How to Stop a Temper Tantrum

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When you have toddlers and preschoolers, people everywhere look longingly at your kids and beg you to enjoy every single second of it.  It goes so fast, they tell you.  Over and over again.  And it does.  One minute you have these helpless little beings attached to you at all times and the next you watch the kindergarten door close with tears streaming down your face because you finally had to let your baby find his own way in this world…something like that, anyway.

You know what doesn’t go fast?  Temper tantrums.

They all have them.  I don’t care how “mellow” or “easy going” a toddler or preschooler is.  I don’t care how much of an “old soul” you have on your hands.  Temper tantrums are part of child development.  They all have them.  Some more than others and some louder and longer than others…but they have them.

And they seem to last an eternity.

Here’s the good news:  Temper tantrums are time limited.  Yes, kids of all ages experience big emotions and big kids will cry and yell when upset, but the irrational tantrums of the early years do fade away as kids grow and learn to regulate their emotions.

Here’s the other good news:  YOU can help your little ones learn to regulate their emotions.  You don’t have to wait for a “phase to pass” or for them to “grow out of it”.  You can be proactive.  And probably save some of your sanity in the process.

Before the tantrum begins….

Play detective:

All kids have their breaking points.  If mine are hungry or tired, look out.  Emotions are high.

A few common triggers:

  • Hunger
  • Exhaustion
  • Thirst
  • Stress
  • Loud environments
  • Crowds
  • Illness
  • Sensory overload
  • Overstimulation
  • Frustration
  • Fear

Life is busy and sometimes we forget to look at the clock and think about things like hunger, thirst and/or fatigue, but all three of these things can cause a tantrum in a hot second.  We have to pay attention to the unique needs of each of our kids and plan accordingly.  To drag a child out for a late night is a setup for the child, especially a child who is used to an earlier bedtime.

Look for clues.  After a meltdown, take a moment to jot down time, place, circumstances, what was happening just prior to the meltdown and any other important information.  A pattern will emerge, and that will help you figure out where you can make changes to your habits and routines.  I once worked with a child that couldn’t stand bright lights – a fresh coat of paint (in a soothing color) in the bedroom and lamps with lowlights changed everything.

Watch your stress level:

If you are stressed, your child will pick up on it.

Take the time to take care of you so that you can remain calm when your child needs you.  Easier said than done, right?  It’s true.  It’s hard to find “me time” and cope with our own emotions when we are always helping our kids, but we need to hit the pause on being everything all of the time and dial back the busy schedules so that we have time to breathe.

Here’s what helps me:  We all have 45 minutes of quiet time every day.  No exceptions.  I try to pack lunches at night or before breakfast as much as possible to avoid the morning rush.  Shoes and socks are kept in individual bins by the front door to avoid searching for them on the way out the door.  No more than two after school activities per child (my son only likes one per week, anyway – he knows his limits) at a time.  When all else fails, pajama parties in the middle of the afternoon with tea and books galore.  It works for us.

Teach feelings identification:

Get or make a feelings faces chart and use it daily.  Use it to talk about your happy feelings (“I feel so happy because I ate a delicious apple and I love apples!”), use it to describe your worries (“I’m feeling worried because I can’t find my wallet and I think I lost it”) and use it to describe your frustration (“I feel angry because I can’t get this phone to work”).

Point to the feeling.  State the feeling.  Describe the feeling.  Identify one solution.  Have your child do the same.

Prepare:

Once you’ve established your child’s triggers, you can troubleshoot.  If your child tires easily (like my son), avoid late night gatherings or saving all of your errands for one day.  Break things up and prioritize sleep.  If hunger is an issue, don’t ever leave the house without a healthy protein packed snack and water.

Prep your kids for big outings by describing what’s happening.  If your child goes into sensory overload at parties, for example, describe what’s happening at the party before you get there.  Keep big parties short and stay near your child.

During the tantrum….

So you did everything exactly right and were totally prepared with snacks and a well-slept toddler and he still had a huge meltdown?  Welcome to parenthood!  Kids are predictably unpredictable.  Try to keep that in mind while you do your best to keep calm through the low moments.  We’ve all been there and we all feel your pain.  Don’t spend a single second worrying about what other people think of your screaming, flailing toddler.  Chances are they are thinking, “Wow, that brings me back!”

Breathe:

The middle of the tantrum is not the time to start talking, lecturing, or asking questions.  Your child can’t hear you.  He’s too busy yelling out those very big feelings.  Kids need to learn how to calm down in the moment.

Deep breathing (in for four, hold for three, out for four) is the best way to calm the physical and emotional response that children experience during tantrums.  The trick is to stay calm (so maybe do it with them) and walk them through the process.  I always cue my kids to blow up imaginary balloons or breathe the colors of the rainbow.

Empathize:

Keep your voice calm and empathize with your child.  Your child is upset, overwhelmed, scared or any other number of emotions.  Attempting to correct the behavior in the moment won’t work; your child needs you to love him anyway until he calms down.  Then you can deal with the issue at hand.

Repeat calming phrases such as, “I know this is frustrating; I understand” or, “I’m here to help you.  Mommy can help.”  Try to use a gentle hug or back rub to provide calming touch.

Relaxation break:

Time outs leave kids feeling alone with their big emotions.  That can be scary and overwhelming and tends to exacerbate the problem.  Consider creating a relaxation corner somewhere in the house where you and your child can calm down together.

My kids each have a cozy chair with a favorite quilt near their books in their bedrooms.  We like to snuggle up and hug it out then follow that up with some reading.  We save the talking for later.

Stress balls, cozy blankets, soft pillowcases, and soothing music can all help cue relaxation.  Establish a calming place where you can take a relaxation break together and help your child calm down.

Out in public when the tantrum erupts?  Leave the situation and find a quiet place to sit and work through it together.

Over time, your kids will learn to regulate their own emotions and tantrums will decrease.  The more you help them now, the better prepared they will be in the future.

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls” (Penguin Random House, 2018)