Tantrums are one of the challenges of parenting, but it doesn’t have to end with you giving in to your child’s wants. Whenever your child has outbursts, know that they can be opportunities to develop their emotional intelligence, understand boundaries, and practice self-discipline. This article will help you learn how to transform tantrums into teachable moments.
Children throw tantrums because they are angry, frustrated, hungry, tired, or sick. Some children also do it to seek parental attention or get what they want. Tantrums are a normal part of a toddler’s behavior, and they become less severe and less frequent as they grow. (*)
Tantrum behaviors include crying, screaming, hitting, throwing items, pushing, or kicking. After throwing a tantrum, children return to their usual mood or behavior until the next tantrum episode. For older children and adolescents, tantrum behaviors include verbal outbursts or becoming withdrawn. (*)
The Teachable Moment Approach
The best way to handle your child’s tantrums is through prevention. (*) This involves figuring out their triggers. For instance, if your child becomes upset because they’re hungry or tired, then it might be helpful to develop a daily routine with scheduled meals, snacks, and naptime.
But as they age, children become better at putting their feelings and needs into words. This is when effective communication can help you transform tantrums into teachable moments. You can teach them how to recognize their emotions, express their feelings through words, follow certain boundaries, and learn through positive reinforcement.
Strategies for Handling Tantrums
It’s not always possible to prevent tantrums, but there are some things you can do to manage them:
Calm Communication During Tantrums
Staying calm is one of the most useful skills you can develop as a parent. Avoid giving in to your child’s demands, because they might learn that you will do whatever they want when they throw a tantrum. Instead, stay as calm as possible and avoid yelling. When you show your child that you are calm, they’re more likely to imitate your behavior. Most importantly, it allows for clear communication with your child once they also calm down.
The best way to respond to tantrums is to let your child get their feelings out healthily. Instead of engaging in behaviors that might hurt themselves and others, teach them to breathe deeply to calm themselves, get a hug from a loved one, or sketch their feelings on paper. Once they’ve calmed down, the next step is to acknowledge what they’re feeling and address the issue.
Distraction Techniques for De-escalation
When you feel a tantrum coming up, you can control the situation by finding a distraction for your child. Redirect their attention from something that can cause frustration to things that are more interesting. You can also suggest alternative options to replace dangerous or forbidden activities. Here are some examples:
- Change locations or move to a new spot where they can calm down.
- Introduce another toy, such as a stuffed animal, to prevent them from playing with unsafe objects.
- Offer to help with a task that they find boring or don’t want to do.
Setting Clear Boundaries and Expectations
Boundaries are meant to keep your children safe as they build useful skills in life, such as responsibility and self-discipline. When communicating your expectations with your children, make sure to also explain the reason behind your rules. For example, certain rules are non-negotiable because of safety reasons, such as playing with sharp knives.
When children know your expectations, they are less likely to be put in situations where they will throw tantrums. For instance, before you go to the grocery store, communicate that you’re only going there to purchase basic household needs. This way, they won’t have other expectations (such as buying a toy). Additionally, you can give your child a sense of control by offering them minor choices instead of saying no to everything. For example, you could ask them, “Do you want to take a bath now or after you eat your snack?”
Positive Reinforcement and Rewards
Offer compliments and praises when your child behaves according to your expectations. This way, they are more likely to repeat the positive behavior in the future. For example, you can hug them, pat them on the back, or say that they did a good job when they calm down after throwing a tantrum. Be specific when telling them what they did well.
Rewards are also a great way to offer positive reinforcement. You can give them extra privileges such as more time to play, or a chance to go somewhere they enjoy.
Identifying Lessons Within Tantrums
Understanding why tantrums happen can help you uncover your child’s needs, emotions, and triggers. This can lead to better parenting strategies so you can prevent similar situations in the future.
For instance, if physical needs are the root cause of a tantrum, then you can plan their meals and rest periods in advance. You can also use tantrums as an opportunity to teach them healthy coping strategies. This starts by helping them identify their feelings.
A feelings chart for kids can help kids recognize their emotions and express them in words. These visual aids teach kids what certain emotions look like and what they can do to manage themselves. Some charts also list down a wide range of feelings, which can help them expand their emotional vocabulary.
Effective Communication and Connection
Communication can be verbal and nonverbal, so your words, tone, facial expressions, and actions are equally important when communicating with your child. Your child needs to feel heard and understood, especially if they are upset, so make sure to acknowledge their feelings after they calm down. It is also important for your child to receive plenty of positive attention. This way, they won’t use tantrums as a way to get you to notice them.
Real-Life Examples and Scenarios
Below are some sample scenarios and what you can do to handle your child’s tantrums:
- Your toddler throws a tantrum inside a grocery store because he wants you to buy him candy. Instead of giving in, you can stay calm and do the following:
- Empathize with your child’s frustration, then offer healthier alternative options instead. (e.g. apple or banana). Praise him for choosing an alternative without getting distressed.
- Redirect his attention toward other things he finds interesting (e.g. let them play with a toy you brought). Let him help by offering options, “Should we buy cheerios or chex today?”
- Move to another place temporarily until he calms down. Then come back to the grocery store and try to avoid areas with toys or treats.
- Your preschooler feels frustrated because she can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle. After several failed attempts, she starts throwing a tantrum. The following methods can help you de-escalate the situation:
- Tell her that you understand how she feels and offer help and encouragement.
- Show her how to complete the puzzle piece by piece.
- Give her space to decide if she wants to try again or needs your help.
- Praise her effort for not giving up.
Prevent and Manage Your Child’s Tantrums With Patience And Understanding
Tantrums are normal for younger children because they still lack the skills to express their emotions properly. You can use tantrums as a chance to teach them healthy coping skills and help them develop their emotional vocabulary. Additionally, knowing the root cause of their distress helps reduce the frequency of tantrums in the future.
Take Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny’s online class: Positive Discipline for Positive Caregivers to learn more about helping your child learn to cope and build life long social skills.
About The Author
Michael Vallejo is a Child & Family Therapist with a private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Through Mental Health Center Kids
he hopes to support other therapists, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals with visually appealing online resources to support the well-being of kids in their care.
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Daniels, E., Mandleco, B. and Luthy, K.E. (2012, July), Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 24: 569-573. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x