The Best Way to Handle a Temper Tantrum

 

empathypicFew things are more embarrassing for first-time parents than a public temper tantrum. They seem to come from out of nowhere and, once they start, it's hard to know the right way to proceed. Some argue that children should be removed from the situation immediately while others believe in a direct, emotionless approach. There is no end, it seems, to advice when it comes to handling a temper tantrum.

But what about the kids? What does a temper tantrum really mean for a toddler? What’s behind the sudden outburst of emotion?

I will never forget the first time one of my kids experienced a temper tantrum. In my mind, I knew we were due for one at some point, but my kids have always been sensitive. They are more likely to cry than yell, and we've worked on feelings since before they could talk, so I secretly hoped we wouldn't endure many tantrums. There weren't many, but when they happened, they were loud. Very loud.

We were going through security at the airport during one memorable event. A lovey was grabbed from my child's hand to go through the x-ray machine and, as you can imagine, that didn't go well. The tears turned to screams, and the screams turned to flailing arms, and I suddenly felt acutely aware of the eyes staring at me from all sides. Forget about the fact that the TSA agent walked to and fro taunting us with the lovey but not giving it back. Forget about traveling with two small children and nerves about flying. The emotions of my child took center stage as the tears and screams escalated with each passing second.

It came from fear, of course. The tantrum was directly related to fear. My frustration and anxiety with the situation only made it worse. My little one picked up on my emotions and cried even more. It was then that I realized that I needed a better plan for tantrums. I needed to soothe my child through it instead of reacting with my own emotions, and I needed to begin with empathy.

Empathize

Even toddlers need to feel heard and understood. It might seem like temper tantrums come from nowhere, but there is always a trigger beneath the tears. It might be exhaustion, hunger, frustration with something difficult, fear, or sickness. Whatever it is, it helps to begin by acknowledging the trigger.

When we convey our understanding of the feeling to our children, we show them that we get it and we are there to help them through it. 

{ MORE: Why My Child's First Year Changed Me }

Breathe

Newsflash: Toddlers don't actually know how to calm down, so telling them to calm down or stop crying is actually fairly meaningless. They need to learn how to calm themselves in the moment.

I taught my kids the power of relaxation breathing early on, and that has helped them through some difficult moments. Ask your toddler to imagine blowing bubbles. Hold up your hand as if you have a bubble wand, take a deep breath in, and slowly exhale. Cue your child to follow your lead. Put his hand on your chest so he can feel the slow rise and fall of your breath. Practice this strategy during calm moments so that your child can access it when he's frustrated.

Problem solve

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Kids feel equally as out of control as they appear when they are in the middle of a temper tantrum. If they can’t seem to stop the behavior, it’s because they don’t know where to begin.

Help your child problem-solve. Chances are your child won't get exactly what he wants in the moment, but he will learn that he can get what he needs, instead. Toddlers are capable of learning problem-solving skills; we just have to take the time to teach them. Help your child come up with choices and alternatives. Pick the best one. Hug your child and move on.

Temper tantrums tend to decrease with age and as frustration management skills are learned. Take the time to teach your child how to calm down now so that he doesn't continue to struggle later on. 

{ MORE: Teaching Your Toddler to Wait: 3 Tips }

What do you think?

The Best Way to Handle a Temper Tantrum

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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5 comments

  1. I totally agree with this article. I think during your child’s tantrum you should try to connect with them and try to let them know that you know how they feel. Comfort them. My mother in law says to just ignore them, that sounds so cruel. My daughter had her first tantrum in front of my mother in law and me being a first time mom I listened to her. It was so sad and I could feel my daughters emotions and it just made me feel sick to my stomach that I was ignoring her. after about a minute I blew off my mother in law and ran to her to let her know mommy was there for her. My mother in law said ” She has you in the palm of her hand, just playing you” I just call it being there for your child like you should be not ignoring my babies feelings.

  2. Connie says:

    I need to know what to do when Mommy goes to wook , and my 2 year old throws a tantrum?

  3. Alayna says:

    When teaching my now 4 year old how to breathe deeply I would ask him to blow in my face until it moved my hair. In the beginning I actually covered my face with my hair. We used this technique to show him how to calm himself and then followed up with him telling me how he was feeling and problem solving how to deal with it. We also practiced a lot telling his older siblings how he was feeling and why (using I statements “I feel sad when you call me names”) Now at 4 he can calm himself all on his own (although he sometimes needs a reminder) and express himself and his emotions really quite brillantly for his age (I still struggle with this at 30). Now I say things like “Mom cannot understand your words when your so upset please calm down first” if he’s upset or “We do not talk to our mom that way please calm down and try again” when he’s mad as reminders. An easy reminder to express yourself calmly and productively with others also is “please tell him how you feel”. It’s so great when you teach them these tools early in life makes it much easier I hope this comes in handy when we reach the teen years 😀

  4. Kate says:

    I agree, giving them the tools to be able to calm down themselves is so important. I really like the bubble idea. Another one that works well is giving them a straw to blow and suck through. I introduced the straw by playing games with it like blowing torn scraps of paper or little cotton balls. Now my little guy knows what to do with the straw and it’s really helpful for calming down.

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