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Friday, November 9, 2012

Tantrums: 3 steps to beat 'em, not join 'em!

I love answering my readers' questions. It's a long time since I wrote a post, given all that's happening in my life at the moment, but this morning Cari asked:

How do you handle tantrums?

And I can just imagine what she's going through. Anyone who's had a toddler knows what she's going through. So I'll put my Aunt Annie hat back on for a moment, to answer that question properly.

A tantrum isn't about one event, or one reaction. A tantrum is the result of a build-up of elements, and it's triggered by you setting a boundary.

I want to break those elements down to help show you how to reduce the number and severity of tantrums, because the fact is that you'll pull that trigger over and over again- you have to set limits and your child won't like it.

You won't ever eliminate tantrums completely- but you can make life better for both you and your child during this difficult phase.

1. Work on yourself

Step one is to be sure of your role in your child's life. With certainty comes confidence in your own reactions; with confidence comes the ability to relax while dealing with an out-of-control child.

And if you can relax and just deal with your child's emotions calmly, you are not adding emotional fuel to the fire. A child who senses that her tantrums make her mother or father tense, angry or fearful will feel even more insecure and unsafe in expressing her emotions.

So, what is your role? Find a mantra that you can say to yourself at times when emotions are frayed and the edges get fuzzy. Here's one I found useful as a mother:

My job as your parent is to ensure that you grow up to be a healthy, happy adult.

And I would follow this, in my head, with a logical statement about the cause of this particular battle of wills and the reason for the limit I'd set:

Healthy adults don't eat endless ice creams.


Happy adults don't hurt other people.

Being sure of what your role is and why your limit is a good one will help you to hold firm in the face of banshee-like screams, pinches or kicks and even horrid personal statements from your child. You are the parent; over there is the child. You have learned emotional control; your child is still learning. Your job is to maintain control of yourself, as an example to your child.

This is why spanking a child who's having a tantrum is a really pointless strategy. You haven't defined acceptable and unacceptable behaviour- you've behaved like a child yourself, and lashed out because your emotions are out of control. Don't join in the tantrum! Be calm! Serenity is the way to douse the emotional fire of a tantrum.

Speak gently. Touch gently. Breathe deeply to maintain your calm. If you feel yourself losing control, walk away and take some deep, slow breaths.

This sounds easy until it happens in a public place, of course, where you have the additional pressure of other people's judgement. HOLD FIRM. Make eye contact with people who are staring. They want to take part in your child's tantrum? Fine. Include them. Try to smile at them, and say loudly "I'm just taking some deep breaths here so I can deal with this without losing my cool."

2. Work on your child

Step two is giving your child better tools than tantrums to deal with their feelings. Children have tantrums because they don't know any other ways to express or release negative emotions. The sooner you teach them how to express emotions and how to release them, the sooner the tantrums will abate.

Apart from modelling good emotional control yourself in your day-to-day life, there are many things you can do to help your child with their emotions. Stories about anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness are great for creating talking points at bedtime or quiet times during the day; make sure that you're not only talking about the big feelings when they explode!

My favourite book for this is 'Annie's Chair', by Deborah Niland, in which Annie chucks a first rate tantrum because her dog won't get out of her special chair. Two-year-olds often love this book, though it's designed for older children.

It's good also to converse about things that make your child feel the big feelings, at a time when you're happily interacting.

"You looked sad when Daddy had to go to work this morning. I was a bit sad too, but I'll feel happy when he comes home tonight. Will you be happy when Daddy comes home?"

"I don't have any more of your favourite yoghurt. I bet you feel disappointed about that. Would you feel happier if we go to the shops after lunch to get some more?"

"You were a bit angry when your big brother grabbed your teddy out of the cot, weren't you? I saw that angry face!"

"It's frustrating when you can't get the piece to fit into the puzzle. I take some big breaths when I get frustrated."

