An Essential Guide to Tantrums

An Essential Guide to Tantrums

Ah, the dreaded tantrum. We’ve all seen one. Many of us have judged a few parents for their inability to control their toddler’s public fits. Many of us have been those parents, unable to stop the embarrassing displays of unrestrained fury from our youngest family members.

What’s a parent to do?


Remember That Tantrums Are Normal

Study child development or have children of your own, and you will discover that tantrums are a very normal part of development. Tantrums are not truly “bad behavior.” Having an emotional meltdown is not misbehavior—it’s part of being human. Tantrums are unpleasant, embarrassing, and unwanted. But they are also normal, and every child will have them. They are not a reflection of bad parenting.


Consider the Emotions Behind The Meltdown

Toddlers have a lot of big emotions that they don’t know how to handle. Even as an adults, I can’t always handle my emotions maturely. Toddlers are much less mature and experienced than us, and it’s much harder for them. When we see a tantrum, we can stop and consider what the child is feeling. Sadness? Anger? Frustration? Pain? Tantruming children are hurting children.


Calm Yourself Down First

Some people lecture or scold a tantruming child. “Get off the floor right now! You stop that, or you’ll have a time-out.” Or simply, “Stop crying!” Sometimes, these scoldings are accompanied by spankings, or other punishments. I am guilty of reacting this way to my son’s tantrums (never spankings, though). Why do we do this?

Simply put, we react badly because we are angry. If it’s in public, we are embarrassed, and we don’t want to be judged on our parenting. Even in private, tantrums are irritating and can easily snap the already fragile nerves of worn-out parents.

But perhaps a better way to handle a tantrum would be to calm ourselves down first. Instead of reacting immediately and negatively, we might choose to take a breath, walk away for a moment if necessary, and decide what we will do before we do it.


Treat Children With Respect

Children throwing tantrums aren’t hurting anybody (if they are, they can be restrained with compassion). They’re just expressing their emotions the only way they know how. When did it become acceptable to respond to another person’s tears and pain by yelling at them to stop crying, or worse, by hitting them? Apparently, only with toddlers.
What if we chose to treat our children as if they were actual human beings? They deserve love, compassion, kindness, understanding, and respect. They simply need help learning how to express and process their emotions appropriately. We can do this without being harsh.


Maintain Your Dignity

On the other hand, some desperate parents handle tantrums by conceding to the demands of their little tyrant. This isn’t really a good long-range plan. It teaches kids that they can get what they want by screaming, crying, and making a scene. We should never respond to a tantrum by giving in, begging, pleading, bribing, or attempting to reason with the child. We are the adults, and it is up to us to set the boundaries in our child’s life.

So, if punishing, yelling, shaming, scolding, giving in, begging, pleading, bribing, and reasoning are all out, then what’s left? How can we respond to tantrums with understanding, calmness, respect, and dignity?


Respond Appropriately

Here’s what I suggest: Consider the reason behind the tantrum, and respond appropriately. Remember to calm yourself down first. Remind yourself that it’s normal and that your child is hurting. Remind yourself that you are a good parent, and that you can control yourself. Let’s look at some examples.


Separation Anxiety

Every parent must decide how they want to handle separation anxiety. It can be a frustrating issue, but it really isn’t misbehavior. It can be very painful for children to be separated from their parents, and even though it seems annoying and ridiculous to us, the pain is still real. Some parents may choose to limit separations until the child accepts them easily. Other parents may choose to lovingly but firmly teach their children to accept separation. In either case, an angry reaction to a separation-related tantrum is not appropriate. Offer empathy, then follow through on the decision you have made. Keep goodbyes quick and positive. Have reasonable expectations, and start with small separations. Check out more information on separation anxiety here.


Not Getting His or Her Way

Toddlers frequently throw tantrums over not getting their way. If they are told no, or something is taken away from them, it can feel like the end of the world to them. While this may seem dramatic, remember that even adults feel upset when they don’t get their way! We might choose to respond by offering empathy, ignoring it, or using distraction. Sometimes, a time-out can be helpful for older toddlers and preschoolers, as long as it isn’t given in anger. Having them sit away from other people for a few minutes can give them the space they need to have a good cry and work through their feelings. Then, reunite with them and speak calmly with them about what happened, helping them put words to their emotions. Teach them how to take deep breaths and calm down, and other coping mechanisms like distracting themselves.


Social Anxiety

My son struggles with this, along with separation anxiety. What it looks like for us is meltdowns in public, or any time he feels overwhelmed by other people. While it can be incredibly frustrating to manage, social anxiety is definitely not misbehavior. I have not found an easy solution, either, but I have found that having compassion helps. We have removed activities from our schedule that are too challenging for my son, and we focus on other social activities that he can handle without feeling overwhelmed, such as one-on-one playdates. When he does throw tantrums because of his social anxiety, and the situation is unavoidable, I tend to ignore him or put him in a time-out to calm down. Comforting him has not been helpful, since he generally will continue crying until we leave the place he doesn’t want to be. It’s not fun, but I have hope that he will grow out of it with age.


Physical Discomfort

Often, there are reasons we don’t immediately see for children’s emotional outbursts—teething pain, hunger, tiredness, boredom, frustration, and so on. In these cases, we can only do our best to discover the problem and treat it accordingly. Taking care of our children’s physical needs is obviously the solution to many of these problems. Beyond that, using distraction can be helpful. Gentle time-outs and ignoring it are also options, if all else fails. But keep in mind that if your child is really acting upset, there may be something wrong physically that you can’t see. Don’t be quick to dismiss it without a thorough physical check. Hairs can get wrapped tightly around fingers, objects can get lodged in noses, diaper rashes can flare up quickly, and so on.


My Biggest Lesson

No matter the reason for a tantrum, the most important lesson I have learned is to remember that I cannot control my child. I can only control my own actions, and my reactions. I can guide my child’s choices to the extent they will allow me to, and enforce necessary limits within my power. Tantrums are a challenge for me as a parent, but I find that letting go of my desire to control them is the first step to staying calm, and avoiding having a tantrum of my own. Remember to be the parent that you want to be. Remember to put love for your child first.


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