How To End Temper Tantrums

I will never forget the man whom I met at my in-law’s home last year. Standing at six-feet tall, with broad shoulders, and a hardened military expression of seriousness on his face, he appeared intimidating- even to me. Then I heard that he used to work in a top-secret government job, and on 9/11 his finger was poised on the button, waiting for the President’s word to press it and cause nuclear havoc. His noticeably expectant wife stood at his side, along with several other couples in the living room. A woman entered the room with a whimpering baby and seated herself on the couch. The baby’s whimpering grew louder, and despite his mother’s best attempts to quiet him, he erupted in full-fledged wailing. Mom gave him a bottle, rocked him, and stuck a pacifier in his little mouth, all to no avail- the crying grew louder each moment. Mr. Military had fearful expression on his face as he watched the baby screaming.

My mother-in-law asked him, “You’re nervous about having a baby, aren’t you?”

Mr. Military’s pursed lips parted to state, “Actually, terrified would be the word.”

While our family enjoys laughing about the humorous incident, the truth remains that children’s screaming can unnerve the most rational and calm adult. Tantrums can turn a seasoned business negotiator into a piece of mush wrapped around a two-year-old’s finger.

While there are many things that can be done in a setting of peacefulness, either before or after the tantrum, to alleviate this issue, this article will only address what to do during the time of flared tempers.

There are 3 keys to eliminating tantrums:

1) Crystal-clear communication

2) Being consistent

3) Being firm. Do not get manipulated!

Oftentimes, parents feel out of control at home, due to their stressful lifestyle. When a child erupts in a tantrum, a battle of power ensues, where the parent is intent on “winning” in order to preserve his or her sense of dominion. It is essential to avoid power struggles at all costs; make a decision to view the screaming child as a neighbor’s kid for a few moments, so that your ego will not be tied into this battle.

“I will not talk to you while you are screaming,” is a standard statement that can be tailored to suit your particular needs during a tantrum. Other variations include, “I want to speak with you, darling, but I can’t when you are screaming” or “Can you ask for the blue bike in a calm voice so that I can answer you?”

Sooner or later your child will realize that screaming is not an effective means to achieve his goals. You may have to repeat, “I’ll be glad to talk to you when you’ve finished crying” forty times, but eventually he will say, “Please can I have the blue bike.”

At this point, you must be consistent with the standpoint you originally had, prior to the outbreak of the tantrum. Even if you are ready to drive across the country for a “blue bike” to quiet him, the importance of your consistency cannot be overestimated.

Just because he finally asked nicely does not mean that he will get what he wants. You will likely say, “Sweetie, I understand that you want the blue bike, I’m sorry, I cannot give the blue bike to you now.” This is an essential part of your child’s learning process. He will not get his heart’s desires simply from speaking properly. The blue bike may belong to his sister who is presently riding it, or it may be broken and dangerous to ride until a screw has been tightened.

At this point, it is quite possible that the screaming will begin anew. However, your reaction to the ensuing tantrum must be the same. The goal is to teach him to stop screaming, not to give him whatever he wants. Your responses will echo what we discussed above, “Darling, I would like to talk to you when you have finished screaming”.

The difficulty of implementing these solutions in everyday life is fully understandable. When the phone is ringing, and two children are having a chocolate-milk fight in the other room, it is hard to remember these rules! However, if you think about this process beforehand, and work it out in our minds prior to the occurrence of the next tantrum, you can begin improving some of the time. You may improve 10 or 20% of the time, and several weeks from now react according to these rules 70 or 80% of the time. The main point is that whatever you can do that is an improvement on the past is going to be beneficial for your children.

No parent is perfect, and nobody can correct a detrimental pattern of reactions overnight. Yet taking steps, even baby steps, towards proper handling of temper tantrums will definitely cause their frequency to decrease. As you work on following through on these rules, you will find it easier to maintain this reaction, even in the middle of total chaos.

And when your child recognizes that when he speaks appropriately, even if he did not get what he desired, he was listened to and understood and empathized with, he will become encouraged to act more reasonably next time!

