“Well, here we go,” I thought as my 2-year-old went from cute to screaming-pile-of-toddler in the blink of an eye. I’d seen this before. We were entering the dreaded tantrum phase.
As a childcare provider, tantrums hadn’t bothered me much. I loved the kids in my care and generally stayed calm when they had big feelings. I followed the steps I’d learned in my child development classes to help them through, and then we’d move on with our day.
Sticking to those steps as an exhausted mom turned out to be more difficult. When tantrums started happening on a regular basis, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by my son’s big feelings and doubting my skills at dealing with them.
After a particularly rough day, I decided it was time take a step back and revive my plan for handling tantrums. I needed tips on how to stay calm, keep my son safe, and support his development.
Based on my research, I put together this step-by-step plan. It has made all the difference for our family, and I hope it does the same for yours!
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Handle Tantrums Step-by-Step
Each child is different and you’ll likely be faced with tantrums in various situations during your child’s early years. While I think of the ideas below as “steps,” I often use them out of order and skip ones that don’t apply in the moment. Use them as you see fit with your family.
1. Stay calm. When faced with a tantrum, remind yourself that you don’t have to join a child in his big feelings. You’ll be much more effective in helping him if you keep your cool, accept what is happening and offer compassionate support.
Your child has a right to have a tantrum. You have the right to not participate. ~Amy McCready
If you feel stress coming on, try Dr. Laura Markham’s suggestion to “Stop, drop and breathe.”
2. Ensure Safety. The first priority during a tantrum is keeping the child, yourself and those around you safe. Depending on the situation, you might find it helpful to:
- Make the safe space. If possible, nudge furniture and hard objects away from flailing limbs and quietly remove possible projectiles.
- Move to a safe location. If you can’t make the space safe enough, you may need to move the child to a softer, safer location.
- Set clear limits by saying “I’m going to stop you from hitting,” while gently but firmly holding the child’s arm to prevent the blow from landing.
- Hold the child. Personally, I only hold a child who is having a tantrum if I can’t make it safe any other way.
Sometimes it’s necessary to restrain a child who is having a tantrum. Many of us equate physical restraint with violence and anger. But it is possible to physically hold a struggling child with gentleness and compassion. ~From Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser
3. Acknowledge feelings
Take big feelings seriously, even if the cause of them seems silly or cute. Acknowledge feelings by saying, “It looks like you’re mad right now,” or, “It looks like you’re frustrated that the block tower fell down.”
Acknowledging proves that we are paying attention, makes a child feel understood, accepted, deeply loved and supported. ~Janet Lansbury
4. Stay Close
Throughout the tantrum, stay close and listen to what your child has to say. This can be the most challenging part – especially if the tantrum goes on for a while! Resist the urge to “fix” the problem or to distract your child while you continue to make sure the child, and those around him, are safe.
Say less. Listen more. Be present, and don’t worry about teaching during the tantrum. ~Ariadne Brill
5. Meet Basic Needs
Although it’s generally a good idea to let tantrums wind down on their own accord, there are times that other factors get in the way of children finding resolution. ~From Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser
If your child is hungry, tired or otherwise uncomfortable, do what you can to meet his basic needs as soon as possible. You might say, “It’s past lunchtime and I’m wondering if you’re feeling hungry. Let’s go find something to eat,” or “I’m wondering if you’re feeling tired. Let’s find a quiet place to have a cuddle.”
An invitation to positive timeout may help her calm down enough to address her needs.
6. Learn from the Experience
Once the tantrum winds down, take mental notes. What happened right before the tantrum? Was the child hungry or tired? Was the environment overstimulating? When you find what is likely to trigger your child’s tantrums, you can more effectively prevent them in the future.
Our children need our help when they are overwhelmed by emotions. They need us to keep them safe, accept their feelings and offer support while being both kind and firm. When we handle tantrums in this way, we help them develop the skills they need to cope with their big feelings.