Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org
Photo credit: Creative Child Magazine

Tantrums. They’re one of the most talked about behaviors in the parenting world. They’re even one of the top behaviors that cause parents to lose their cool with their kids. No doubt, tantrums give parents a hard time. The truth is, though, that during a tantrum, your child is having a hard time. Tantrums aren’t always a matter of defiance, especially in young children. There’s a logical, scientific, brain-based reason why your child is throwing a fit, and armed with this knowledge, you can handle tantrums more effectively.

As parents, we are usually given these 2 pieces of advice about tantrums.

  1. Ignore the child.
  2. NEVER give in.

We are told that if we engage with a child in any way during a tantrum, we are basically reinforcing the bad behavior. We believe if we ignore it, the behavior will stop, and because we are led to believe that a tantruming child is a manipulative child, we know we must never, at any cost, give in to their demands.

Unfortunately, this advice has us only looking at the behavior, not at the often-hurting child behind it. It drives us to push away our children rather than bringing them closer and offering comfort in times of need. Tantrums are a strong emotional reaction to a stimulus. When the information coming in trips an alarm and gets sent to our more primitive limbic system rather than our cortex (the higher brain which houses logic and reasoning), a tantrum can result. It actually takes a lot of maturity and self-control to not tantrum, because when that alarm gets tripped, our bodies get flooded with hormones that make us want to fight or run.

Yes, sometimes kids have a tantrum just to get their way. Tina Bryson, PhD calls this an upstairs tantrum. The child is in control (not acting from the lower brain), and pitching a fit to try and get her way. This is embarrassingly similar to our parental tantrums, isn’t it? “My kid won’t do anything I say until I start screaming!” So, we pitch a fit to get our kid to act. Then, we get really mad when our kid pitches a fit to get us to act.

But the truth is that doesn’t mean that you are manipulative or mean or bad. It doesn’t mean your kid is either. It simply means that, at that particular moment, both of you are out of resources. You have no idea how to get your need met in that moment other than to tantrum.

In either case, ignoring a child isn’t going to be effective. If it even appears to work, it’s likely she’s just learned to stuff her feelings down and not show them to you, which has no place in a healthy relationship.

The advice to never give in also isn’t helpful. It’s a blanket statement that doesn’t take into account the many different scenarios and personalities in play. If the child wants the blue cup and you bristle, refusing to give the blue cup just so you “don’t give in,” ask yourself if giving the blue cup is really going to ruin your kid. I don’t like the term “pick your battles” but there isn’t much point in making mountains out of molehills. There are enough mountains to climb as is.

So, what’s a parent to do when a child has a tantrum? I’ve asked my parenting expert and educator friends to send me their best tantrum resources, and I’ve compiled them for you in one place, the Ultimate Guide to Tantrums.

For Brain Science:
Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums by Tina Payne-Bryson, PhD
Why We Should NOT Ignore a Tantrum by Tina Payne-Bryson, PhD
Why Kids Have Temper Tantrums by Dirt & Boogers
The End of All Tantrums by Nathan McTague

Preventing Tantrums:
4 Surefire Ways to Prevent Tantrums by Dirt & Boogers
How to Stop Tantrums Now and Prevent Them Later by TRU Parenting
5 Keys to Setting Limits that Minimize Tantrums and Meltdowns by Parenting Beyond Punishment

Tips for Handling Tantrums:
Toddlers, Tantrums, and Time-Ins, Oh My! By L.R. Knost
How to Manage Toddler Tantrums by Nicole Schwarz
A Brain-Based Way to Stop Your Child’s Tantrum by Nicole Schwarz
Getting Rid of Car Seat Tantrums by Creative with Kids
Tantrums: Emotional Regulation or Pure Manipulation? by Not Just Cute
How to Turn a Temper Tantrum into a Teachable Moment by The (Reformed) Idealist Mom
Stop Tantrums: 33 Phrases to Use with Toddlers by Andrea Nair
Tantrum Tamers: 32 Phrases to Use with 3 and 4 Year Olds by Andrea Nair

There’s an App for That!
Who can remember all of that great information in the moment every single time? Now there’s an incredible app! The Taming Tantrums app was developed a positive parenting expert and is helpful for more than just tantrums. It’s available for iPhone and Android.

My Tantrum Tips:

I know you don’t have time to read all of those at once, so here are my tips for dealing with tantrums:

1. Never withdraw your love and attention.
You don’t have to necessarily give the child more attention, but don’t ignore his very existence. That hurts. Acknowledge his distress and empathize with it, even if you have to do it from a distance. Some children want held, some want left alone, all want to feel loved and understood.

2. Teach her to recognize and label emotions.
There are a lot of ways to do this besides just naming them as they happen. There are free printables online, books, and other resources to teach emotional intelligence. Also, help them see and acknowledge what triggers them. “You get really upset when it’s time to leave Grandma’s. Let’s work on ways to help you feel better about that.”

3. Teach specific ways to deal with emotions.
My son used to love to pop a balloon when he was angry. He was two years old at the time. All kids (and adults) have different ways of calming themselves. Some like music. Others reading. Still others need to do something physical like clap their hands or rip paper. If they have an appropriate outlet for releasing their frustration, over time they’ll learn to seek that outlet first.

4. Don’t punish. Teach.
Talk about whatever caused the tantrum after it’s over and talk about ways to improve or handle the situation better. Teaching skills is always more effective than punishment. Just be sure to wait until the tantrum is over because when they’re operating from that lower brain, they aren’t going to take in the lesson.

5. Control yourself.
Tantrums can trigger our own strong emotional reaction. Put your own oxygen mask on first. We can’t teach kids how to do better if we can’t do better ourselves.

6. Give a little grace.
We are all human beings here. That doesn’t excuse poor behavior, but if you’ve ever lost it on your kid, you can empathize with that strong feeling that makes us all behave poorly from time to time. Learn better. Teach them better. Give a little grace when it’s needed.

There are loads of articles on the web about tantrums, all with contradicting advice, and many of them will tell you it’s best to ignore the child. It can be difficult to know what you should really do.

A good guiding question: How would you want to be treated?

I encourage you to tune in and listen to what your own heart tells you to do.

**This article was originally published at Creative Child Magazine.

For more of my Positive Parenting articles featured in Creative Child Magazine, click here.