How To Deal With Temper Tantrums: Effective Gentle Parenting Advice
Inspired by a thread that came up in a parents’ forum the other day about how to deal with their child’s tantrums, I thought I’d let you know the 8 simple steps we take that takes us from tantrum to chilled-out in no time.
I’ve also included specific sections at the end for how to manage your child’s tantrums at every age, and the different reasons they occur. At the bottom of the post is advice for if your 4, 5, 6 or 7 year old is throwing a tantrum- and even 10 year old tantrums can be handled without power struggles, so I’ve added a section for older children’s tantrums too!
How To Deal With Tantrums
The most effective way to deal with tantrums is to learn about them first- why they happen, causes, and of course the best way to deal with and reduce them. So, let’s get into it!
What is a tantrum?
As most parents use the word, a tantrum is a big expression of strong emotions, usually by young children, that is inconvenient for the person looking after the child because of the volume, words or physical outworking of the expression. It’s important to remember that we as adults get triggered by tantrums, so we can look after ourselves as well as our kids.
Example of a child’s behavior during a tantrum include yelling, screaming, crying, breath holding, throwing themselves on the floor and physically lashing out. Ways to identify parents of a tantrum-ing child include a hopeless expression, disheveled hair and the letters ‘S.O.S’ spelled out in Alphabetti on the supermarket floor.
The reasons children have tantrums include to get what they want; for attention or connection from the parent, or because they simply don’t know what else to do to express their frustrated inside voice. They are a learned response, so responding appropriately is essential to ensuring that you don’t end up with your child having severe tantrums or frequent tantrums.
Why do we call it a ‘tantrum’?
I find it helpful to think about the ways we describe our kids’ actions to see if they have an implicit tone of disrespect or de-valuing the motives behind the actions. If I was out with a friend and they got upset about something, and I described it to someone else and said they “threw a tantrum”, it would imply that they were overreacting.
This isn’t a great way to get a good reaction or encourage good behavior! Essentially, it’s a state of a child being in emotional dysregulation, overwhelmed by stress hormones and unable to find the best way to express big emotions.
You’re absolutely not a bad parent if you’re experience typical toddler tantrums or even if your older kids are testing you!
Causes of temper tantrums
It may help your to know that your child’s tantrums are normal behavior- ask any child psychologist (the Child Mind Institute and American Academy of Pediatrics both confirm that they are a typical part of growing up). Any child’s behavior is communication; these emotional outbursts are a way of your child communicating that they are overwhelmed.
Thinking about how we respond to our adult friends, when we try and communicate to a child that they ‘shouldn’t’ be having a tantrum we are making a judgement that their reaction is invalid, and that they shouldn’t be having these strong feelings.
From an adult perspective it might be disproportionate, but that is because as adults we have the experience to see practical ways around our predicament and to deal with difficult emotions. We also have the freedom and autonomy to implement them.
If we are having a hard time we can create our own safe place to process these, and even access professional help if we need it. Children often don’t have this ability to control their own lives.
Kids are at the complete mercy of adults, so a tantrum is often a valid panicking reaction that someone is going to prevent them from doing or getting what it is that they feel is important to them. Other causes of temper tantrums include being hungry, angry, lonely or tired (think H.A.L.T)!
The ‘small things’ are actually about bigger emotions
There are lots of popular articles and memes talking about the situation of a child being given the ‘wrong colour cup’. The conventional advice is to be ‘firm’ (alternatively read: ‘stubborn’, ‘inflexible’) and refuse to change the colour cup.
This is supposedly to ‘teach’ the child that they cannot have what they want and to condition them to accept parents’ decisions without an inconvenient emotional expression.
Although this is a short-term idea that may work in the moment (superficial behavior modification), it won’t increase your child’s emotional intelligence, or equip them with appropriate ways to manage intense feelings.
It may ‘work’ to stop children communicating their preferences. But is that really what we want? Long term, is our aim to get a child who acts in a convenient way for us, or are we striving towards a relationship based on mutual respect and trust- leading, often, to calmer behaviour?
A child who isn’t expressing their desires and emotions to their parents isn’t feeling them any less- they will just be hoarding them, or taking them out on something else.
Let’s take that ‘cup’ situation- the child has come home from nursery, is having their dinner and has been given water instead of juice and given it in a cup they don’t like.
Rewind and zoom out. Let’s pretend you’ve just got home from work – your colleague was a pain, you got interrupted a million times and your boss didn’t like the work you did.
Your partner asks if you want a drink; you say yes please.
