Don’t you absolutely love it when your child giggles and embraces you with so much happiness in their heart?
When children are happy, we tend to join in their fun and feel a sense of ease.
Tears and temper tantrums on the other hand can be hard to accept, let alone deal with in a calm way.
I am a certified parent educator, and not once in the last decade has a parent told me that they enjoy their child’s temper tantrums!
It doesn’t matter whether your child is 2, 12 or 22… we can all agree that tantrums are not desirable. Tears, screams and meltdowns are hardly something we want to see our child go through. Understandably, it can be difficult to stay calm and respond nicely when a child has a massive temper tantrum.
When parents reach out to me for coaching and support, how to handle their child’s temper tantrums is a very common concern.
Here’s one parent’s experience and challenges with his two year old daughter:
When my daughter’s whole body goes limp, and she starts this high pitched screech over some little thing, I just can’t cope so well. Usually the screeching is about something as simple as the color of her breakfast bowl or that I will not play her favorite song again for the thirteenth time. I really mean thirteenth time, so you know, I’ve done my best to be patient, and still she screams about it.
These tantrums just don’t seem normal to me! Are they normal? What am I supposed to do when my daughter is throwing such a big fit over these simple things?
You may feel alone, but these are questions many parents have. Let’s talk about what’s normal for kids and how to handle temper tantrums.
Parenting a Child Through Tears and Temper Tantrums
Tantrums and screeching are challenging but quite typical behaviors for a growing child.
Even if you have a very even-tempered child, you can expect moments of great emotional overwhelm in the years to come. While temper tantrums are most common in the early years, they can still happen as your child grows, even in the teen years.
The good news is that temper tantrums don’t happen because your child is bad, naughty or defiant.
Here’s why temper tantrums can happen at any age:
- Tantrums are the result of emotional overwhelm and can be a normal part of growing up.
- The ability to stay calm instead of melting down only happens when children have developed self-regulation abilities.
- Tears are the brain’s way of dealing with stress.
“Under excessive stress we regress,” says Dr. Stuart Shanker, a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life.
According to Dr. Shanker, tantrums and meltdowns happen when children are overwhelmed and unable to self-regulate. Dr. Shanker also explains that the younger the child, the more quickly this can happen.
Thinking back to the dad’s example above, can a cereal bowl color really cause excessive stress? Is not being able to listen to your favorite song for the one trillionth time truly stressful? Can your child’s sock seam being crooked, a sibling looking at you in a funny way or the cookie falling on the floor really cause such stress?
The short answer is that in childhood, with an immature brain, these seemingly simple problems can and do cause your child enough stress to melt into a pile of tears.
Immature brains experience a lot at once, so there are often hidden stressors in a toddler’s life (and later in your child’s life as well) that can create a sense of overwhelm when things don’t go according to plan.
The key thing to remember here is this: It’s stress, not defiance.
How to Handle Temper Tantrums
To best deal with temper tantrums, I suggest you see meltdowns and screaming fits as stress behaviors, not naughty behaviors. A responsive approach to tantrums is the only way to calm a child’s nervous system and help them get back to feeling calm.
Here are five steps you can take to help your child during a temper tantrum. They may seem simple, but they can go a long way to making the situation less stressful for both of you.
1. Stay calm and stay close.
For many children, a parent’s loving presence, combined with a hug, can be a positive, calming experience during a temper tantrum.
If your child prefers to have some distance, it’s also perfectly alright to respect that. No matter where you wait for your child’s temper tantrum to subside, stay calm and close enough to keep your child safe.
2. Don’t worry about fixing the problem just yet.
It’s natural that you might want to do anything you can to get the tears and screaming to stop.
But keep in mind that during a temper tantrum, your child can’t pay attention to their feelings and your solutions at the same time. Don’t bother trying to coax your child into cooperating or accepting anything just yet.
3. Validate your child’s feelings.
Allowing your child to feel their feelings is very important.
Many children benefit from having some validation about how and what they are feeling during a temper tantrum.
Validation is different from fixing or erasing the problem and can help a child feel understood.
Aim to use calm words that let your child know you are present and willing to help. It might sound like:
“I can see you seem so very mad right now.”
“You didn’t like my answer. You are upset.”
“This isn’t going the way you wanted it to go.”
“You are mad at me because of what I said.”
“Uff..this is hard for you. I’m here with you.”
