The Tantrum Guide: How to Prevent, Minimize, and Move On

Sep 23, 2022

 

Ah, tantrums. You know them. You love them (not). They are nearly impossible to completely avoid. However, there are some easy-to-use tricks to minimize the frequency and dampen the intensity. Let’s get into some of the most frequently asked questions we hear regarding tantrums!

 

 Is there a difference between tantrums and meltdowns?

 

Clinically, no. Neither is an official clinical or diagnostic term. Also, neither is “diagnosable.” Both describe behaviors such as crying, screaming, falling to the ground, and generally “losing control.” However, there is a growing movement that differentiates the two, namely:

A tantrum is a behavior that’s purpose is to obtain or avoid something. This is mostly controllable.

A meltdown is due to being overwhelmed with sensory information. This is mostly uncontrollable.

We use the terms interchangeably in our practices and home lives. But, if it helps to differentiate the words, go for it! We will use the term “tantrum” for the rest of this blog!

 

What are the main causes of tantrums?

 

1. Developmental: Many tantrums, especially in younger children, are just a normal part of development. The parts of the brain that control emotions (amygdala) and general mood (hypothalamus) are up and running. However, the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions and mood, and helps you filter and inhibit (prefrontal cortex), is not completely up and running yet. In fact, it doesn’t fully finish developing until you are in your mid-20s! However, in the “mid-2s” it is really, REALLY undeveloped.

So, think about this scenario. You are carrying a load of laundry, trip over a matchbox car, drop all the laundry, and stub your toe. You are home alone. What do you do? Maybe curse? Slap the floor? Throw that neon green Chucky Cheese birthday shirt you hate across the room?

Now, picture that same scenario, but your kindergarten daughter and 11 of her closest friends are also in the room. Do you react the same way as you would have alone? Probably not! You know why? Because your prefrontal cortex is up and running. You were able to filter and inhibit what you wanted to do.

Young children don’t yet have this skill! Whatever they feel comes out. All the way sometimes.

 

 2. Physiological dysregulation: Sometimes tantrums happen because your child’s basic physiological needs are off kilter. Maybe they did not sleep well the night before. Maybe their body metabolized that PB&J lunch extra quickly and they are HANGRY. Maybe they get overwhelmed by too much noise, and the trampoline park is just too much for them (isn’t it for all of us though). Start to notice if there is a physiological or sensory pattern to your child’s tantrums. Do tantrums always happen when around large groups of people? Do they always happen right before dinner? Right before nap time?

 

3. Need for Attention: Tantrums are also likely to happen when your child is seeking attention. Think about your child’s last few tantrums. Did they happen when your child was trying to get your attention? Maybe they were trying to ask you a question, but you were talking on the phone. Or, maybe they asked you to open a snack, right as you were proofreading that email you needed to send, and ignored their request for a nanosecond.

 

4.  Need for Control: Tantrums are also very likely to happen when your child feels out of control of a situation. Again, think about your child’s last few tantrums. Did they happen when you told your child ‘no’? Maybe they asked for candy in the checkout line or asked to watch an extra show. Or did the tantrum happen when your child was frustrated? Was it when they could not build their block tower just right? Or was it when they could not open that snack themselves? Similarly, did your child have a tantrum at a transition time? Maybe when it was time to leave the park, or, when it was time to get in the bath. All those tantrums arise out of frustration due to being out of control.

 

Can you prevent tantrums?

 

The answer is, “it depends.” Let’s talk about prevention in terms of the four types of tantrums discussed above:

 

Developmental: No, not often. Tantrums in young children are a natural part of their developmental trajectory. However, you can certainly minimize their frequency and intensity, which we will talk about in the next sections! One key to helping with developmental tantrums (and really, all tantrums), is to “set the scene” before you go into a new situation. Before going to the park, you may say, “Okay, we are going to go to the park to play! There will be lots of kids and we may need to wait or turn before we can slide or swing.”

 

Physiological dysregulation: Sometimes! It will be important to notice and address the patterns regarding *what* tends to overwhelm your child. It will also be important to prepare your child for situations you know may be stressful. This could be by “setting the scene,” as we discussed above, or, by bringing tools such as noise-canceling headphones with you to a loud restaurant.

 

Attention: Yes, mostly! This type of tantrum can be prevented by ensuring your child’s attention needs are met preemptively. Make sure you are spending some intentional one-on-one time with your child daily. Remember quality time outranks quantity time. We talk about meeting this need at length in our Parenting 101 course!

 

Control: Yes, mostly! If being “out of control” sets your child off, it will be important to ensure your child’s control needs are met preemptively. The easiest way to do this is to provide controlled choices. So many controlled choices. Especially in situations when, based on past history, you are anticipating a tantrum.  For example, here is what bedtime looks like in the Avirett house with our 2.5-year-old:

 

“It’s night-night time! Do you want mommy to put you to bed or daddy?”

‘Do you want to put pajamas on first or brush your teeth first?”

“Do you want your farm pajamas or your black pajamas?”

“Do you want to read 3 books or 4 books?

“Do you want to read that book tomorrow, or, take it to bed with you?”

 

Choices are a powerful weapon in preventing tantrums!

 

What do I do at the first sign of a tantrum?

 

This really is key! When you catch tantrums very early, you can often stop them from growing. When in the early stage of a tantrum, remember the phrase “forward momentum.” Your goal is to keep your child’s mind (and sometimes body) moving forward and avoiding getting full-on “stuck” in that tantrum mindset. Here are some of our favorite tools to use at the first sign of a tantrum:

 

1. Distract! When your child has a tantrum, they are often hyper-focused on the one thing that sparked the tantrum. It is hard for them to think beyond that one thing. Bringing their attention to something else can help “snap” them out of that singular mindset.

