How to handle tantrums when they happen

Sometimes tantrums happen, no matter what we do to avoid them. When a tantrum happens, the way to respond depends on our child’s age:

  • For toddlers, time-in works well – we should stay close, offer comfort, and reassure children that we understand their feelings.
  • For older children, we can use 5 calming down steps – we should identify the emotion, name it, pause, support our child while they calm down, and address the issue that sparked the tantrum.

And these tips might help tantrums pass with less distress for everyone:

  • We should make sure that our child and others nearby are safe. This might mean carrying our child somewhere else if we need to.
  • Once our child is in a safe place, we should calmly acknowledge the emotion they are expressing – we should speak slowly and in a low voice.
  • We should stay quietly with our child until they calm down and ouch or hold them if they want we to, or give them more physical space if they need it. We should not try to reason with our child.
  • We should be consistent about not giving in to demands. This will help our child learn that tantrums and we should not help them get what they want.
  • We should try a ‘paradoxical instruction’. This means giving our child permission to scream and shout until they are ready to stop. For example, ‘You can yell louder if you want to. It is a big park and we are not bothering anyone’.
  • We should comfort our child when they have calmed down. A tantrum is distressing for everyone.

Tantrums in preschoolers and early school-age children

At this age, children are also better able to understand that their actions have effects. For example, after our child has calmed down from their tantrum, we could explain that a natural consequence of having a tantrum is that other children might not want to play with them.

Coping with tantrums: managing our own feelings

If we can stay calm when our child is having a tantrum, it gives our child a model of calm behaviour. Here are ideas for staying calm and keeping things in perspective during tantrums:

  • Have a clear plan for how we will handle a tantrum in whatever situation we are in. Concentrate on putting our plan into action when the tantrum happens.
  • Accept that we cannot control our child’s emotions or behaviour directly. We can only keep our child safe and guide their behaviour so tantrums are less likely to happen in the future.
  • Accept that it takes time for change to happen. our child has a lot of growing up to do before tantrums are gone forever. Developing and practising self-regulation skills is a life-long task.
  • Beware of thinking that our child is doing it on purpose or trying to upset us. Children do not have tantrums deliberately. They are stuck in a bad habit or do not have the skills right now to cope with the situation.
  • Keep our sense of humour. We should not laugh at the tantrum – if we do, it might reward our child with attention. It might also upset our child even more if they think we are laughing at them.
  • If other people give, us dirty looks, ignore them. They have either never had children or it has been so long that they have forgotten what it is like.

Some way to help a child who is having a tantrum

Talk to them – but keep it really slow and simple

If we try to talk to a child when they are feeling enraged or overwhelmed, they will not always be able to process and understand what we are saying to them. So, when we speak, it might help to say each word very slowly and calmly and use just very simple language.

Our calmness and our soft, slow and gentle tones may rub off on them and help them regulate their emotion. Sometimes it is just necessary to be present as a calm figure whilst the child is ‘letting off steam’ or having an emotional outburst. Let them know that we are there with them and they are not alone. Help them feel that the tantrum they are having is manageable, and not a cause for alarm. A child should always feel that they are in a safe environment whenever tantrums occur, and that there is help at hand.

Give them a hug

A hug can soothe and calm and make a child feel safe. They may be feeling alarmed by their own behaviour.

Mention the incident that made them react, but in a way that shows we understand the reason for their reaction

We should think about what might have caused the anger or emotion to rise in the child. if we know what it was, we could also spell out what we think is happening for them at the same time in a way that makes them feel understood. If they were being e.g. “I know that it can make we feel bad when someone takes away a toy.”

If they are tearful, suggest they come with us to wash their face

Sometimes the act of putting cool water on their face will have a calming effect and help them regulate their emotions. This will also help the child feel that we are there for them and attending to their needs.

Encourage them to burn off some energy

We should find a way to get rid of the physical feelings. We could encourage them run to the end of the playground and back, or to jump or stamp.

Distract them

We could try and distract them by pointing at the sky and ask them to count the clouds or point to an interesting item in the classroom – or talk about a topic that we know interests them. (But do avoid giving treats to make them feel better. Giving a child something like a sweet to get them to stop behaviour can actually prompt them to do it again.)

Suggest they come to our setting’s ‘quiet space’

If we have one, suggest they walk with we to the special class ‘quiet space’ to calm down and regulate their feelings.

Suggest the child label the emotion they are feeling

We should help the child find words to name the particular feeling they might have. We could also get them to think about how it’s affecting them or their body.

Maybe we can ask them to explain to us how they are feeling, or where and how they feel it in their body (e.g.“does it make our head feel funny, or our heart race?”) This will also help them to talk about them and explore their feelings.

Tell them to take a number of deep breaths, or ‘scrunch and release’.

We might like to tell them to breathe whilst taking deep breaths at the same time so they can copy us. Another calming exercise is to tell them to scrunch up their face or fists and then release them.

Tell them to count to 10

Ask for help if we need it

Sometimes we all need to ask for help – so do not be afraid to ask colleague to help us.

If children get this kind of help from us, they will soon start to learn how to do these things themselves and move towards being able to regulate themselves.

So, as we can see, it is actually pretty necessary for a child to have tantrums so they can learn different ways to manage them. It is also important for children to feel safe enough to be able to express all their emotions, to learn about their feelings, and feel that they are being heard by the adults around them. Sometimes they need to have their feelings communicated back to them in a way they can understand.

Remove the child from the situation

If we are at home and our child is unable to calm down, we should try a time out. We should ake them to a quiet area that’s free of any safety hazards. Here are some tips for time outs:

  • The recommended length of a time-out is 1 minute for each year of a child’s age, up to a maximum of 5 minutes. So, a typical time-out for a 2-year-old is 2 minutes.
  • The goal is for our child to calm down and remain in the time out space until the time-out is finished.
  • We can try setting a timer to keep track of the time. The beep will signal to our child that the time-out has ended.
  • If tantrum behaviors continue after the time out, start the time-out again.
  • With older children, we can try letting them decide how long to stay in time-out. Ask our child to come back from time-out when they feel ready.

If we are out in public, it’s best to ignore the tantrum unless our child is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. In that case, the best response is to stop what we are doing and leave with our child.

Acknowledge our child’s frustration

Letting our child know that we understand their emotions can sometimes help them calm down. Even if we do not agree with our child’s feelings, we can confirm that we hear their frustration.

We should try to clearly name the emotion our child is expressing. This can help our child learn to identify emotions over time.

Steps to take after a tantrum

Temper tantrums can be tough on us and our child. Here are some ways to connect with our child after the fact and help them understand our expectations.

Praise our child when they behave well

Show approval when our child behaves well. This can include hugs, smiles, and verbal praise. It is just as important to reinforce good behavior as it is to try to decrease unwanted behavior.

Create an incentive chart

We can try displaying a simple chart. Trusted Source with routine tasks like “get dressed” and “brush teeth.” When a task is completed without disruption, we can place a sticker or check mark on the chart to draw attention to our child’s good behavior.

Do not ignore behaviors that can harm

It is not unusual for a toddler to occasionally throw things, bite, kick, or hit during a tantrum. Our child may not yet understand that they could be causing pain or harm.

But whenever this kind of disruptive behavior happens, it’s important to immediately remove our child from the situation. Clearly and calmly tell them that their actions are not acceptable. Be consistent whenever it happens to help our child learn.

Help our child feel noticed and loved

Sometimes children have tantrums because they are feeling sensitive or like they are not getting enough attention.

We can try to understand their needs by talking with them, reading books about feelings together, and giving them lots of positive attention when they are not having a tantrum.

How to handle tantrums when they happen

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