Most parents would probably agree that one of the more harrowing experiences of parenting is dealing with a young child’s temper tantrum. When faced with an out-of-control toddler, often in a very public place, parents can feel that time seems to stand still while their parenting resolve seems to melt away. Although unpleasant for both parents and children, temper tantrums don’t have to be something you fear. As with any thorny parenting issue, it’s helpful to understand tantrums from your child’s perspective and let that guide you when responding to them.
What are Temper Tantrums?
Temper tantrums are a part of childhood for most children. All children get cranky at times and will cry and get angry when they really want something they cannot have. Temper tantrums generally begin to occur when children are between 12 and 15 months old and can continue until around age 4. During a temper tantrum, a child may whine, cry, or shout; kick, hit, or pinch; flail their arms and legs; hold their breath; tense their body or go limp.
While the above may sound familiar to any parent who has experienced a child having a tantrum, it’s also important to know what they are not. Temper tantrums are not calculated efforts at manipulation but rather acts of desperation. As such, it’s helpful to understand why they occur.
The Meaning Behind Tantrums
It’s a popular misconception that young children have tantrums because they lack the language skills to express themselves. However, as Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper discuss in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “The issue isn’t your child’s communication skills; children who are convinced that they can engage their parents’ love and understanding will not have tantrums even when they haven’t developed effective language skills.” Although these children will still cry and protest at times, eventually they will accept a hug or try again to communicate their wishes.
If, on the other hand, children feel that their parents cannot understand them, they experience this breakdown in communication as a traumatic event instead of as a difficulty that they can come to accept or overcome. The response to this “communication breakdown” can prompt a temper tantrum.
Handling Tantrums—Availability vs. Absence
Given that a child is more likely to have a tantrum as a result of feeling that her parents are unreachable (either emotionally and/or physically) during a difficult moment, it’s important to make yourself more available, not less. This typically runs counter to the advice parents often receive about dealing with temper tantrums. It’s common to hear that a parent should ignore a child during a tantrum and physically isolate her and/or themselves. Parents are often advised to say things like:
“I can’t hear you when you scream like that.”
“I’m going in the other room until you can talk instead of screaming.”
“If you’re going to scream and carry on like that when I won’t give you more candy, you can’t have candy at all.”
Although it may seem counter-intuitive at first, it’s actually more effective to react positively, emphasize your availability, and try not to distance yourself when your child loses it. As Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper explains, “The recommendations for handling temper tantrums overlook that they are expressions of misery and not manipulation, a wish for attention, or being spoiled. To outgrow them, children need their feelings recognized, comforting, and hugs, not isolation, disapproval, distraction, or punishment.”(1)
This approach, called “loving regulation,” allows parents to respond to their children’s out-of-control behaviors in a way that doesn’t interfere with their close, loving relationship. It focuses on validating a child’s feelings in the moment while comforting them and guiding them out of the situation that is making them upset.
Here are some other tips for what to do in the moment:
Stay as calm as possible, try to offer reassurance that you are there to help them feel better. You can say something like, “I see you are upset; I’ll stay with you until you begin to feel better.” Offer a hug. If it is rejected, you could say “If you change your mind I’m happy to give you a hug anytime.” Or you could try to offer a constructive alternative to whatever unfulfilled wish brought on the tantrum. Say something like “Would you like popcorn, we could make it together?” If your child doesn’t want the alternative, let them know that’s okay and you will stay with them until they begin to feel better. “It’s okay you don’t want to play that game. I’ll stay with you until you feel better.”
If your child becomes destructive and you must restrain him, try to hold him gently, in a positive and loving manner, while telling him that you love him and cannot allow him to hurt himself, anyone or anything, and that you will let go when he calms down and starts to feel better.
It can also be helpful to plan ahead so that you can help lessen the chance of a tantrum occurring. Here are some ways to do this:
Plan ahead to avoid triggers, such as hunger, fatigue, and frustration.
Try to give your child choices whenever possible. Let them choose between two acceptable choices, such as do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue one? Or do you want an apple or a banana?
Prepare for transitions, such as leaving the house or the playground, which can be difficult for children. Try to prepare them in advance that a transition is coming so they’re ready for it. For example, you could say, “When we get to the car, we’ll play your favorite song and sing together.”
Encourage constructive behavior by saying things like “I like that you came to me when you were upset.” or “It’s great that you found your teddy bear when you were getting frustrated.”
Keeping Tantrums in Perspective
Having a plan for handling tantrums when they occur can help ease your stress and help you respond to them effectively. It’s also helpful to manage your own feelings by remembering that your child isn’t having a tantrum on purpose to upset you. It’s not your fault that your child is having a tantrum but it is your responsibility to help her find her way through it. You can do this by staying calm, offering your patience, kindness, and comfort. When you do this, she will learn that going to a person who loves her for comfort helps her feel better.
As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “The advantage of responding to your child’s tantrums or other upsets with loving regulation can be illustrated by an analogy from adulthood. Imagine yourself dissolved in tears in reaction to a terrible and devastating loss. Your spouse or best friend reacts by saying ‘I’m going into the next room to read my book until you stop crying. You can join me when you regain control of yourself.’ Next imagine your loved one saying, ‘I am so sorry you are unhappy. Let me give you a hug and help you feel better.’ Which response would you prefer? Your child would make the same choice if it were available to her.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
1Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper Tweet, May 15, 2021
A Field Guide to Taming Tantrums in Toddlers, Paul L. Underwood, The New York Times, April 17, 2020.
Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Respond, The Australian Parenting Website raisingchildren.net.au, February 25, 2022.
Tantrums, Cleveland Clinic, February 5, 2021.