You’re looking forward to unwinding with a cup of that special Chai tea that you got for Christmas, in your favourite mug. It’s the fine bone china, it’s the perfect size and it has the pretty pattern with the cherry blossom and hummingbirds on. It helps you relax.
Your partner comes in with a glass of water. You ask for the tea; he says no, you’ve had enough Chai for one day- water is better for you. And it’s a cup, what difference does it make whether it’s your favourite mug or a glass?
Of course it makes a difference. It’s emotional, it’s irrational, it doesn’t make sense and yet we all know it’s true.
Comfort is not tangible but it is something that we all need- which is why I will take the time to ask for my kids’ preferences, as trivial as they may seem, and try to fulfil them within reason. I also mod
Comfort often comes in the form of familiarity,, so having that exact same cup/ ice cream and sprinkles on separate plates/ hair bow fastened in THAT EXACT WAY is really much more than what it seems- it’s a child doing a great job of trying to protect their mental health, by seeking comfort among the unfamiliar and regaining a sense of control.
Wouldn’t then, a more kind and appropriate response to a child who is having a meltdown over the wrong cup, be to get them a different cup?
Encouraging Positive Behaviors
Children won’t at ask for something in a ‘nice’ way if they’re in the middle of a tantrum. Emotionally they are spent, and they are probably thinking of all the other times that they’ve been refused something they really wanted, just because an adult decided they couldn’t have it.
All these emotions and thoughts together create a HUGE reaction, which looks disproportionate but is actually an accumulative reaction to a chain of events, taken out on this one ‘cup’ issue.
What I’ve found helpful is to ‘meet the need’ first, and then to get on the child’s level and have a chat about the best strategy for handling their own frustration through acceptable behavior- I’ll go into this more in the ‘8 steps to fewer tantrums’ below!
When thinking about how to deal with tantrums I find it helpful to remember that I sometimes often behave in ways that aren’t ideal. In fact, if my life consisted of being on someone else’s schedule, like most kids’ lives are, I think I would handle it with considerably less grace than they do. I’m not perfect, so why would I expect them to be?
So what’s the practical answer on ‘how to deal with temper tantrums’?
How to deal with temper tantrums
1. Prevent tantrums
It’s much easier to deal with the red flags that an before they happen than have them sneak up on you.
I don’t generally think about doing things “to avoid tantrums”, as I think this is a negative and fearful way to look at things (although if you’re in a lots-of-tantrums phase then flipping heck, I feel you, it’s like walking on egg shells with eggs made of crushed glass and pure fire).
I just try and think ahead as to what might be a cause of misery for them (four hours in a visa office with no WiFi – check) and try to put as many things in place to make the experience better for them. (Dolls, check, pick up sticks, check, sweets, check, promise of the beach after, check).
It doesn’t always work, but I find the kids are much happier to listen to me and are much more able to deal with crappy situations when they know I’ve done everything I can to make life nice for them.
2. Create a safe environment for them to express their emotions.
If you haven’t been able to meet your child’s needs and you can see that a meltdown is unavoidable, move somewhere where you as a parent are going to feel more comfortable dealing with it, and to give your child some privacy.
Kids need dignity just as much as we do, and tantrums can sometimes spiral because the child is embarrassed about their own behavior in a public place.
When considering ‘how to deal with temper tantrums’, the lobby of a five-star hotel, visa office or a fine-dining restaurant are probably not ideal places that come to mind. A quiet place like the corner of a park, or a bathroom, or an empty aisle in the supermarket are better.
Try to eliminate any extra stimulus for both yourself and the child- people coming up and cooing is well-intentioned but unhelpful, and people staring disapprovingly isn’t going to help anyone either.
3. Take a moment to stay calm.
So- tantrums are a-go. Repeat after me. This is not a failure, or a big deal. It’s an expression. It’s communication. It’s annoying. It will pass.
Take a moment to reduce your energy levels- taking some deep breaths while counting to 10 is a good idea as a first step- before dealing with your child.
It is much more helpful to come into the situation ‘under’ your child’s energy level rather than matching it and bringing more ‘flame’ to the fire.
4. Use active listening to communicate with the child.
Active listening can be very helpful; it shows your child you are there for them, without feeding into a ‘negative attention’ loop. If your child tells you why they’re mad, repeat the exact words back to them to show them that you understand their pain.
“Oh you’re angry because you wanted to eat that ice cream now, I see.” When we know what someone else is thinking and feeling, we are in a much better place to help them.
5. Think about causes of tantrums
Has their day/week/month/year been tough to deal with? Have there been small disagreements or changes that go unnoticed by us as adults but could be a big deal to kids?
