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How to Handle Child Tantrums: My Step by Step Guide

I’m Sure You’ve Had This Experience

Have you ever had the situation where your child is breaking down with a tantrum or meltdown over something upsetting to them? You feel confused about whether you should validate and show compassion for your child’s upset feelings and emotions. Or if you should discipline your child’s behavior (the screaming, yelling, being loud and possibly kicking/hitting or being disrespectful)?

Tonight I had my 5 year old child having a tantrum over not getting to do what he wanted to do because of approaching bedtime.  The shouting, screaming, yelling….he brought it ALL ON, at 100% intensity! But I’ll tell you something. At this point of my life I’m not the slightest bit confused about what to do with this situation.  

How Do I Handle the Tantrums?

I’m no softy where you can milk anything out of me with a tantrum because I’m a tough mama!  Yet, not so tough that I don’t care about the child’s feelings. I know just when to push, to pull back, to console, to guide, train, teach, to dote and when to be tough! And I’ll tell you, it’s a real art. It’s a dance!

Many times, when consulting with a psychologist, medical doctor, or a behaviorist about your child’s tantrum over not getting something they want, you get more confused.  They all have different things to say about it.

They are all valid, but it’s sure confusing in the moment of that tantrum wondering if you should be caring and comforting or stern and disciplinary.  People ask what I do.

I take a holistic approach and incorporate key aspects from each philosophy. I also use my observations and experience on what breeds a self-sufficient, emotionally healthy, happy, respectful, and responsible child. My goal is to give them life skills that lead to their success as an adult.  Isn’t that what we want for our children?

How You Handle the Tantrums Will Impact How Your Child Handles Life in The Future

What you do during those moments of upset tantrums has everything to do with how your child will experience and handle life in the future.  I’ll walk you through it.

Let me start off by a bit of a generalization on what each field and school of thought tends to emphasize.  Again, it’s a generalization, but you’ll get the idea of different schools of thought on the approach to a child’s tantrum.  

If you talk to a psychologist about what you should do with your child’s tantrum, he’ll tell you to validate the child’s feelings when they are upset.  That’s good mental health. Unvalidated feelings bottled up can lead to a load of long term issues including depression, other complex, and suicide.

If you talk to a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, whose strength is in medicine, they may send you home with a prescription to stabilize your child’s mood should your child’s tantrum be deemed “excessive”.  (I’ve been there. I’ve gone from a very colorful “cocktail of drugs” with my children to 100% med-free and happy).

If you talk to a behaviorist, they’ll make a plan emphasizing on fixing the behavior – getting your child to stop the tantrum. You may get into things like “carrot and the stick” – things that reward your child for not tantruming and undesirable consequences that discourage your child from tantruming and behaving inappropriately when upset.

So What SHOULD You Do?

When your child is in the middle of screaming and yelling uncontrollably, just what exactly do you do as a parent witnessing the scene?

Do you sit next to them and comfort them, validating their upset feelings?  Do you call your MD and up their meds? Or do you discipline and give consequences for yelling, screaming, hitting/kicking or whatnot?

First, there are several important areas you need to cover with your tantrum response:

  • Emotional Health & Validation
  • Appropriate Behavior & Discipline
  • Self-regulation (a skill the child needs to acquire through your teaching)
  • Self-awareness
  • Impulse Control (yet, another skill your child needs)

The way you handle your child’s tantrum must satisfy all of the above needs of your child.  Why are they important?

Here is what the lack of each above aspects can lead to in the long run:

  1. Without properly addressing Emotional Health – you’d end up with anxiety, depression and all that you don’t want to be dealing with down the road …
  2. If you don’t properly address “appropriate behavior” and discipline – you’d end up with a misbehaved brat.
  3. Without self-regulation, the child doesn’t know what to do with his intense feelings and emotions. The child goes from 0 to 60 in no time. They ride the roller coaster with every single event of the day, without ever having enough “stability” to fully enjoy the richness of their emotions.
  4. Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, according to Psychologist Daniel Goleman (author of best-selling book Emotional Intelligence).  People with higher self-awareness act more proactively rather than react passively, and have more overall success in life.
  5. Without impulse control, people get into some serious troubles.  How many of the things you hear about on the news everyday can be prevented with better impulse control?
Begin to See Tantrums as Opportunities!