For more help dealing with tantrums, read The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears

Comments

  1. Lori D. says:

    wow, Ellen, this is just what the doctor ordered for me… my son has been manipulating me and I must take control… thanks:)

  2. Hi Lori, glad you found the article useful:) You can do it!!

    I don’t know why the 2nd half is all bold, I tried editing it about 10 times… oh well!

  3. Great article Ellen. You’re right. It’s hard to remember them when you’re so tired or busy. Although do some variations of what you mentioned.

    The bold part, I don’t think it’s in your post but rather in the your template. Could you have edited or added something new lately in your template and left out the closing bold tag?

  4. Ellen,

    Think these are very important solutions to work with, I’m lucky my twins have stopped having tantrums – but never say never 🙂

  5. Thanks, Lynette! I’m going to email you privately about the bold business, this never happened on any other articles!

    Hi Suze:) I’m glad your twins (who are SO CUTE!) got through that stage, and, yes- you never know!

  6. jowillia says:

    Thanks for those helpful words. I have fond memories of dragging my one year old while my infant was in a sling across a parking lot so we could get out of harm’s way while the one year old sreamed about something or other… It does end. I have also learned that with a lot of extended family that do give in, I need to be extra firm as they have grown up and have gimmies about more grown up items…

  7. Hi Jowillia! That’s a good point- you’ve got to educate children while they are young or else they can turn into adult kids! Thanks for sharing:)

  8. Wow! I just love the way you know EVERYTHING that is going on in a household with toddlers! My 4 yr old had her daily tantrum this morning, in the bank of course! I can usually hold my cool better in public than at home. I tend to get in the dominion battle problem. I like your suggestions and will definitely try them next time. My 2 yr old is already trying to act like big sister, and it’s a little harder to reason with her. Any suggestions with the 2 yr old?

  9. Hi Kim,

    In the bank, of course! Don’t the kids always choose the most inappropriate places of all to throw their tantrums! Try to use the drive-thru next time:)

    And, no, I don’t know everything, ROTFLOL, I’m a simple mom who’s trying her best, and I’m an information-junkie type, so I’m always reading, attending lectures, thinking, and now… blogging away on this parenting site!

    I think these principals would apply to any age bracket… can you tell me what you think would not work for a two-year-old?

  10. while i wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote, i would take it just a step further. we also went through the power struggles when my little one got to be about 18 months (lucky me, she was advanced in that area!!). but one thing i learned, other than how not to lose my cool during it, is that it is ok for her to have “big feelings”. she is learning how life works, she is struggling to be independent, and hasn’t yet learned the words to convey her disappointment. so while i tell her what these words are while she is crying, “oh, you must feel frustrated, oh, you must be very disappointed”, and encourage her that she can discuss X with me in a nice tone, i allow her to vent out her feelings. too many of us have been brought up in homes where crying and other strong shows of emotions were discouraged, and we end up bottling it all in. so now, once she sniffles into a nicer tone, makes her request, and it is dealt with, i sometimes offer her a chance to “cry more”, but at least this time it is done in my arms with my comfort. then, as she matures, she will feel comfortable telling me how she feels, no matter how negative it may be, and that i can empathize and maybe help.

  11. Hi Rachel- what a thought-provoking comment, thanks! By allowing her to ‘cry more’ you are teaching her to self-soothe and become comforted.

  12. Living with an autistic child sometimes it is easier to give in than to argue with a small person who just does not get what you are saying. I am so very guilty of that! But I am learning… he understands more than he lets on, I am beginning to realize, and his pleases and hanging on my legs isn’t working all the time anymore! The look on his little face is so comical sometimes when he realizes he just isn’t going to get his way this time! There are times I still give in, I know that is wrong, consistency is key, but I also believe that sometimes you just have to get through your day, you know what I mean?

