Tantrums: Are You Making Them Worse?

Tantrums are zero fun.  In fact, your child feels that way too. 

A tantrum is a cry for help, a plea for you to set firm limits, or an automatic emotional response.  It's always a misguided way to get what you need, and your child only continues because it's working.  

In this article, I go over common questions I receive from parents about setting kind and firm limits and dealing with tantrums.  

These answers are based on NVC, Positive Discipline, RIE, and my many years of personal failures and success in this area.  By the way, this process will work on adults too, if you change the language around a bit.

So Leanne, I created some limits, and even tried to enforce them with my child. But she's throwing fits and screaming every time I say “We eat at the table”. I try to explain about cockroaches and spills, and it just makes it worse. Help!

Young children need to go through the process of a tantrum when they are very upset. Trying to calm them down, explain, distract, or also getting angry in the moment makes it MUCH worse. Children have only used their physical bodies for communicating until learning to speak, so they instinctively respond with crying, violence, or movement when they get upset.

I challenge you to let your child feel and express their emotions: both positive and negative. You aren't doing her any favors by dismissing, distracting, or squashing her feelings. In fact, you'll be damaging her long-term emotional health.  It won't feel good at first (or ever) to sit through your child's emotions, but know that you are guiding the very important work of self-regulation and expression in a healthy way.  Try to wait it out, and only step in for safety reasons or to meet other’s needs.

Leanne, I understand your lofty ideas about setting limits and being firm and consistent, but I live in the real world. My child starts screaming in the supermarket because I won't buy that blue sugar masquerading as cereal, and I can't just “wait for her to calm down.”

Yeah, you can't.  It's disrespectful to everyone else in the store to allow your child to have a full-blown tantrum.  Let's assume you've already taken some measures to prevent an emotional breakdown by limiting your time in the store, giving your child a way to participate, and limiting what aisles you walk through.  If you still find yourself with a screaming child in a public place, you can deal with it respectfully by excusing yourselves. Go to the restroom, sit out in the car, whatever. You can always finish your shopping later, it's not more important than your child. Check if your child is really hungry, tired, or needs to use the bathroom. Then, you can begin to re-connect and process.

Aren't I encouraging her behavior by letting her be angry?!  How will she learn to respect me? Shouldn't I just distract her and keep her happy? 

First of all, your child's emotions are not about you and not yours to regulate.  Young children haven't developed the ability to control their emotions on their own, getting upset is involuntary.  Distract a child when this happens, and she learns to dismiss her emotions, lose her intuition, and rely on outside sources to soothe her feelings.  Help her process and work through her feelings (after she's calm again) and she'll learn the tools to mange her emotions in a healthy, acceptable way.  Keep reading to see how to remain firm on what you expect, and focus on connecting first. 

Ok, my child's finally calm, but I re-stated the limit and she lost her mind again. What am I doing wrong!?

With all tantrums, focus on connecting with your child and reaching an agreement that meets your expectations and limits, rather than a power struggle, or directly correcting her behaviour. Reflect on what you are feeling and needing, and what your child might be feeling and needing. I find this Nonviolent Communication Chart really helpful here.  What is really going on? What might your child be after?

Help your child recognize and name their emotions: “Wow, you sounded very angry.” “Are you frustrated we have to leave?” Avoid telling your child how she feels, keep it a question or suggestion. Make sure your child knows that it is ok to have these emotions without risking your love and support.

Ask questions to see if your understanding is correct, and repeat back what you heard. Fill in missing words or make a guess if your child offers little response. “Are you feeling excited about your friend visiting soon? Would you like something to eat? Do you want to choose?”

Children understand more than they can express back. They are searching for the words! Guessing your child’s feelings automatically changes your attitude towards the situation and allows you to empathize. As a bonus, it models emotional expressive language in a way that young children can grasp the meaning. 

Only after you have connected with your child can you re-state the limit and expect her cooperation. 

We did all these things, and I heard what my daughter wants. She wants to run in the store, and I can't let her do that. So.... do I have to let her run in the store now?

No, don't change your limits or expectations because your child threw a tantrum. Changing the limits and “giving in” may work in the moment and make conflicts disappear, but will make things worse next time. Focus on finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs within the established “rules”.

Reach an agreement for what to do next. You might offer two suggestions, or hear your child’s ideas for how to solve the problem. “So, you really want to run. We can run outside, or you can continue walking inside. What do you want to do?”

You can offer more explanation for an older child, and encourage them to come up with a solution:

“It's not safe to run in here. Can you guess why not?”

“Why do you want to run?.... How else can you (play that game, get the milk first, focus your energy) here in the store without running?

My child had a tantrum and destroyed our living room, called his sister names, and then screamed in my ear. I did my best to remain calm, kind, and firm (it was really hard!) and gave him space. After he calmed down, we re-connected and I learned that he had a bad day at school and felt frustrated. How do I help him handle all this collateral damage and make sure he knows that his actions aren't acceptable?

If you've done all the previous steps, and now you have a situation where amends need to be made after the storm, you've got a wonderful opportunity to teach responsibility. Remember, the point isn't to “make your child sorry” or “make him feel bad for his actions”. You'll just undermine your child's autonomy and unravel everything you've just done.

You want to establish why the situation requires amends, and what needs you have as the adult, without creating guilt, shame, or punishment. Begin with a neutral observation, and state what you need/ why this bothers you:

“So, while you were upset, I noticed you knocked over our chairs, said nasty things to your sister, and screamed in my ear. I need your sister and I to feel safe and be respected. We all use these chairs, and I need your support in taking care of our things.

You can offer suggestions to “make it right” and help meet everyone's needs for younger children. As your child gets older, she can help come to creative solutions and problem solve. Don't ever force an apology. If you've apologized yourself when you mess up, your child will understand how to offer one themselves.


Got questions? I can personally walk you through these steps and brainstorm solutions for your children's tantrums and emotional outbursts.  Contact me here to get started. 


About the Author:

Leanne Gray, M.Ed has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. 

She's on a mission to raise a generation of kind, confident, responsible children, and does this through her work with families and schools.   Read more here.