complete loss of control that they are expressing their emotional distress or are seeking to avoid further discomfort.

The Before: How to Prevent a Tantrum

So what can you do to prevent such events from occurring? You can ensure a child’s body is regulated by:

  • Sleep: it’s hard to harness coping strategies when fatigued

  • Nourishment: like most adults, children get cranky when they are hungry or have low blood sugar

  • Excess energy: excessive energy in a tiny body can be very overwhelming.

  • Feelings of safety: when any living thing feels uncomfortable or unsafe, they react. For children, this can mean a tantrum in an effort to get your attention or avoid their distress

In addition to these physical needs, you can also ensure that their emotional needs are being met. A few ways we can do so are by:

  • Preparing them for transitions about 10 minutes ahead of time: this allows them to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for what is about to happen, setting them up for success as you transition to a new activity.

  • Acknowledging and validating their feelings: feeling seen and heard can let your child know that they are not alone and that they have you on their team.

  • Pre-establishing boundaries in a calm, clear, and firm way: without knowing the rules, children may resort to making assumptions. By outlining what is and isn’t acceptable ahead of time, they can then make better decisions and power struggles can be avoided.

  • Allowing them to make mistakes while reassuring them they are a good person and can try again: making mistakes encourages confidence and fosters a sense of competence which can help them become more resilient and less emotionally reactive.

Helping: What To Do During a Tantrum

Tantrums are enjoyable for neither the child nor the parent. It takes a physical and emotional toll on both parties, especially if it takes place in public or is lengthy. Once a tantrum begins, there are several ways that parents can respond:

  • Stay calm: this is a tough one, but losing your cool is likely to cause your child to further escalate. Lecturing, raising your voice to startle them, or threatening them with dire consequences is unlikely to be helpful.

  • Provide space, but avoid triggering feelings of rejection or abandonment: remain in the area, but provide them with the space they need to express themselves. Sometimes staying “front and center” can contribute to feelings of self-consciousness or provide an audience for their excessive emotion.

  • Provide clear choices of what they may do during that moment and what they may not do in a calm, clear, and firm way: this is, once again, setting boundaries to ensure physical and emotional safety (you may need to repeat yourself a few times before they respond).

  • Try to meet their physical needs, if applicable: providing food, a quiet location, or privacy may help de-escalate the situation more quickly.

  • Keep them safe: remove them from a situation and any objects with which they could hurt themselves or someone else.

  • Remember that kids tantrum: it’s not personal. Your child is not trying to disrespect you or make your life difficult. They’re simply struggling to regulate themselves.

  • Be truthful: don’t appease them with untrue statements, as it has potential to erode trust.

The Aftermath: What to Do After a Tantrum

The tantrum is over. Now what do you do? This is the time to review what happened from start to finish and make a plan of how to address a similar situation in the future.

  • Provide praise for the effort they used to calm down: providing this positive attention will reinforce the de-escalation process and support them in moving onto the next activity.

  • Teach the lesson: now is the time to discuss what happened and make suggestions about how they can more appropriately meet their needs next time.

  • Talk about the feelings they exhibited: labeling feelings can help them understand, be more aware, and communicate better in the future.

  • Make a plan for next time: plan with your child what they can do next time if confronted with the same situation.

  • Set a good example: when you get frustrated, show them how to name their feelings and model healthy coping skills.

For more information on tantrums and how to encourage better behavior for your kids, check out this wonderful resource by Dr. Tara Egan, my colleague here at Egan Counseling & Consulting:

by Madison Gabriel, MS, LCMHCA, NCC

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