  13. I like a lot of your recommendations-stay calm, be consistent and use crystal clear communication. The one thing I don’t agree with is that a young child would intentionally manipualte. I guess I view things from a different perspective- and think of this not always enjoyable behaviour as age appropriate, and more so necessary to get their needs met. I realize that I am perhaps the controversial one here. And that is ok with me. I just view children as little beings still trying to understand their huge, complex world and sometimes it is just over whelming for them. (isn’t it such for us as well?) They have break downs, as do we. Trying to stop a tantrum, or exert our “parental power” on them, in my humble opinion, is damaging. I think it results in a set back of what we are actually trying to create- self confident children. It stops them from expressing themselves, out of fear of being “scolded” from the person they really need to be able to trust most of all- their parent.
    I agree with what poster Rachel says- I encourage my daughter to use words to express herself- but first, I have to provided thoses words to her. “I can see you are really frustrated/upset/sad/hurt/angry right now.” Then I provide a safe place for her to express her feelings. “It is okay to feel this way- can I help you at all? What do you need right now?” My daughter is 3 1/2 yrs old now, but we have done this since she was born. She hit the “terrific two’s” at about 13 months, as she was a bit advanced too. We still struggle- who doesn’t- but I am so grateful for not stopping the tantrums, but supporting them to the best of my ability. She is a confident little girl with a surpising amount of self control.
    Sorry to make this so long… it just comes from the heart- and I really needed to express my opinion as well.
    Blessings,
    Corrie from Calgary, Canada

  14. Kimberly says:

    Hi Ellen, While I think you make a great point to deal with older kids like this, when they’re alll VERY young…it takes a little more effort! We have 5 kids. Our four birth kids are ages 9.5, 11, 12, and 13… and the 5th was adopted a year and a half after #4, he’s 17. When the kids were real young, we found there were 3 ways to deal with tantrums, and all three were used often! One (our first) was so busy that if I picked him up at 10-14 months to remove him from whatever he was screaming and kicking about, by the time I got him to his room, he’d forgotten he was mad. I just started giving him a bop on his diapered bottom, and that was that, he stopped and never did pick up tantrums again. #2 had a long lived raging temper and at 2years old could burn endlessly. We tried isolating him in his crib with no toys which worked great for #’s 3 and 4 but to no avail. he’d curl up in a corner and get scared and freaky like an abandoned orphan child. So at the advice of a friend who had 8 boys (for real!!) We held him wrapped around our middles, like a bear so he couldn’t kick or scratch, until he chilled out. It took 3 tantrums of 45minutes to 2 hours apiece and he finally gave them up altogether. He’s now 12 and a great kid! We never got as far as the bank or grocery store to deal with this kind of thing. It started so early with all of ours!

  15. Kimberly says:

    I’m sorry, My name is Kimberly

  16. Hi Dawn, yes, sometimes we’ve just gotta get through the day:)

    Hi Corrie, I appreciate your perspective. While I do not think young children are intentionally being manipulative, in throwing a tantrum they often are trying to tie Mom or Dad around their little finger to get their way! You have a great way with teaching your daughter to express herself!

    Hi Kimberly, like the Animal School movie portrays so well, each child is different- not only in learning, also in responding and dealing with emotions. You found what worked for each child individually- terrific:)

  17. Ellen,
    As far as the bold part goes, I thought it was to emphasize the importance of what you had just said! It is a great article and one that bears being sent once a month even! Because, sometimes you do know something (Communication, Consistency, Being Firm (not Loud or Emotional)!and yet you forget to utilize it, as you stated above. Thanks for creating this site, it is a blessing!
    Sincerely,
    Trish

  18. Thanks, Trish, lol about the bold! No idea what happened here and can’t seem to fix it, try as I might to edit the source code! Oh well, such is life:)

  19. Hello,

    I have just read this article and am thrilled at all of the different points of view and all of the love that is out there even when you just want to throw your hands in the air. I just have one little thing to add. My partner and I have a beautiful 4 year old and Miss Emily is sometimes quite a handful. She is smart and is very strong willed. One thing that has seemed to work on occasion is telling her that it is o.k. to be mad or angry or dissapointed but also to show her how she is acting. We tell her when she is haveing a trying day when a fit is in full steam that if she is really that mad she has to have a bigger fit than that. We tell her that if she is really upset that she should roll on the floor and stomp her feet and get really loud, we do not say this in a harsh tone. We tell her that if she is going to have a fit really do it up right. By that time she is not mad or frustrated and she is ready to apologize for acting out. We then explain to her that it is o.k. to get upset but that she has to be respectful too. We as parents work hard for her and treat her respectfully we expect the same treatment.

