Taming Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrumFor the child, a temper tantrum feels like swirling in the middle of a tornado. It is frightening and there is no way of knowing when or if it will end.

A temper tantrum is not a parent’s favorite aspect of their child’s development. Tantrums are often accompanied by shrill screaming and physical kicking and hitting. And they result from “unreasonable” situations.

“I asked him to put his coat on, and he acted like I had pulled his arm off.”

“She wanted the blue plate that was in the dishwasher. I gave her another one and she threw it across the room.”

“All I did was tell him it was time for a bath. You’d think I told him I was leaving him for good.”

“What doesn’t he understand about ‘no’?”

Our adult reasoning brains have forgotten what it is like to be a child trapped in a body that often will not do your bidding. Impulses take over body parts, and words are emotional and dramatic and do not mean what they say. Our adult brains, together with our parenting culture, tell us that we have to stop this unpleasant and inappropriate behavior because if we don’t, it will never stop. So we isolate, punish, threaten, scream back at, shame or ignore—all of which tells the child she is being bad. Exactly the opposite direction we should take.

In the words of a 13 year old autistic boy describing his meltdowns in The Reason I Jump (a wonderful book), “It’s this feeling of helplessness that sometimes drives us half crazy…. When this is happening to us, please just let us cry, or yell, and get it all out. Stay close by and keep a gentle eye on us, and while we’re swept up in our torment, please stop us from hurting ourselves or others.” Granted he is autistic, but this is surely the experience of a three or four year old when the tornado of overwhelming feelings hits with no ability to filter the emotions out with reason. It’s pure development in a young child. When they are stressed (read: don’t get what they want or think they have to do what they don’t want), they lose it. This is normal and the most important time for parental compassion.

Tantrums in a two to four year old child are developmentally appropriate ways of releasing pent up emotions that children are not yet capable of managing—they cannot do anything but have a tantrum when stressed, overtired, or thwarted.

We want our children to learn that all emotions are normal and (eventually) in their control. Not that they are bad and shouldn’t feel the way they do. Young children are in every way egocentric and easily lose control when they are frustrated. Maturity will help them find that control. We need to trust their development. Normalizing their feelings does not mean allowing them to do or have what they want. But letting them know that their desires are natural and understandable helps them to gain better control of them.

When a child has a tantrum, she is in a very scary place. She doesn’t want to be there anymore than her parent wants her to be. Imagine being swept up by a tornado, and then imagine being three.

What to do when a tantrum hits:
  • Stay close and on the same level (on the floor if your child is on the floor).
  • Let your child know you are there waiting supportively. It is unlikely you can say anything she will be able to hear or physically comfort her.
  • Initially focus on keeping her and anything around her safe.
  • As soon as she is able to hear you and when she is ready, invite her for a hug. Slowly she will gain back enough control to curl into your lap for comfort.
  • Simply rock and hold your child.
  • At this point say, “Now look at that, you were able to bring yourself right out of that tantrum and back to being calm. You did that by yourself.” This infuses your child with capability for self-control as she grows toward being developmentally ready.
  • Ask, “Do you want to know what happened?” Often they have no memory of why the tornado hit. In an objective, simple way, explain what happened. “You wanted to have that cookie and I told you no. You got very angry with me for not letting you have the cookie—so angry you had a temper tantrum. Now that you got your anger out, you are all okay again.” This normalizes the situation for the child so she does not feel wrong or bad. With this understanding her tantrums will get fewer and further between.

An older child still having meltdowns should be managed in the same way.

Reasons for older meltdowns:
  • Ineffective or punitive parental reactions in the younger years causing the child cumulative feelings of being unacceptable and misunderstood
  • A more impulsive temperament or delayed impulse control due to any form of developmental delay
  • Stages of development: The literal and perfectionist stages leave a perfectly on track child unable to control frustration due to new cognitive understanding, i.e., loosing at a board game for a six year old can feel like complete failure.

Lacking good impulse control, children can have tantrums for many years. It always means your child cannot yet manage overwhelming feelings. This makes it all the more important for compassion and support and to continue to follow the steps above.


4 thoughts on “Taming Temper Tantrums

  1. Thank you for your post. It helped me get an additional idea. An autistic child may throw tantrum or behave aggressively when he is disappointed or frustrated as other children do. But he is not doing it intentionally, because as an autistic child, he is unable to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings. Punishment must fit the crime. Whenever possible, the only punishment should be experiencing the natural and logical consequences of an undesirable action. If an undesirable behavior happens repeatedly, and neither incentives nor disincentives seem to curb it, you should look closer for hidden causes. Behavior analysis techniques can be very useful in this regard.

    1. Walk, don’t run to your nearest bookstore (or amazon) and get a copy of “The Reason I Jump” by David Mitchell. It is amazing!!! The words of a 13 yo autistic child.
      I agree with what you say, however what you describe—natural and logical consequences—are not punishments. I never subscribe to punishments of any kind. “Regular” children do not throw tantrums intentionally either. They throw them because they can’t cope any longer.

  2. Thanks for this! My 3 year old has tantrums as you describe, but worse, as she is physically violent – either breaking/slamming/throwing things, or biting/kicking/scratching me or her dad. I try to do the steps you mention above, but how can I let her ‘get the anger out’ when I don’t want to let her hurt me or break things? I absolutely cannot, for example, just let her continue or even just shut her in a room, as she might hurt herself or break something. I try to hold her in my lap, telling her “I won’t let you break things/hurt me, I will hold you until you calm down” but she absolutely freaks out on me for a very long time and doesn’t stop. And the tantrums are becoming MORE frequent rather than less frequent. What can I do?

    1. It sounds like you are doing the right thing. You absolutely have to keep her from hurting herself, you or things. After the tyrade is over, wait for all emotions to calm and then talk to her. Ask her what would help her most when she is so upset. Ask what she would like most from you. Talk about what it’s like for her and for you and tell her your job is to keep her safe. But it is after it’s all over that is the only chance you have for making a plan, helping the situation, and being more prepared for the next one.

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