Do you see where I’m going with this?  It’s certainly not just a tantrum or a brief moment of outburst that you need to sit through with ear plugs; it’s teaching about life!  This is your opportunity to give your child crucial elements and skills to succeed in life.

Stop thinking of tantrums as “what, this again?!” and start seeing tantrums as opportunities to mold and guide your child into a happier and more successful life.

Now that you understand the depth of the matter, let’s get back to my screaming five year old tonight.  What exactly did I do to cover these grounds? Below I outline step by step what to do in a tantrum that is a reaction of a child not getting his or her way.  

My Step by Step Guide to Dealing with Tantrums

There are many reasons and causes of tantrums and meltdowns, depending on what the cause is, you deal with it differently.  

These steps are specifically for situations when a child simply doesn’t get his or her way and is upset about that.

Step 1: Narratives to enhance child self-awareness:

The first thing I said to my son was “You are so frustrated and angry!”  “You realize it’s bedtime and you are so frustrated that you have to wait till tomorrow to watch your program!”  And I said this with energy matching his to reflect his intense emotions. This narrative about the child’s current state and emotions teaches the child self-awareness because it brings awareness about his current state to himself.  Most times when children are in this heightened state of emotional arousal they don’t even realize what’s going on with them (ie, no self-awareness). The first step is to help them recognize their internal state so that they can better monitor their inner world. He paused for a brief second, as if he was registering what I said, or at least, processing.

Step 2: Validation for feelings to promote mental and emotional health:

I then continued by validating his feelings “You want what you want and you want it right now!  And it’s so frustrating not to be able to do what you want to do right now” “You don’t want to go to bed and you don’t want to wait till tomorrow.  I would feel the same way as you do if this happened to me.” “I’m sorry.”

Why is this good mental and emotional health?  Because this teaches the child that his feelings and emotions are not only noticed, but they are important, valid, and real.

Have you ever gotten comments that made you feel worse when you are upset?  “You shouldn’t feel this way” “That’s nothing to get upset about” “Don’t be mad.”  These are all remarks that implie that your feelings aren’t real and shouldn’t be. But feelings are feelings; there is no should or shouldn’t.  Feelings simply need to be validated. Validating is the first step to helping your child process his or her feelings. If you can’t validate their feelings, they won’t come to acceptance with their feelings, and if they don’t come to acceptance with their feelings, they won’t ever move on conducively with or from their feelings.

Step 3: Put a Pause – Impulse Control

Now that you have brought them some self-awareness and validated their feelings, it’s time to help them put a pulse on this wild outburst and instill some impulse control.  Impulse Control is something that’s going to take years of practice to master, especially for a child who has Sensitive Divergent Needs and tends to feel things a lot stronger than most children.

But you can teach impulse control if you intervene right before your child acts upon his natural impulses.  In other words, you need to catch the second right before they act on impulse, and insert a layer of logical thinking in there.

And if you do it enough times, eventually (I’m talking months and years) your child will learn to put a pulse himself and insert the logical thinking himself before he acts out of impulse. Here is what I do.

After I reflected and validated his upset feelings, I inserted the logic layer by saying to him, “It’s ok to feel angry and disappointed.  But when we are angry, we need to think about the wise thing to do.”

Step 4: Make The Child’s Options Clear

I then lay out the options, “you can decide to continue to yell and scream, or you can decide to quiet down, take a rest, and enjoy your program tomorrow”.

They need to be shown the options when they have no logic and are acting out of impulse, such as yelling, screaming, crying, hitting/kicking, etc.

“The first choice will disturb the peace in the family and still won’t get you to watch your program tonight; plus it will cause you to lose time on our special ‘family fun night’ on Friday.  The second choice will help you feel so much better, you’ll get to enjoy your program tomorrow, have ‘family fun night’ on Friday, and be so proud of yourself for accepting things when you don’t get your way”. [big smile on my face].  

By now a child can usually evaluate the situation a little better. (Unless they are stubborn and inflexible like some of mine.)

They need to be told to pause and look at their options, as well as the outcome of each option. If you do this enough, eventually they will learn to pause themselves, evaluate their options, and make choice that will lead to a desirable outcome themselves. That’s what self-control is – think before you act.

