My daughter's worst tantrum happened a few years as we were finishing up a daycare tour. I didn’t warn her before it was time to go and she refused to leave. I took her, screaming and kicking, outside the building to a less crowded but safe area, and put her down.
My baby girl kept kicking and screaming as I stood there as calmly as possible, for about 15 minutes, as I watched her tantrum. She didn’t want me to come to her, so I waited. People walked by, they stared. I felt anxious and sweaty, but I tried to remind myself that this isn’t as terrible as it feels.
I smiled to passers-by, and even got some empathy and encouragement from strangers who have kids. After my little one was all cried out, she ran to me and I held her. She was calm and it was all done. We learned together that day and she never had a tantrum like that again.
The truth is, most children can’t regulate their own emotions until later in life. Sure, we “know” that, but do we really? As parents and caretakers, we have so much to offer our little ones, even in moments that we feel utterly powerless. Here we will examine triggers, and how you can help your little one overcome the temptation of a tantrum.
Being in touch with a child’s emotion is important when trying to divert a crisis tantrum. Through understanding their emotions, we can take a step further and understand their point of view. What is it they feel? Sadness, anger, humiliation? Avoid asking if they are tired, because this is a body feeling, not an emotion. Being tired can play a huge impact on the emotions, yes, but the little ones aren’t thinking about that right now.
Understanding your child’s triggers is key to understanding tantrums. What triggers your child to throw a fit? Overstimulation, change in routine, bedtime, crowds, sharing toys... broccoli? Once we know what tends to set off our little ones, we can be better prepared.
Children understand, and do better, if things are explained to them before they enter an over-stimulating experience. If you’re going into something that might be hard, like going to a store that has toys, tell them beforehand, clearly, that you aren’t buying toys today. If you’re at the park and it’s time to go home, let them know in advance, and set a timer on your phone, showing them what will happen. If you know that your kid hates to share toys, ask them to hide one favorite toy they don’t want to share and agree the share the rest in advance. Like us, children appreciate some warning.
Nothing works better than getting down on your knees and having eye-to-eye contact with your child. Make sure when you talk to your child you ask them to look at you in the eye, but not in a threatening way. Rather, a safe place for them to gaze. They may try to squirm and avoid it, but calmly work on directing their eyes to you when you speak to them. You can even go a step further and ask them to repeat what you told them. This allows for more effective communication.
Our children struggle with self-soothing and regulating their emotions. Knowing this is important. Children watch us, they sense us. As adults, we do have the power of self control. We have the power to be soothing and smiling. Keeping your cool during a tantrum may feel impossible, but it’s not. Remember that you don’t have to “feel” your child’s feelings, that you are a separate person from them. That you are not “bad” or “wrong” as a parent. Forget what other’s might think. This is natural – all kids get upset sometimes.
I recall a time when a small child came to play. Younger than my daughter, he grabbed her precious toys and grabbed at my daughter. I decided to get down on the floor and model for my daughter how to handle the situation. I played with him, yet set boundaries of not pulling on hair. My daughter watched me and began to take over, playing with the boy herself. I modeled keeping cool for her, and handling something new.
Reflecting can be a pretty powerful tool from the parental tool bag. When your child is starting to show warning signs of tantrum, get down to their level and tell them how you think they are feeling, ask them if you are right.
Small children can learn to identify their own emotions this way, which is great for later on. “Alexa, you're feeling sad/angry/lonely?” Again, avoid, “Are you tired?” because this is a body feeling, not an emotion. As a toddler, if my daughter was sad she learned quickly to tell me so. I can tell you that nothing pull on the heartstrings like a toddler saying, “I’m sad,” as she cries calmly. This helps the child learn to communicate with you, and reduce meltdowns.
Redirecting a child’s attention is a great method. This isn’t just sticking a teddy bear in their hands and expecting them to change their thought track. It’s a little more clever and calls for a bit of creativity.
Imagine your child is getting cranky as you wait for your order at Starbucks (for example). What can you do? You can’t just walk out of the store without your lifeline cup of caffeine. Instead, take your child and walk around the shop. Point out interesting things like pictures on mugs or colors you see. If they're old enough, ask what they see.
Use your environment and make something out of it. You’d be surprised how much children love straws or sugar packets. Have your child say hello to strangers who may be happy to smile and coo at your little one.
Offering choices is a very effective technique when working with children. This can be used in all sorts of ways, from the food they eat to what they do. Offering choices gives your child power, and what more do they want than that? Even asking questions that seem like you’re giving them power can work wonders.
For example: “Jimmy, do you want five more minutes at the park, or six?” Once they make a choice, follow through with it. Allow your child to feel that they have some decision-making power in their daily lives. Another example: “Johnny, you have a choice, if you throw sand we go home now, if you don’t we can stay longer."
This can be a learning process, as you follow through with your statements. “Jimmy, remember, you wanted seven minutes. Now the timer is up, time to go. Next time we can come back, but only if you can stay calm when it’s time to go.”
Again, it’s giving him a choice: If he isn’t calm maybe he won’t get to come back to the park tomorrow, but if he works to be calm then he gets to come back. When offering choices, remember that your tone is important – children sense that asking in anger may be a form of punishment.
Mom needs to bring her daughter, Ana, to the grocery store. Mom knows Ana tends to want to grab things off the shelf and throws a tantrum when she can’t keep them. Mom tells Ana before leaving the house that she needs to go to the grocery store. Mom kneels down to make eye contact and says, “Ana, we cannot buy a toy today. You have a choice, you can come with mommy to the store now but no toys, or stay home."
Ana wants to go, but she wants a toy. She won’t agree. Mom says, “Okay, no store,” and mom waits. Ana is upset, but Mom waits until Ana understands that she won’t get a toy. Mom has Ana repeat that she understands she won’t get a toy again later.
At the store, Ana sees a toy. Forgetting everything, she begins to ask for it. Mom makes eye contact with Ana softly. “Ana, remember what we said? No toys today. I know it makes you sad, you want it now. But maybe another time you can get it.” Ana may tear up, but mom keeps her loving cool. “I know, it’s not easy, but I know you can do it, your my big girl! Can you help me remember what we needed? Was it cereal? Mommy forgot!” Laughing, mom keeps talking and encouraging Ana to help her.
In this vignette, we see that mom knows her daughter’s triggers. She decides to warn her child that there would be no toy, offering a choice to stay home or come with. She has eye contact and is physically level with her child. She sees her daughter beginning to show emotions and reflects that back to her, identifying the emotion. The child has a chance to understand and put a word to the feeling she has. Mom keeps her cool, and models behavior, reminding the child of their agreement. Later, she cleverly redirects the child in a way that helps her feel empowered. Mom is playful and loving. Tantrum avoided.
Through these techniques we learn so much about our little ones. We learn how we can act rather than react. We can outsmart the tantrums, and help our children grow and learn. I believe that most tantrums can be avoided with extra understanding and support. Try it. What have you got to lose? I know, just your sanity.