Your Guide to Handling Tantrums

Struggling with your child’s meltdowns and angry outbursts? Get a guide to handling tantrums and learn what to do when they happen.

Handling TantrumsI felt helpless.

My son had been throwing a tantrum for over an hour. Nothing worked. I tried soothing him to no avail, and completely ignoring him didn’t do the trick, either. Distraction, taking away toys, or offering treats made no difference.

And it seemed like I’d leave every outing carrying a wailing toddler, making my quick getaway.

We’ve all been there. The defiance, the crying-so-hard-they-can’t-breathe, the flailing of the arms and legs. These moments happen in the privacy of our homes or under the glaring eyes of others in public places. No matter where, dealing with your child’s temper tantrum can make anyone feel like a bad parent.

But while tantrums are a normal part of child development, we have ways to cope when one smacks us in the face.

Sure, there’s temperament. Even among my kids, I can see differences in how each one reacts and what ticks them off. What works for one may not work for others.

A quick guide to handling tantrums

We can handle the situation not through force or punishment, but through compassion and connection. We can lessen the frequency and intensity of these tantrums, and prevent them from happening in the first place.

I began to rely on a process or pattern that kept tantrums manageable and encouraged positive behavior. Below are a few quick steps and questions to ask yourself so these tantrums don’t get out of hand:

A Quick Guide to Handling Tantrums

1. Your child starts to tantrum

You’ll know a tantrum is beginning when your child loses control, makes unreasonable demands, cries, or flails her limbs. Perhaps her tantrum triggers are whining, flopping on the ground, or being quiet. She might throw a fit every time you go to the supermarket or when she skips a nap.

Begin to be aware of which behaviors are typical signs of a tantrum.

2. Are they hurting themselves or others, or breaking items?

Make sure your child isn’t hurting himself or other people or breaking items in the house. For instance, don’t let him hit his head against the wall or punch his belly over and over. He also shouldn’t hurt others, from other children at the playground to adults like his parents.

And the same is true for items at home. Even if the items aren’t likely to break, he still shouldn’t be allowed to go on a rampage and topple or tear things apart.

3. If yes, remove your child from the situation

Remove your child from the scene if he can potentially cause harm to others. Sometimes simply doing so can calm him down. You may even need to contain him in a bear hug to keep him from hurting himself or others.

Removing my kids from the situation—even stepping into another room—was often enough to calm them down. Before, trying to temper their frustration right then and there would make them feel more anxiety and anger.

4. If not, is your child able to be soothed nonverbally?

Nonverbal soothing such as rubbing your child’s back and singing can help calm him down, but sometimes young children resist soothing and physical contact.

If he lets you, continue to rub his back or be nearby. If he doesn’t want you to hold him, then step away and let him know you’re here when he’s ready.

5. If yes, comfort your child with a hug

During tantrums, kids can’t process logic and language, so try not to talk too much since your child can’t register much of what you say.

I learned that holding and reassuring my kids of my love shortened the duration of the tantrums. Disciplining, reasoning, and even talking them “out of it” seemed to make them worse. Save the talking for later once they’re calmer.

6. If not, ignore their demands and acknowledge their frustration

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Often, the best cure for tantrums is simply letting them run their course. If your child makes unreasonable or “wishy-washy” demands, don’t give in. He won’t be satisfied with any decision, and trying to meet his needs may exacerbate the tantrum.

In reading The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., I also empathize first before trying to reason with my kids. They’re more compliant when they know we were still “on their side.”

7. Your child calms down

You’ll eventually notice the calm after the storm as your child’s tantrum begin to die down. Don’t jump in too quickly just yet—provide plenty of time for him to quiet down and “make the first move.”

Once he’s calm and listening, acknowledge how he feels, and why. “It doesn’t feel good when I tell you what not to do, does it?” you can tell him as you hold him in an embrace. “You can be sad with me.” Let him vent—don’t punish him for the strong emotions he feels, even if the experience is unpleasant for you.

8. Show empathy, talk, and teach

Express empathy by honoring the impulse (“Looks like you were trying to see what would happen if you pulled the cord”). Describe the emotions he feels (“Seems like you got mad when we told you to stop”). Simply holding him and chatting can be all that he needs for now.

Only when he’s able to think logically can you tell him what to do (“We don’t pull the cord because it’s dangerous. Let’s find something else you can pull”).

Your Cheat Sheet Guide to Handling Tantrums

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The importance of staying calm

Tantrums can trigger a fit of anger and fatigue you’ve never felt before.

This is why it’s even more important to stay calm. The more agitated we are, the worse our kids spiral down. It’s so easy to react and respond with anger at your child when he’s driving you nuts, but you need to hold your ground and remain steady.

Tantrums scare our kids. If their own parents can’t help them through their toddler temper tantrums, then who will?

Besides, staying calm is more effective than yelling. Think about the last time you yelled at your toddler versus when you stayed calm. No matter how difficult controlling your anger can be, his tantrum probably ended a whole lot faster than when you yelled.

You’re not encouraging misbehavior by staying calm, giving him a “time-in,” or letting him cool off while you stay nearby. He won’t jump on the couch the next day thinking, “Well, mom hugged me yesterday when I jumped on the couch. So, I’m going to do it again today.”

So long as you give him attention when he does behave, he won’t equate misbehavior as the only way to get it.

Learn the biggest reason parents should stand their ground.

Parents Should Stand Their Ground


The biggest lesson I learned? Kids need our unconditional love. It’s easy to shower them with attention when they’re happy and pleasant, but we withhold our love when they’re “being bad.”

They’re sorting through new emotions and don’t understand why we’re “mean” during tantrums. When we lose our temper, scream, or get upset, they might think we love them only when they’re happy. They learn that certain emotions can seem “bad” in their parents’ eyes.

This isn’t to say that your child’s behavior is acceptable. Wanting to eat the dog’s food or dump a bucket of water onto the floor isn’t allowed. Establish limits and stick to them. But you’re still on her side. So, while their actions and behavior may not be good, she always is—and she needs to know and feel that.

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Your Cheat Sheet Guide to Handling Tantrums

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  1. Grown and Flown says:

    It has been a long time since I’ve had little ones who threw those kind of toddler tantrums. Years down the road you will have fun teenage fits to look forward to. However, remember what you just wrote about how you, as parents, now have experience in the trenches. We all learn while being parents, when our kids are young, like yours are or when they have “grown and Flown,” like ours.

    1. I’ve heard the same—that all this fun defiance comes back with a vengeance during the teen years. Oh, help me.