Step 5: Self-regulation:

This step of teaching self-regulation is mostly occurring outside of tantrums, in everyday life.  Children who are challenged with self-regulation skills need to practice regulating their own emotions with calming strategies.  The child needs to practice these calming skills on a regular (daily) basis.

During times when we are calm and feeling good, we review together strategies to employ when they get upset. These include deep breathing, listening to music, looking at books, using visual things, looking at things that make us happy, moving our bodies, etc.  These strategies need to be practiced on a regular basis. Schools may practice fire drills on a monthly basis so the students know what to do when there is a real emergency. It’s the same idea with self-regulation methods. Children need to be taught how to regulate themselves when they get over excited or upset.

During an upsetting moment, all I do is remind my son of the calming strategies he can employ and point him to the things he needs (music, visual objects, books….whatever he practices using on a regular basis)

Step 6: Appropriate Behavior and Discipline:

Many parents believe that they should be so comforting and so concerned with their children’s feeling that they are afraid to discipline the behaviors when their children are upset.  They are afraid their children will grow up with a complex because they didn’t get the comfort and the doting when they were upset. I told you I believe in validating feelings and emotional health, but I also believe in behaving appropriately, respectfully, and having discipline.

So far you’ve taught self-awareness through step 1 and taken care of your child’s feelings through step 2. You inserted some logical thinking to stop the impulse through step 3. In step 4, you made the child’s options clear.  Step 5 provided  guidance to self-regulate, but your child is refusing to take a proactive action. If he is still insisting on throwing a tantrum, it’s time to draw the line in the sand. That line is about what is or isn’t an acceptable behavior.

You need to be able to see through the tantrum and make a judgement. Decide whether it is behavioral or not behavioral. It’s behavioral if the child is perfectly able to stop, but just wants to throw a tantrum for a certain gain. If it’s not so much behavioral it is a lack of skill in a certain area.  Like I said before, you should deal with different causes of tantrums differently.

Tantrum behaviors involving screaming and yelling loudly are very hard to treat. The the child knows that the vocalization bothers you. He knows there is absolutely nothing you can do short of stuffing something into his mouth and taping it shut (not that I or you should do that). He’s got you on this one.

If you are firm about your ground, your child may plan a type of revenge. He may be thinking “I can’t get my way, and there’s nothing I can do to change your mind”. “But the least I can do is to bother you with my loudness and my vocal protest that crawls under your skin when you hear it!”  

Step 7: The Message Must be Clear

I’m too seasoned to let the protest get to me.  If, by this step, the child’s tantrum hasn’t settled, I draw a line in the sand with a neutral voice, “I understand you are upset.  But you need to stop yelling and screaming”.

If the child still doesn’t stop, I take the child to his room to pull himself together. This is according to our house rule. Only then can he rejoin the family. His family will be there to love and comfort, but shouldn’t suffer from his yelling and screaming.

The message here is pretty clear. You cannot join the family or be around others until you can behave appropriately and respectfully.  True in real life society, right? If you are in the habbit or mistreating, misbehaving, or disrespecting others, you’ll end up with no friends.

In our home, there is love, compassion, validation, support, and real life teaching.  Some aspects of how I run our household are like a mini real society. The children need to learn how to operate in the real world.

After all of the other steps, it is your child’s responsibility to learn how to pull himself together.  At times, the more you “tangle” with your tantruming child, the worse things get. It becomes more escalated it becomes because oftentimes difficult behaviors feed upon attention (good or bad attention).  Be careful of how much attention you are giving to an undesirable behavior.

Use Tantrums to Promote Good Mental and Emotional Health

Better Behavior

Tantrums are intense moments.  Follow the steps I outlined above. You will promote healthy mental and emotional health. In addition, you validate your child’s feelings, teach impulse control, self-regulation, self-awareness, and appropriate behaviors. You can turn each one of those unpleasant moments into a learning and growing opportunity for your child.

What behaviors are tripping up your child?  Email me

Whether you child’s tantrums are frequent or not, those tantrums are rarely “Out of the Blue“. Listen to our podcast series “Is this Behavior Really Out of the Blue?” to learn more.

About the author, Luiza

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