Dealing with Tantrums

See also: Understanding Young Children

Tantrums are perhaps one of the most difficult areas of children’s behaviour for parents to manage.

They are both stressful and potentially embarrassing, which makes it extremely hard for parents to remain calm during toddler tantrums.

However, as our page on Managing Toddler Behaviour stresses, the most important aspect of managing any problem behaviour is remaining calm yourself.

This page provides some ideas for managing tantrums and remaining calm.

Toddler Tantrums are a Fact of Life

Nobody who has ever been a parent will ever judge anyone because their child is having a tantrum. Precious few who have not had children will do so either.

Bear this in mind, and you will find it much easier to remain calm and non-embarrassed in the face of a screaming, red-faced toddler.

Case study: Words of wisdom

Josh threw the most amazing tantrum in the supermarket today,” Caroline sighed to her friend, Emily.

I was so embarrassed, I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me up.

Emily laughed.

Don’t worry,” she advised. “I used to think that until I realised that all anyone else is thinking is ‘Thank goodness that’s not my child, today’ and ‘Poor woman, isn’t she doing well to remain so calm?’

Caroline laughed too, and said,

You know, you’re right. That’s certainly all I think if I see someone else with a child having a tantrum.

Well, of course,” Emily replied. “We all know it could be our child tomorrow.

Almost every child throws a tantrum sooner or later. Whether it becomes a habit depends at least in part on how you respond.

Analysing and Monitoring Tantrums

Before you can really understand and deal with tantrums, you need to understand a bit more about when and why they occur.

Our page on Managing Toddler Behaviour explains how to keep a 'Behaviour Diary' for your child, so that you can see any patterns of behaviour. These might include, for example, certain activities, or certain times of day.

Managing tantrums

There are several basic ways to manage tantrums. These include:

1. Avoidance

The behaviour diary may show you some easy ways to change your actions and routines that may have a huge impact on your child’s behaviour.

For example, do they need more routine around feeding and sleeping? If tea-time is fixed by other events, do you need to provide a snack after your child’s afternoon sleep to keep them going? Can (or should) you feed them before you collect your older child from nursery?

Subtle changes may often have a big impact on behaviour, so don’t be afraid to try things out to see what happens.

You can also use avoidance techniques for non-compliance and defiance.

For example, if getting ready to go out is always a trial, try making it a race. Say ‘I bet I can get ready to go out quicker than you can’, or ‘I bet I can tie my shoelaces faster than you can get your shoes on’. Competition is a great incentive.

The important thing is to avoid either of you getting backed into a corner where confrontation is the only way out.

2. Distraction

Once you know what is likely to trigger your child’s tantrums, you may be able to head them off, with a bit of judicious distraction.

Point out something interesting, or ask what they would like to do later/tomorrow/at the weekend, or speculate on what you might have for lunch. It doesn’t matter what you say, as long as it is interesting and different enough to catch their attention and help them move away from the problem issue.

Distraction is a very useful technique in situations that often result in problem behaviour, for example, in the supermarket.

You can, for example, ask your child to keep an eye out for certain foods, or tell them a story as you go, or sing songs around the aisles.

This may feel a bit embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as having a screaming child in the trolley.

3. Ignoring

Our page Understanding Your Toddler and Young Children notes that children want attention. That is often what tantrums and tears are about.

Ignoring them, therefore, sends a very strong message to your child, and will not be AT ALL what they want.

The novelty of being ignored may even be enough to stop them in their tracks. Over time, it will ensure that they abandon the tantrums in favour of actions that get your attention, such as asking nicely.

Ignoring a tantrum can be quite hard, especially if you are out and about. You may need to just sit down and wait for the screaming to stop.

4. Consequences

Our page on Managing Toddler Behaviour discusses the ‘two strikes and you’re out’ rule. If your child is capable of listening to you, and not so deep in screaming that you cannot communicate at all, then you may want to use this option.

Tell them once nicely, making eye contact and smiling, what you want them to do. In this case, it is likely to be ‘stop shouting and behave nicely’. If they do not do it, ask them again, firmly, explaining briefly what will happen if they do not do as you ask (for example, they will have to sit on the bottom step of the stairs for a short time, or go to their room).

If they still do not do it, then deliver on the consequence, calmly and firmly.

Managing ‘Time Out’

‘Time out’ is a useful way of managing poor behaviour. It is sending your child away from others for a short time (say, one minute per year of their life).

Some parents opt for a ‘naughty step’, for example, and others send the child to their room.

It is important to remain calm as you do so, which is one very good reason for ‘two strikes and you’re out’.

What do you do if your child will not stay where they have been put?

If they will not stay on the stairs, you will either have to hold them down (unpleasant for both of you) or put them in their room. You may need to hold the door shut. Remain calm, and just say ‘No, you need to stay there because of your behaviour’.

Ignore their behaviour on the other side of the door, even if they are throwing things around. You can clean up the mess later, and it is important not to give the behaviour any attention.

What happens if the ‘time out’ finishes and the poor behaviour restarts?

You start again. Two strikes and you’re out: straight back into ‘time out’.

But when they do calm down and start and behave nicely, give them a hug, and praise them for calming down.

Remember: time out should be used as a last resort.

It is much better to distract your child and prevent the tantrum in the first place, so keep alert, and be creative. Your attention is what is really wanted, so provide it.

What NOT to do

Whatever else you do, DO NOT be tempted to give in, and give your child what they wanted. This sends precisely the wrong message to your child.

What they hear and see is:

“To get what I want, all I have to do is scream until he/she gives in”

Yes, avoid the tantrum, but don’t compromise on your principles. If you don’t want to buy the toy, don’t buy the toy.

Tantrums as Emotional Language

Tantrums are often, but not always, about frustration: not being able to explain, or wanting something but not getting it.

Sometimes, however, as our page on Understanding Toddlers and Young Children makes clear, the child may be worrying about something going on in the family that they don’t understand.

Perhaps a parent is not well, or is worrying about something else, and so unable to give the child their full emotional attention. The child’s behaviour may therefore be about getting a reaction from that parent.

If this is the case, you may want to look for a response that does not feel so punitive.

You might, for example, hold the child until the tantrum stops, or sit beside them on the floor and just wait for them to finish. It’s still not a good idea to make a huge fuss of them, but make clear that attention is available if and when they stop.

Only you will know what is going on in your family, and what may be the cause of your child’s behaviour.

Nobody else can tell you what do to for the best—you know your child and your family best, and you will need to decide.

Taking a Creative Approach

It is vital to remain calm when dealing with tantrums.

The best way to manage them is to avoid them: either long before they happen, or by distraction at the time.

Remember that your child wants your attention, so provide it, and make it fun to be with you. That way, they are much less likely to be frustrated and play up.