Even very young children can learn to point to smiley faces that express the basic emotions. They can understand the words sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed long before they can say them, IF you use those words in context when you're talking with them. By talking about feelings from an early age, you supply your child with tools to express themselves. Believe me, it's far easier to hear a child scream "I'M ANGRY!" than it is to be hit or kicked!

Slightly older children can be taught anger management through breath control. Younger ones can be directed to stamp their feet or hit a pillow or soft toy when frustrated. Sometimes these more playful methods of defusing situations can become a big giggle-fest!

3. Work on your environment

Step three is make life easier for yourself by limiting your child's frustrations. Look around you. What are the precious, dangerous or fragile things in this room that really could be put away until your child is a little older? Is your pantry cupboard full of foods that you don't want your baby to eat? Why are you having to say 'no' so often? What can you change so you can say 'yes' more of the time? Can you set up a safe area for your child to play in, where everything is okay?

Look at your schedule. Are you expecting your child to have more emotional endurance than is age-appropriate? Are you expecting a toddler to wander around the shops with you for more than an hour, or to socialise with other children (or adults!) who are not compatible with them? Are you cramming too much into your own day so that you're tired and stressed, and it's rubbing off on your child?

Look at the amount of noise and movement in your child's world. Are you overstimulating them? Do you have loud music playing all day, or the TV on? Is there nowhere quiet for them to retreat to? Are you constantly putting them into and out of the car or changing their clothes? Are they getting enough sleep? Have you gone to the other extreme- are they just bored and looking for excitement? Have you given enough opportunities for natural play outdoors, instead of surrounding them with brightly coloured plastic toys and branded goods? (Nature play is MAGIC for de-stressing upset children.)

Allowing more quiet time and removing the triggers for those battles of will can only help to limit the number of meltdowns per day.


So much for the three steps. You've done all that, and STILL your child has a meltdown. (It happens. We've all been there.) What do you do?

First, simultaneously make sure nobody's getting hurt and validate the emotion. 

If your child is hurting someone or damaging something, set a limit. Hold his hands firmly but gently and say "I won't let you hit/kick/break things. It's okay to feel angry but it's not okay to hit/kick/break things."

If he's racing after someone to hurt them (yes, I've seen that!) it can be helpful to pick him up, sit down, lie him face down across your lap with his tummy on your thighs and hold him there, stroking or patting his back and talking gently to him. In that position it's hard for him to hit, kick or bite you, so you have a better chance of maintaining your own cool.

If she's writhing like an octopus and lashing out at anyone who comes close, get the message! Don't touch her! Sit down close by, but out of range. Talk calmly to her.

Here are some words you can use, gently, to an out-of-control child (whether you're holding them or not). They won't necessarily register everything you say, but the idea is to keep talking calmly and don't back them further into a corner.

"I can't understand your words when you scream/cry. Can you use your normal voice so I can hear what you want?"

(I've seen a two-year-old snap out of it instantly when I put my face down on the floor next to hers and said that.)

"I hear that you're very angry that I won't let you have a lolly. Is that right?" (wait for an answer, repeat if necessary)

"It's okay to be angry but I still won't let you have a lolly now, because you already cleaned your teeth and it's bedtime. It's my job as your mum to make sure your teeth are healthy. Lollies at bedtime make holes in your teeth."

Be patient. Wait.

For the writhing octopus on the floor, when you feel sure that you'll be heard over the screaming and crying, still don't touch them (as long as they're not damaging people or things) but say something like this:

"I'm right here and I'm keeping you safe till you feel better."

"I've got a big hug here for you when you're ready. Let me know when you want it."

So the secret formula here is give emotional support, but keep the boundary firm.

NEVER raise your voice or smack.

NEVER change your mind about the limit because of a tantrum.

I'll end this with a little story from when my son was two. I'd taken him to the supermarket after I finished work, because I thought I had to do a full shop every time in those days; it hadn't occurred to me that I could have grabbed the basics, given that my son was already grumpy and I was exhausted. I popped him in the seat of the shopping trolley and away we went.

