Tips for stopping tantrums in their tracks

Even if you’re not a parent, you know what a tantrum is. You’re either familiar with it because you remember what a little terror you were (ha-ha-ha), or you’ve just had way too much exposure to those screaming matches as they unfold at the mall/on an airplane/in your own home. As a parent of a Terrible Two myself, I am intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of these (sometimes public, always exhausting) meltdowns. So I thought it might be nice to share some of our own “tips and tricks”, and coping mechanisms, when dealing with these challenging moments.

Disclaimer: I am not a scientist/medical professional, and my advice/tips/tricks come from a mixture of research, reference reading, and real life trial and error. What works for me may or may not work for you, and I don’t assume I have all (or even any really) great answers. My husband and I work hard every day at intentional parenting, and we don’t always get it right, but we try.

But first! What is a tantrum? According to the Google Knowledge graph, a “tantrum is a outburst of anger/frustration – typically from a young child.”

And what drives it?  Before we go into my tips, I want to first discuss a bit of the neuroscience behind an emotional outburst. Dr. Douglas Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and author of Why We Snap, and he has a handy acronym that breaks down common triggers for  emotional and/or violent outbursts (in all people):


  • Life-or-death situation – Protecting yourself
  • Insult – Protecting your rep
  • Family – Protecting your brood
  • Environment – Protecting your castle
  • Mate – Protecting your squeeze
  • Order in Society – Protecting liberty and justice for all
  • Resources – Protecting your stuff
  • Tribe – Protecting people like you
  • Stopped – Protecting you from yourself

If adults can be triggered by any of the above, we must understand that children would have an even greater vulnerability/propensity to an outburst than we do. See, behind that insight is neuroscience. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that manages complex behavior such as decision making, emotional regulation, and social behavioral modification. This area of the brain is not fully developed until age 25 on average (and really, for some people, ever).  So you can imagine, then, how difficult it is for a child to use their (very underdeveloped) prefrontal cortex in everyday situations that may seem small or silly from an adult’s perspective. You have to admit: While your child is busy throwing a tantrum because their brain still lacks the faculties to control their emotions, your 30-year-old brain with much less excuse is also struggling (and sometimes…often?…failing) to exercise emotional maturity and regulation by refraining from violent reactivity (like yelling, etc).

So what does that mean? The good news then is, don’t worry. In a lot of cases, these tantrums are biological, and a part of the learning and growing process that your child is undergoing. That means 2 things: 1) when tantrums arise, think of it as a teaching opportunity for your child. How you respond to that moment will help build your child’s own skills at emotional regulation; and 2) when tantrums arise, think of it as a learning opportunity for you. How you view these moments, the patterns you see, the triggers you are taking note of can all help to inform how you can respond better and be better (through modeled behavior, for example) in the future.

NOW FINALLY, on to the tips. As promised, at last, I’d like to share some of the ways in which we deal with tantrums in our home. So I have here a list of 5 tips that I hope will be helpful to you, dear readers:

