Why You Don’t Have To Stop Temper Tantrums
I have bad news for any of you with children under the age of… well… 25: you can’t stop temper tantrums. It would be akin to stopping a thunderstorm once the clouds are in the sky, or a smudged pedicure because you forgot your flip flops. The outcome is inevitable. There is no stopping the eruption of emotion that springs forth from a yet-to-be-matured limbic system (which is made up of the areas of the brain that process our emotional reactions). Like wine, it takes many years of patient waiting for those pathways in the brain to process emotion in a regulated way. And, like wine, the limbic system requires us (the parents) to provide a nurturing environment for the child for optimal maturation without actually interfering. If you’ve read articles about “how to stop a tantrum fast” or “10 tricks to tame a tantrum”, then maybe you’ve tried many methods of stopping a tantrum with various levels of success. Or maybe you’ve witnessed first hand at home (or at Target) that all the tricks in the world will not keep a toddler from reacting volcanically.
Does this seem frustrating? Are you frustrated anyway?
Well, here’s the good news. You don’t have to “stop” temper tantrums. The child is the only one that can do that. You’re only role in those moments is to be the absolute BEST version of yourself that you can be. Can you think back to any other really stressful moment in your life? Maybe getting through finals in college, or breaking up your first relationship, or any serious argument you’ve had with a parent or sibling? Often tantrum behavior in our children brings up in us the same reaction we had in our other past stressful situations. In the throws of a tantrum, are you taking it personally? Feeling embarrassed? I doubt you’re looking down at your precious baby who’s just thrown themselves on the floor of Kohl’s screaming because you’re not buying them a fidget spinner (not that I’m speaking from experience…) and thinking “what an amazing child I have! I love you soooo much!”.
No. Instead you’re flooded with fight or flight hormones, either trying to reason with them or threatening with consequences, maybe physically removing them from the situation (extra points for the football carry), and abandoning whatever it was you were desperately trying to accomplish and now just trying to survive.
The hardest message to share with you is not how to prevent tantrums, but how to understand them.
Here’s what you CAN do. Be prepared, and have an ’emergency’ plan in place, like you would for any other type of calamity. Lets pretend your toddler falls and gets a bloody nose while you’re out. Thankfully this is not a bad injury, but *ugh* super messy. What would you do? You would be concerned! Ok. Maybe a little annoyed, but of all the emotions and thoughts you’d have in that moment the most pressing would be how you can help your child and make the bleeding stop. You’d have to put your cart (or meal or oil change) aside and head to a bathroom. You’d (hopefully) have a bag with an extra kid’s T-shirt and probably some helpful staff or good Samaritan parents nearby getting you some paper towels. Within 10minutes your child would be all cleaned up, toilet paper proudly pressed to the nose, back to whatever errand or life event was going on at that moment.
Now pretend its not a bloody nose, but a tantrum. Because a tantrum is not just ‘bad’ behavior. It is an unwanted behavior that you are teaching your child to eliminate.
Lets repeat this, because its worth re-wording:
Teaching a child to not tantrum is a SKILL, and it is our job to teach them how to react in a more socially acceptable way.
A skill, like walking. Or eating. You wouldn’t get angry every time your child fell off their bike. They’re learning how to ride. You don’t take it personally when they can’t tie they’re shoes if you’ve not yet sat down to teach them how. This goes back to modeling your best behavior when faced with stressful or frustrating situations. You can’t except your child to learn how to process their feelings appropriately when you yourself demonstrate name calling, yelling, and dole out punitive punishments. Not that I mind yelling (see my blog post where we streamlined our morning routine so I would stop screaming like a maniac) but I’ve found count downs and immediate consequences go a lot further to championing my cause than yelling at the same decibel as the child and taking away something for weeks. For example, an older child who throws toys gets that toy taken away for the day. If you have an infant (under age 1), they’re going to throw things. Prepare for that, and only give them toys that are ok to throw! But for the older toddler, saying they don’t get any screen time that day because they threw a toy doesn’t make any sense to them. They haven’t learned not to throw something because their brains haven’t matured to the point of making those more distant connections.
Calmly issue your consequence and MOVE ON. This is the hardest part. The child was upset. They’ve had their tantrum. They’ve screamed, kicked, bit, thrown some stuff. You’ve managed to get them to a quiet space, told them you understand they’re upset, explained what isn’t acceptable, and worked out a solution. Now the child is feeling better but you are not. Not by a long shot. They’re recovered and you’re still fuming! You think the child doesn’t respect you. You think the preschooler should know better. Or maybe you’re feeling guilty about how you handled the tantrum. Maybe you’re thinking you’re too strict, or not strict enough, and thus ineffective. Maybe you’re taking a more abstract approach and wondering why the universe is out to get you today. Yes? Yes. But all of these thoughts come from the same incorrect assumption: that you are somehow responsible for how a child thinks, feels, or reacts. Since when can you control everything?? You CAN control how you react, and you CAN learn from what your child is telling you.
You CAN take the opportunity to teach your child that the screaming/kicking/biting will not get them what they want but will get them compassion.
A child has a tantrum because they can no longer process what they’re experiencing, whether its because they’re tired, hungry, afraid, frustrated, or confused. Maybe they’re not developmentally ready to handle whatever it is you’re asking them to do. Maybe its going to take more trips to the store to make it clear what your expectations are. Never assume your child ‘knows better’, because children inherently WANT to do well, and will do well if
they can. Give your child the benefit of the doubt, that whatever is going through their heads must be pretty overwhelming to trigger such an impressive reaction. You’ve raised a good child, and their behavior is not a reflection of your parenting. Its your response to their behavior thats the true test, and tempering your response is the hardest ‘tantrum tip’ to share. Take a deep breath before you say or do anything. Distract with a game, song, hug if you can. Don’t underestimate the power of acknowledging their feelings! “I can see you’re upset.” You’re not apologizing for the situation, you’re simply expressing that you see your child and you understand they’re hurting. For some, making silly faces or offering an acceptable alternative (“no” to a lollipop, “yes” to a sticker) can make all the difference. And while you don’t have to explain every single decision you make – you are the adult – you might need to take a moment to get to their eye level and use a few simple sentences to explain whats going on. Most importantly, no matter what, be respectful with your language. Even if the child is hitting, spitting, biting, destroying. They will learn from your example in those lowest moments and you want that lesson to be this: that you cannot be shaken. You are their rock, their foundation, and no storm can break you.
I made a cheatsheet of my best temper tantrum tips! Click here to get my list of steps you can take, broken down by age, from 12 months to age 4.
Feel free to go cry in the bathroom later. But like any emergency, your child needs you to be present, effective, calm, and capable. You are all those things and more!! Trust yourself. Know that all the yelling and time-outs in the world are no replacement for a calm presence and respectful compassion.