“I can sit and wait with you.”
Stay open to saying as much or as little as needed by watching how your child is reacting to your words. Over time you will see what works best for each unique child.
A quick note here: be wary of advice about ignoring and isolating a tantruming child.
Ignoring and walking away from a tantruming child has been very common advice for many years. It was previously believed that if you ignored a temper tantrum the child would stop trying to “manipulate” the parent into getting what they want. You may still hear this from well-meaning grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even your other parent friends.
After many decades of research on child development, psychology and self-regulation though, it is now well understood that emotional isolation is not a good idea for the growing brain. Children need your loving presence in order to calm down, feel well and behave better.
Dr. Brenè Brown, is a research professor at the University of Houston and well known author of several books. She has spent the last twenty years studying courage, vulnerability and shame. Brown shares that isolation is a very destructive and emotionally terrifying experience for all humans.
While your child might stop crying if you ignore them long enough, this approach to temper tantrums is no longer recommended because it will not help your child develop good self-regulation and self-control skills.
4. Help your child calm down.
We all want our children to calm down and finish their tantrums as soon as possible, but the nitty-gritty of the research and science boils down to this: it’s best to just keep calm and let your child’s tantrum carry on until it’s done.
You can actually help your child learn how to calm down by staying calm and helping them through all the big feelings. It’s hard work for us, but it pays off big time as the years go by.
To make peace with tears and be able to stay calm when your child has a temper tantrum, try to keep the following in mind:
- Tantrums are simply a signal that your child has reached their personal limit on their frustration meter.
- Tears help children’s minds recalibrate, de-stress and calm down.
- Your child is not purposely trying to embarrass you, complicate an outing or make your day miserable.
- Under excessive stress, your child’s behaviors will regress!
Being calm and kind during a temper tantrum will not reward your child or spoil them into always crying to get what they want.
Here’s why you can’t spoil a child by supporting them during a tantrum: When you support your child’s emotional needs, you are not giving in to their demands.
Positive Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting. (Editor’s note: Read more about how to be positive without being permissive here.)
Listening to tears will let you connect to your child’s heart and mind until they are calm enough to move forward.
5. Going forward, don’t be afraid of temper tantrums, but pick your battles.
Some parents feel they need to walk on eggshells to avoid a tantrum. Not so!
It’s very important that you set appropriate limits on unhelpful behaviors, even if you know it will result in a temper tantrum.
It’s important to have boundaries and limits and help your child understand them. It’s also important to gauge your child’s emotional meter and decide what kind of limits are truly important to set and keep.
Let’s think back to the examples of the song and cereal bowl.
If playing a song for the fourteenth time is really not going to work for you, you can say so. Just be ready to embrace the tears that are needed for the child to accept your decision.
Switching from a red bowl to a blue bowl isn’t likely to be a huge problem, so go ahead and make the switch, even before the tears and screeching starts.
Already mid-tantrum and you didn’t realize the color of the bowl was that important? Just say so.
That’s not “giving in” or being “manipulated.” That’s called being attentive and kind to a fellow human. If you had a guest at your home you would probably not hesitate to do something nice. In this case there is absolutely no harm in being just as nice to your child.
Remember: emotional development is a process that takes many years and a huge amount of patience. While temper tantrums might be common in the early years, the more parents take a positive approach to tears, the more children are likely to develop self-regulation and self-control skills, and the fewer temper tantrums you have to deal with when they are older!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Prepare yourself to respond to the next temper tantrum by asking yourself these questions now:
- Can you see how temper tantrums are a stress behavior and not a misbehavior?
- How have you been responding to tantrums so far? Would you consider changing your approach with this new information?
- Imagine your best friend is upset and crying about a work problem that really stresses her out. Would you walk away and leave her to sort her feelings or stay and try to be supportive?
- Do you feel confident about setting limits on behaviors while at the same time being available to listen to your child’s feelings if a meltdown ensues?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the next week try this:
- The next time your child has a temper tantrum, try to observe and think about what kind of stress your child might be experiencing.
- Validate your child and listen to the tears with the intention to understand, rather than shut down the tantrum.
- If you are concerned about being manipulated or sense that you give in to demands after temper tantrums, write a list of ways you intend to be present with your child while still being committed to setting healthy limits. This can help you identify patterns and stop the cycle of frustration for both of you.