By aisle three, he was screaming the place down. I had said 'no' so many times to so many outrageous 'I want' requests that I was at boiling point. People were staring. I was ready to spank, truly I was.

I froze. I stared at the horrible red screaming thing volleying abuse at my face. And then I turned and walked away into aisle four.

And aisle five.

Leaving the shopping trolley in aisle three.

(I could still hear him screaming from there.)

When I could breathe again, I came back. I picked him up out of the trolley, left all the shopping behind and went home.

Sometimes, when a child has a tantrum, that's the best you can do. Don't beat yourself up about it. Parenting is hard.


  1. I don't know how old your son is now, but leaving a child alone and going two aisles away these days is like an open invitation to any opportunistic paedo freak who happens to be near by... probably better to just stay with the child and take your deep breaths, then apologise to the kid "I'm sorry, I could see you weren't really in the mood for a long shopping trip when we came here - we're going now", pick him up and leave.

    1. Anon, I included that story to show that we ALL have parenting #FAILs over tantrums. Of course your idea is better!

      However I do honestly believe that it's better to walk away for a moment than to hit your child. (And it's a fact that our children are far, FAR more likely to come to harm at the hands of a relative, friend or other known adult than to be accosted by a paedophile in the street, though the media would have us believe otherwise.)

    2. Anon,
      of course we should never leave our children alone. But when a child is in a full blown tantrum I don't think anyone would take them away. And even if they did, the parent would hear their child move and do something about it. I've seen a stranger approach an upset child and jumped in to make sure all was ok. But an upset child and a tantruming child are two very different things.
      Wonderful article Aunt Annie. Thank you.

  2. This post is wonderful. Even though intellectually I KNOW I need to be doing all of these, and I always aim to, it's still helpful to see it all spelled out so clearly. I'm going to share it on my page. Hope you are doing well. Think of you often.

    1. Thank you so much, Momma. Reinforcement is a great thing in parenting, isn't it? I am doing fine- more surgery tomorrow, so your good wishes are well timed.

  3. I truly agree with everything in this post!! I try very hard to stay calm during tantrums but I do lose it sometimes. I feel awful about screaming at my daughter and feel at a loss about how I am to teach self control when I can't seem to always practice it myself. I have said some cruel things in the heat of the moment and feel so much guilt. I am able to be calm for many days and then one day I just snap! Anyone else? I am thinking I need counseling. Sorry for the rambling ... I am seeking help in any way I can.

    1. A big hug to you, because you sound like you need it. Have you read my post on being resilient as a parent?

      Apart from that, I would suggest that you need a physical go-to prop to turn to when you feel you're losing it. Can you carry one of those little stress balls with you in your handbag? When things are about to explode, try to program your mind to say 'STRESS BALL', walk away from your daughter (not two aisles away, preferably!! LOL) and squeeze it as hard as you can. Breathe deeply. Then find a positive mantra to say to yourself, like "I CAN do this. I CAN remain calm."

      It really sounds to me like you need some time just for you, to unwind. Counselling can be a wonderful way to release stress too. I wish you all the best, and be kind to yourself please- we ALL fail.

  4. I have sometimes just stopped talking and breathed for a few minutes during a tantrum, or even the build up to one. My son sees what I am doing and often copies. It sometimes helps.
    All this is great advice. Thank you.