 One way to distract is to simply point out something in the room. Maybe you say, “I really love how soft and fuzzy this couch is. It feels good to rub.” Or, maybe you say, “Whoa! I see three birds in the sky right now! I wonder if they are looking for worms!

You can also distract by being silly. If you see your child’s face start to crumble into that silent but deadly pre-tantrum expression, make a silly noise. If they giggle, do it again. You’ll be surprised how often they shift from a tantrum to trying to out-annoying-noise you.

One of the most effective ways to distract your child at the beginning of a tantrum is to ask them a question to which they already know the answer. This automatically shifts their brain from distress to problem-solving. Those two things do not work concurrently. So, if you are in the kitchen when your toddler begins having a tantrum, say, “Where are the eggs!? Do I keep them in here (pull out a drawer)? No? Where are they!?” Or, maybe, with your phone in your hand, you say, “Have you seen my phone, I can’t find it anywhere (while you obviously wave it around)!?”

 

2. Give Choices: At that very first tell-tale sign of a tantrum, begin giving your toddler choices to help them move past that tantrum. So, if it is time to get dressed, and, they do not want to change out of pajamas, say, “Do you want to wear your red shirt or blue shirt today?” This puts them into a problem-solving mindset, which uses a different part of the brain. While giving choices, remember the idea of forward momentum.  So, your child may say, “No! I want the GREEN shirt!” If that is a viable option, say, “GREAT! Let’s put it on. Now, black shoes or blue shoes?” Now, if the green shirt is in the washing machine and not available, you can circle back to your original choice. “Man, I wish you could wear your green shirt today too, but it is washing! Red shirt or blue shirt?

 

3.Label the feeling in the room: At the first sign of upset, label what is happening and the general feeling in the room. This lets your child know that you get it, you understand that they are frustrated, and they are not alone! This is what that may look like:

“Neither of us want to leave the park! It is so much fun! But, it’s time to go home and start getting dinner ready. Do you want to help me boil the noodles when we get home?”

“It IS loud in here. It’s bothering me too. Should we go outside and take a breather?”

“Screen-free time IS boring! I keep having the urge to check my phone too!”

 

4. Model ways to calm down: When your child begins to get upset and dysregulated, it is important that you keep your body EXTRA regulated. When you stay calm, and demonstrate calming down techniques, such as exaggerated slow breaths, your child is more likely to follow suit. This concept is called co-regulation. Sometimes, children can not calm down themselves, but can mimic what you do.

 

5. Move locations: Oftentimes, the act of moving locations can help children quickly snap out of the “stuck” tantrum mindset. If you are inside, move outside. If you are in their bedroom, walk out to the hall. Just this simple act can help “reset” their minds (we have a whole video about this in our Parenting 101 course!)

 

6. Resolve any cause of physiological distress: If you know the route of your child’s tantrum is some sort of physiological issue, resolve it! If they know they are hungry, offer a snack. If they skipped nap, maybe bedtime will come 30 minutes early. If they are overwhelmed with the noises and chaos in the room, take them on a quick walk outside.

 

What Do I Do When My Child is Actually Having the Tantrum?

 

Validate their feeling: if the above strategies do not help to resolve the tantrum, and you begin to see an uptick in tantrum intensity, validate the emotion your child is feeling. Keep it simple. “You feel ___.” This helps build your child’s emotional vocabulary, which is what they need to not have tantrums in the future!

 

If they are bidding for control or attention, do NOT give in to “the thing”. If your child’s tantrum arose out of a want to get something, like a toy at the store, or, avoid something, like not leaving the park, do not give in to that thing! This reinforces to them that tantrums = getting that thing. Take comfort in the fact that you are already meeting their needs for control and attention, in all the moments they are NOT having a tantrum.

 

Stay calm and ride the wave. Once your child is in full-blown tantrum mode, they are not capable of reasoning with you. Every word or angry action you throw in their direction will be a waste. As calmly as you can, ride that wave. Trust that the tantrum WILL end. No child has ever tantrumed for eternity (although it feels like it sometimes). Remind yourself that this is a typical part of development, and you will all wake up with a fresh start tomorrow.

 

After the tantrum

 

Move on. If it was a developmental or physiologically related tantrum, once the tantrum ends, move on. Remember that forward momentum motto. There may be no need to discuss it, other than a simple, “Whoa! You were soooo angry! Do you feel better now?” (if that). This evening, pour yourself an extra-large glass of wine. You made it.

 

Talk about ways to do it better next time. For control- or attention-related tantrums, when your child is calm, you can talk about ways to better handle the situation in the future. This may sound like the following:

 

“You were so angry that I asked you to turn off the T.V.! I understand that. Next time, you can ask, “Mom, this show has 3 minutes left, can I finish it before doing homework?” Then, I will consider if that is, in fact, a possibility. If it is, I will totally let you! If not, I will need you to turn it off. If after-school shows continue to cause tantrums when it’s time to turn off the TV, you may not earn the privilege of after school shows.”

 

This is also a time you can allow your child to “redo” the situation. So, if a sibling conflict caused the tantrum, have your children re-enact the situation, helping them find a better solution to the problem.

 

 

Was this helpful!? We’ve got it in a flow chart below. Feel free to print it off and stick on your fridge for an easy reminder!

 

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