I’ve seen parents, mid-September, post about how they can’t possibly understand why their previously-angelic child who has just started school is having meltdowns, because ‘nothing else has changed, they like school, etc’.
Change, in itself, is stressful. On the Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale, getting married is up there along with ‘death of a spouse’ and ‘divorce’ (and more stressful than ‘being fired at work’!).
Any change is stressful, even if it is ‘good’ change. If there’s been a ‘good’ change recently, try not to get into a ‘you-should’ mentality (you ‘should’ be happy, we’re on holiday; you ‘should’ want to play with your friends, you ‘should’ be enjoying yourself).
6. Empathise and validate.
Let them know that you are there for them, and that their feelings are OK. I find phrases like “man this IS difficult isn’t it”, or “that really is frustrating” or “I’d be so mad too if that happened to me!’ helpful.
Depending on how your child processes (physically, verbally, aurally or visually) something like “I see/hear/feel you, this is a tough time huh?” might help too.
Often parents are worried that empathising and validating the child’s emotions will somehow make the feelings stronger- but think about this:
When you’re upset- say you lost your phone- isn’t it so much better if your partner says “oh that sucks, I’m sorry! Do you want a hug? I’ll help you look for it” than “why are you acting like that? It will turn up or you can get another one”. Having someone empathise with you doesn’t make the worse, it helps you process more effectively.
I love the tunnel analogy– the reaction train is headed through the difficult-feelings tunnel, and you can get on board and help steer it safely, or you can block it, or you can pretend there’s a quick emergency-exit when there really isn’t. Either way, the train’s going!
7. Comfort your child
This is sometimes the very opposite of what we want to do; sitting with a screaming child is unpleasant, and we are hard-wired to want to do whatever it takes to stop the tantrum. We are also taught to punish children – but read about alternatives to punishment as it doesn’t work effectively long-term.
It may be best to sit at a safe distance and say nothing if the child doesn’t calm down when you try and comfort them, or if you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes they need to get to the end of their tantrum by themselves, and sometimes the best we can do as parents is to choose silence over yelling- and that is a good choice!
Comforting the child with cuddles, reassurance or however they receive love (check out my post on how I’ve found Love Languages super-helpful) helps to bring things back to calm. Sometimes making a funny face when the child is at the tail-end can bring levity to the situation- laughter gives you both a boost of much-needed endorphins!
If you need to move your child for safety reasons, let them know why you’re doing it. “We need to move away because I need to keep you and other people safe, and we’re not allowed to break things in the store.”
8. Discuss strategies for avoiding tantrums next time
Although there’s no real ‘correct’ behaviour for a toddler or child, sometimes it is helpful to redirect their behaviour to more positive action. Once they are totally calm (and preferably a bit later, when they’re not emotional), try to suggest- or even better, ask them- what they could do next time to communicate without losing control.
Have a code word, which your child can use when they feel like they’re about to lose it or when they feel something is very important to them, and have this as your cue to listen and respond (it may take a while for them to get how to use it!)
Sensory toys for children can also be brilliant at helping your child self-regulate. My autistic daughter finds them very helpful, and they are great for neurotypical children too. Check out my post on the best sensory toys and give your child something to calm themselves before they see red.
How to deal with temper tantrums: (When all else fails)
Oh, sheesh, I’ve been here before. Completely overwhelmed physically and emotionally and cursing the free-loving hippies who bleat about peaceful parenting. Time to cry and swig from a hip flask? Get your kid to swig from a hip flask? (NO, DON’T, obviously I was joking).
Seriously though, sometimes the best we can do is stare into the middle distance as we wait out our kids’ tantrum, and bite our tongue and not shame them for their meltdowns. Saying nothing is better than saying something you’ll regret- sometimes that is the ‘win’.
If you can possibly get some space, get your partner or friend to give you time to yourself; you’ll be in a much better place to deal with things the next time you can’t find the lid to the coveted orange sippy cup.
Age Specific Advice For Dealing With Tantrums
4 Year Old Tantrums and Hitting
4 year olds are in a very specific stage of development in the Limbic system in their brain. The Limbic system is essentially the connection between very basic, primal urges and our higher functioning. 4 year olds are finding their feet in between the world of ‘toddler’ and ‘child’ – they can do lots for themselves, but are coping with rapid change within their brain as well as in their world.
The quick changes in this area of the brain at 4 years old mean that it is difficult for little ones to ‘keep up’ with how they’re feeling- this can result in meltdowns over seemingly nothing. Increased gross motor skills combined with their primal urges mean that tantrums may involve hitting.