  1. [Prevent] Talk your child through something before you do it. This advice applies only to non life-and-death situations, of course. But my husband and I are of the school of thought that one way to help your child build sound emotional regulation, is to allow their little brains ample time to absorb the information coming at them. A lot of tantrums come when you force something on your child (or away from your child) before they’ve had a chance to understand what you are asking of them. Scenario: Chris has a 2.5 year old son named Ben who loves Thomas the Tank Engine. On Sundays, the family sits down to watch 30 minutes of Thomas the Tank Engine on TV as a treat. This Sunday, however, they are running late for a lunch and have to stop the video at the 20 minute mark. Chris doesn’t brief Ben beforehand and instead before the episode is over, stands up and says, “Okay! Time to go! We’re going to be late.” and proceeds to shut the TV off. Ben, feeling that he hasn’t finished the episode like his usual routine, loses it and ends up kicking, screaming, and crying the whole way to the car and even to the lunch. — Maybe that situation sounds familiar to you. At least, it does to me! In cases such as those, what my husband and I try to do is explain to our child ahead of time what’s about to happen. Before we give him a toy to play with/a video to watch/etc, we already tell him, “In 20 minutes, we’ll have to go.” Maybe 2 minutes before we actually have to go, the 18 minute mark, we say again gently, “In 2 minutes you’re going to have to put that away. Ok?” We make sure that our son is looking us in the eye and that it registers (you’d be surprised how much kids that age really can understand). Of course, this isn’t fool proof, but I have to say it does work 8 out of 10 times. Usually if we are gentle and respectful, and show our child that we value his time and understand his desires, then he is much more gracious as well with us in valuing and heeding our decisions. Some people believe that this is “pandering” to your child, and that kids need to learn that they “can’t always have what they want.” But my advice is to put ourselves in their shoes. Even as an adult, you don’t like it when something you’re immersed in doing is rudely interrupted. So why do we assume a child would be fine with it?
  2. [Prevent] Model emotional regulation in your own day to day and relationships. Especially at home. This may not be the most tangible advice, and it doesn’t refer to a specific situation, but it’s still incredibly important. We need to model healthy emotional behavior and regulation in the home (both with our kids and with our spouses/co-parents). Kids learn from their surroundings, and they copy their parents often. If you approach disappointment and/or difficulty with outbursts often and do not self-correct, then your children are more likely to be the same. Scenario: Louisa and Nico have 2 kids below 5, and they spend plenty of time together on the weekends – which is really nice. However, Nico has a pretty bad temper, and Louisa is very quick to react defensively. Whenever there’s traffic on the road, for example, Nico becomes huffy and temperamental, and because of that Louisa becomes irritable. Their kids see that in them often, and end up emulating that behavior in similar situations – especially when they’re being made to wait. They act very impatient and easily upset every time they’re asked to “wait” a bit. — Don’t get me wrong, parents aren’t meant to be perfect. But there are 2 ways to help yourself here: 1) prevent this issue by practicing good emotional regulation (take a deep breath before you react, say things like: “let’s talk about this a little later when I’m less angry/emotional” and actual stick to your guns); 2) correct yourself by apologizing and/or pointing out to those around you in which ways you were wrong (being honest with ourselves and our children about our mistakes, and apologizing humbly helps them understand that it’s ok to slip up sometimes, what matters is that we’re always trying to be better. This is key in emotional maturity and regulation)
  3. [De-escalate] Approach the tantrum calmly. Now, in the event that you’re stuck in a full-blown tantrum, there are several schools of thought on how to handle it. This #3 is in response to the people who believe tantrums should be “ignored” and/or “just left to go on.” Yes, some people think that’s the best way, and if that works for you and your kid, more power to you. For me, I just can’t. Imagine, when a child is in the midst of a tantrum, they feel terrible. In their minds, they can’t grasp why they can’t have what they want, and they are feeling upset, vulnerable, and in some ways betrayed. When they’re down there on the floor crying for their parent, but also kicking and angry at the same time, it’s because they are filled with conflict and emotion. It’d suck to just be ignored and dismissed as though the experience doesn’t count for anything – and that’s not great for emotional regulation either. I’m of the school of thought that you should actively attempt to de-escalate a tantrum. In the book, No Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel, he encourages parents to use techniques to de-escalate and help activate that pre-frontal cortex, so the child comes “back to earth” and is thereafter able to interact more rationally. This is also good practice for that part of the brain. So how to de-escalate calmly? It really will vary depending on your child. Some parents I know like to take their kids for walks. They say, “Hey I know you’re upset. How about we walk it off together?” In the midst of that physical “exercise”, emotions and minds clear, and more rational discussion can be had to cover what made them upset, and how these situations can be prevented and/or handled better in the future. For us, our 2 year old loves a warm bath. When he’s upset and we’re out, I often say “I know you’re upset, and that’s ok. But it’ll pass. Later when we get home, you can take a warm bath, and we can talk about this then. For now, we really need to keep walking.” And when we’re home, I simply say, “I know you’re upset, and that’s ok. How about let’s hop in a nice warm bath, and talk about it then?” This also isn’t fool proof but it does also work about 8 out of 10 times as well (which is more than enough for me). He usually grabs a toy, hops into the bath and I sit on a stool next to the tub and talk to him about what just happened. I’m not always sure exactly how much he can grasp, but I know for sure that he feels a lot better and behaves a lot better after that. The key in the end is to know your kid, and understand in which contexts they feel calm and safe and ready to have a healthier, more logical conversation with you.
  4. [De-escalate] Don’t jump directly into Punisher mode. Related to #3, I believe the worst thing you can do during a tantrum is punish the child for how they feel. First of all, that’s terrible for emotional regulation. But also, it just rarely ever de-escalates the situation. In fact, in my experience, it’s only ever made the situation worse. For some kids, yelling at them makes them stop and take stock, but more often than not it just silences them out of fear, or makes them even more angry. (Our son is of the latter sort. When we scold him it just pisses him off further and triggers further bad behavior.) Instead, take a deep breath, and take a moment (see my advice in #3). When a child is in panic/tantrum mode, his/her pre-frontal cortex is basically not working at all, so any rational punishment/discussion/etc just goes over their head. To save both yourself and your child the stress, try to de-escalate with calm understanding, and then discuss any punishments/next steps/fixes you can think of to make it better or to avoid similar issues in the future
  5. [Debrief] Discuss the tantrum when cooler heads prevail. Related to #3 and #4, and particularly with older kids, it’s really important to discuss feelings and wrong actions and unpack them. I’m not there yet with my kids, but my mom has a degree in psychology and worked in early childhood education for many years, so with me that’s what she was like. After a fit, she’d wait til we both were calm (not always, but often), and we’d sit down and talk about it. “What made you feel that way?” “What made you do those things?” “How do you think you should have behaved instead?” “What can we do to avoid these situations in the future?” Sometimes, if my behavior had been truly bad, she would also consult me about what form of punishment I thought might be necessary (should she ground me from XYZ, or take away ABC, etc). But as a younger child, what was more important was simply discussing those feelings and unpacking them, and it meant a lot to me to know she was actually hearing me out – that she viewed me as a whole (albeit still growing) person and respected that

So there you have it. Those are my tips for dealing with tantrums. I know this was a long essay. Hopefully it was of some use to you. If you have other tips/tricks let me know in the comments! Always love to learn from other parents.


PS Thanks to Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and for the featured image of this post


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s