  20. Being a dad, I feel like my role is to be the force in the house, but my oldest daughter is a carbon copy of me, so she reacts exactly the way I do to ultimatums (not well). I picked up a kids book “Zen Shorts” that echoes a little of what you have said here; mostly about the removal of ego. Thanks for the article; it has given me something to think about.

  21. jennifer says:

    Ellen,
    What a great article. I want to argue back with my 6 yr. old to I guess prove my adult point. I have to remeber to stay calm and maybe he will do the same.

  22. I think it is unfortunate that, in our age of abundant access to information, we are still getting parenting advice that encourages a position of dominance over children, rather than a position of an unconditionally loving relationship with our children.

    I wonder how respectfully received would be an admonishment to an irate co-worker to ask nicely for the Crabapple report and then I might give you the Crabapple report?

    The idea that we can manipulate our children into cowing under adult dominance is an ancient, outdated mode of parenting that, research proves without exception to be counterproductive in the long run, (and often in the short run as well) especially as regards the raising of children into adults who are confident and skillful in respectful conflict resolution.

    Tantrums are a child’s expression of an unfilled need and, while the need may not be safe or able to be fulfilled until the screw is tightened on the blue bike, or until the sister is finished with it, it is far more respectful of the relationship to say that the screw needs to be tightened or the sister needs to finish, rather than manipulate the child into stuffing his feelings inside because you find the external expression of that feeling annoying.

  23. Cindy, I appreciate your point and certainly would not advocate for a child stuffing his feelings away- ever! I do believe that just because it is natural for children to express frustration through tantrums does not mean that we adults should allow the tantrums to occur frequently and angrily. It is an adult’s reponsibility to teach a child to react in a more socially-appropriate manner as the child matures.

    Use your mind- and get to know your child- sometimes it would benefit the child to have her ‘cry it out’ and other times, it would be best to gently explain why her desires cannot materialize right now in a soothing voice.

    Helen- great method… tuth be told, I have some adults in my life that I need to deal with in that manner- waiting until they have calmed down before we can have a rational conversation!

  24. I guess it’s in the idea that “we adults” have power to “allow” the expression of any response in our children that you and I digress.

    If “frequent” tantrums are the problem, then we can be certain, (based on heaps and heaps of reputable, replicable research) that Skinner-esque behaviour modification techniques will produce more of the same angry, tantrum-y responses. Taking a dominant position of manipulation, (“Can you ask for the blue bike in a nice voice so I can answer you?”) predictably elicits a subserviant feeling in the person being spoken to, (child or adult) who, equally predictably, will likely respond with more anger, expressed now, or expressed later.

    There are many notable experts, and many responsible mothers and fathers who consider a parent’s responsibility not merely “to teach a child to react in a more socially-appropriate manner”, but to engender in our children an *empowerment* based on the consistent acknowledgement of their feelings, thoughts and desires. This kind of expressed respect for our children’s *right* to feel what they feel — and to express accordingly — goes a long way to reinforcing the truth that *all* aspects of Self are valid, worthy and loveable.

    The difference is in focusing on the one-dimensional aspect of behaviour, rather than focusing on holistic development.

    While you state that you would “not advocate for a child stuffing his feelings away — ever!” the unfortunate side-effect of interjecting into the middle of a tantrum with, “ask nicely and I’ll acknowledge you” accomplishes precisely the result that the child will indeed postpone the expression of his feelings, (read: stuff it away) to accomplish his more pressing need of getting the blue bike. Well, unless of course he does what is more typical and predictable, and just gets more creative about how to manipulate the situation to get what he wants … meanwhile registering that being inauthentic about his true feelings is the best route to getting the attention he craves from the people he loves most.

  25. Cindy, can we not combine both attitudes? i always let my dtr have her tantrum, and empathize along with her, and try to give some descriptors to what she may be feeling “wow, you are angry. you must feel so upset.” or whatever the case may be, in order to provide her with the tools to do so herself at one point.

    but when she asks for something in a rough and demanding tone (not during a tantrum) i do believe it to be ok to request that she speak with respect, not b/c i am an adult, but just b/c everyone, no matter what age, deserves it! so i may ask her to rephrase “nicely” to me or my husband, but i remind her to do the same to her friends, reflecting at the same time that maybe they would be more likely to engage in her request if she does so.