    1. And THAT si a perfect example of how children learn through modelling. Great work, you!

  5. Thank you for your story and ideas. I have a six year old boy that hasn't stopped throwing temper tantrums. He has them constantly, every day, about every hour. He constantly wants things. He screams if he doesn't get his way. I try very hard to keep my voice down, acknowledge his feelings, explain over and over again. I have tried everything, from not explaining, then counting him, which would lead to time out to the opposite ie. explaining why he can't have what he wants. Nothing helps. But there comes a point when you just can't stay calm. There does come time, when I loose it with him. I'm only human and I am tolerant, but if its on everyday basis and it's something you've talked about millions of times, then the explosion in me just erupts. And yes, just like you I have walked away from my son and left him in a shop and went to another shop in our shopping center. It sounds crazy now that I see myself writting about it, but at that moment, I had no other option, or at least I was 100% sure there was nothing humanly possible to win with my son. I hit rock bottom and walked away, because I wanted to end the situation. My son would be happy if he could eat sweets all day, have a new toy every day. Go shopping and keep buying things. Where did that obsession come from?? I ask myself everyday. My 10yr old daughter is not like that and never was, she is the complete opposite. I have done lots of reflecting, because I have been searching for answers to this problem, is it wrong to buy presents only on birthdays and Christmas? In between these times, he gets maybe two new toys. Don't get me wrong, he has plenty of toys to play with, so he's not deprived at all. Maybe I should talk to a psychologist. What do you think? Or is there anyone out there who had a problematic, needy child and who eventually grew out of it, or the behaviour worsened?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Anon. This sounds incredibly frustrating for you, but clearly your son is frustrated too!

      A few ideas for you:

      First, get him away from bright colours, noise and clutter. He sounds extremely overstimulated. The answer to him wanting more is not to give in and add to the chaos, but to remove things until you have wide open spaces, natural colours and a few treasured toys. Take him outside A LOT and allow him to play with natural items; give him a shovel and let him dig in the garden, take him into the bush and let him play in water. Stop taking him to shopping centres for a while- do whatever it takes to avoid those brightly lit, highly overactive environments.

      Also, look for ways in which his emotional needs may not be being met. Are you spending plenty of positive time with him, one to one, just talking and listening and reading to him? Or is your life a whirlwind? Just as adults will sometimes meet their emotional needs in inappropriate ways (such as overeating and getting drunk), children will tantrum when they feel lost and helpless and frustrated by their world. Maybe he feels powerless. Without knowing more about your day-to-day life, it's really hard to say what's bothering him.

      Another possibility which should be looked at is that he has some sensory issues or a mild form of autism (all too common these days). It's worth talking to his teacher/s about this and seeing how he behaves when he's not at home. If this is the problem then expert help as early as possible is vital.

      I hope that gives you something to work with!

  6. Hello Aunt Annie,

    Thank you for replying so quickly, I actually thought I would just write into the never ending universe and no one will answer anyway. So thank you for taking the time to do so.

    I can imagine that it's hard to answer anyway, when you don't know myself and my husband and the way we are around our children. My husband works everyday, but I work only 2 days a week. I am here for my children and we do things together like go to the park after school, talk, read. I cook proper meals, if we have a take away food it might happen only one dinner a month. I love cooking and so does my son, so he helps when he feels like. He loves making schnitzels, as he gets his hands dirty and loves the sensory side of it. His room is painted in soft blue on one side, then a soft green on the other side with a wooden floor. We live in a house and we have a play area with swings and a sand pit. As you mentioned the sensory issues. He loves digging in dirt, getting his hands dirty and I don't stop him in getting dirty. I also don't take him to shops. Sometimes it can't be avoided, but I do my shopping without him, except for when he was little and didn't go to school, I had to take him. That time when I left him in the shop was when he was 4yrs old.
    We are a very close family and we do things together. My husband and I don't go out, we stay in and we don't drink or do drugs, so that is why I'm very confused why my son is so needy and wants new things all the time. We give him lots of love, but we find ourselves tipi-toeing around him. I am going to go see a behavioral psychologist most likely and a developmental pediatrician. I've been hoping and waiting for too long and he's not growing out of it. I have booked marked this page, so when I will have some answers I will let you know of our progress.
    Thank you for all your advice!

    1. I think you're doing all the right things- and getting him assessed now is one of those right things. I'll look forward to hearing from you!


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