The best way to deal with 4 year old tantrums and hitting is to ensure your little one is getting plenty of rest, and to keep a consistent and predictable routine. This will reduce overall stress and reduce your 4 year old’s tantrums.
If you do experience tantrums with hitting, keep yourself safe while explaining your actions in a simple way: “I’d like to give you a hug; right now I have to be over here to keep myself safe. When you’re done hitting, we can cuddle.”
5 Year Old Tantrums and Hitting
5 year olds may still be going through rapid changes in the Limbic system, as these can last up to a year. Combined with this, most 5 year olds start school, which is a huge life change.
As I mentioned above, even if they love school, change is a stressor and takes a lot of emotional and physical energy to deal with. To help avoid 5 year old tantrums and hitting, ensure that any needs that are not met in the school environment are met with you.
For example, if your child struggles with sitting at a desk, let them have time to run or bounce and get that dynamic energy out after school. If your child finds the busy-ness of a classroom overwhelming, have a quiet, calm space ready for them to chill out at home, and avoid too many extra activities after school.
If your 5 year old is having tantrums, do speak with their teacher about anything they have noticed that may be triggering your child- it’s always good to have a second pair of eyes to help pinpoint anything that could help your little one and avoid tantrums.
6 Year Old Tantrums
At age 6, children are often going through another change- the transition from a play-based environment at school to a more formal classroom setting. They are also more aware of behavioral expectations, and the embarrassment they may feel at not meeting these can make 6 year old tantrums worse.
Giving your 6 year old a balance of gentle responsibility (they may want to feel ‘grown up’) and plenty of room for childlike play is a great way to prevent them getting overwhelmed.
As they are more aware of behavioral expectations, positive reinforcement is also a good way to encourage calmer processing in your 6 year old. “I can see you worked really hard to stay calm then, that’s brilliant” is a way of communicating that you appreciate your child’s efforts to avoid a tantrum
7 Year Old Throwing Tantrums
Your 7 year old throwing tantrums can feel concerning, as tantrums are usually associated with toddlers and younger children. Your 7 year old may be copying a younger sibling, they may be overwhelmed with their daily routine, they may be having problems at school or they may have extra sensitivities.
If your 7 year old is having frequent, severe tantrums it may be worth exploring if they have sensory processing disorder or similar difficulties. In this case, normal day to day life can feel very stressful, but there are simple ways of helping reduce stress so your child is calmer.
If your 7 year old is throwing tantrums it may also be due to significant change- empathising with them and letting them know that their feelings are valid and normal is a good way to help them process emotions thoroughly.
10 Year Old Tantrums
Parents often don’t like to talk about this, but 10 year old tantrums are not uncommon. Those ‘tween’ years between child and teen are complicated- 10 year olds are often very capable, and aware that their more independent years are coming, but aren’t quite there yet. My 10 year old uses the Mindful Me Journal to express herself and work on calming herself and regulating her emotions.
Although it can be difficult, letting your 10 year old know that you respect them and giving them as much independence as possible can help with this transition period. 10 year old tantrums may feel more personal, as they are able to articulate more and may say things that can feel hurtful.
The less you can react to this the better- focus on being neutral, while helping your 10 year old regulate themselves. Taking a bath or shower, going outside or even having something cold (ice cream) can help with regulation.
Ensure that your 10 year old feels they can talk to you about the changes they are going through- puberty is just around the corner, and for some children will have started, and facilitating open and honest conversations is key. If your child doesn’t want to talk to you, having someone else (an aunt? a therapist?) can be helpful so they can express themselves in confidence.
Teen tantrums can take different forms- these may include yelling, breaking things or leaving the house. Natural consequences (they broke their phone so now they don’t have a phone to use, they were busy yelling so they missed their social date) are far more effective than arbitrary punishments.
Reducing any extra pressure on teens (they have a lot to deal with in terms of exams, friendship issues, hormones and more) will help them stay in an emotional state that they can deal with, with fewer tantrums.
Encouraging them to keep a journal, talk to a counsellor or therapist, and do feel-good activities such as team sports, voluntary work or yoga, is a good way to support your teen as they grow up.
How To Deal With Tantrums Conclusion
I really hope this post on ‘how to deal with tantrums’ was helpful to you. I don’t pretend to be a perfect parent for a second; I fail and need grace daily. I find being gentle and kind with my kids leads to a better life for everyone and we try to treat them as we like to be treated. Except for watching Spongebob- I don’t ever want to watch Spongebob.
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