So, you’re staring down the barrel of a tantrum and you need to know what to do.
How do you ACTUALLY handle a tantrum when it’s happening?
Here I’ll show you EXACTLY what you can do to quickly deal with a tantrum when you’re right in the middle of one.
And WHEN to use each step and tip during a tantrum— from the initial build-up, up to the peak, and then to the calm-down phase.
Let’s get started.
There are 3 steps when dealing with a tantrum as it’s happening (and 8 tips and 2 bonus tricks):
- Step 1 – Deal with the emotion
- Step 2 – Reconnect and comfort
- Step 3 – Listen and guide
- Tip 1 – Acknowledge their want and say ‘You wanted…’
- Tip 2 – Empathize (aka toddler-calming-gold-dust)
- Tip 3 – Distract with humor (get ’em giggling)
- Tip 4 – Avoid these communication mistakes
- Tip 5 – Leverage staying calm (for a quicker end to tantrums)
- Tip 6 – Give space. Don’t ignore
- Tip 7 – Discipline comes after calm
- Tip 8 – Post-tantrum talks
- Tips for tantrums in younger children (15 months to 2-and-a-half-year-olds)
- When to use these tips and tricks during a tantrum?
- Bonus Trick 1 – ‘Yeah!’
- Bonus Trick 2 – Come down to their level
3 steps to handling tantrums
STEP 1: Deal with the emotion
Empathize, acknowledge, verbalize their feelings for them, help them understand and cope with their emotions.
STEP 2: Reconnect and comfort
Engage with them, comfort them through words and/or touch. Bring them back to their safe place—you.
STEP 3: Listen and guide
This is the calm ‘processing’ time where you guide, teach and listen to your child.
You explain the rules, problem-solve with them, offer alternatives, find compromises, or just help them with that frustrating toy.
Sometimes this is a quiet cuddle and a kiss as tempers mellow.
Step 0 - Preventing tantrums (as best we can)
The very first step begins before the tantrum even starts. And that’s –
But, we’re all parents of tiny humans here, so we know that’s not always realistic.
Sometimes it’s just POWWW! Tantrum.
There are times when tantrums can be prevented, or definitely cooled off before they erupt.
There are lots of pre-tantrum communication tricks and tips.
Common mistakes to avoid.
As well as understanding their triggers and exacerbators.
And the ol’ classics:
Like making sure our tired-hangry (read: hungry and angry) little ones are regularly fed, watered, rested, and not overstimulated.
It’s also helpful to understand what’s going on in their brains, to explain why kids do what they do.
The goal of dealing with a tantrum: Help them calm down
When you’re dealing with a toddler tantrum, the only goal is to help them calm down.
To guide them from an emotional meltdown to a calm, receptive state.
That’s when you can move from Step 1 onto Step 2 and 3.
“The better we can soothe children when they are agitated, or support them when they are low, the better they will be able to ‘absorb’ how to do this for themselves.“
Dr. Stuart Shanker, How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (4.7 stars)
Tip 1 - Acknowledge their want and say 'You wanted'
It sounds a bit strange, but it really is just that –
Figure out what it is they actually want, and then repeat their want back to them.
Sometimes it’s clear what they want, but sometimes we assume when we don’t really know.
And worst of all, we usually try to ‘fix’ before we’ve understood, which just agitates our kids even more.
If we want to deal with a tantrum quickly, we need to know for sure what the tantrum is about.
Because it is then, and only then, we can use the magic phrase—
Tell them what they want.
Say the words:
Just those two words ‘You wanted’ are extremely effective in diffusing a tantrum right off the bat.
- You wanted to dress your baby doll. It’s your baby and you wanted to do it
- You wanted to go down the slide first
- You wanted the whole cracker, not the broken piece
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Two simple things and two simple words:
- Figure out what they really want and that you’ve understood
- Repeat their want back to them with the phrase ‘You wanted…’
It seems so underwhelmingly simple, but just repeating what they want:
- Makes the child feel instantly understood. Any frustration at being misunderstood is eliminated immediately
- You know what they want and how to resolve the situation
- You don’t unintentionally irritate them further by trying to fix or tell them ‘no’ to something they didn’t want
- You won’t get frustrated at the failed attempts and misunderstandings, helping you to stay calm – for their sake and yours!
This doesn’t mean they can always get what they want.
Acknowledge their wants and feelings, and then decide whether they can have what they wanted.
Cannot recommend this enough – How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 (4.7 stars)
Tip 2 - Empathize (aka toddler-calming-gold-dust)
Empathizing is key to handling tantrums.
It extinguishes the flames of a tantrum far faster (and calmer) than any time-out or threats ever could.
Not to mention, in a far more loving and communicative way.
What makes it such a great way to deal with tantrums?
- You validate their feelings— they have less need to physically or verbally act out to make themselves feel understood
- It teaches the child about their own feelings and helps them to recognize emotions
- Modeling empathy directly and regularly to the child teaches them how to empathize with others
- It takes the pressure off of you to ‘fix’ the situation – either to literally ‘fix’ the broken cracker (somehow), or find some form of distraction or solution
How to empathize your child out of a tantrum?
There are different ways to empathize, and you can mix it up and do what feels natural to you.
Here are some ideas:
- Narrate what happened that made them angry/ frustrated/ upset
‘You were building that for ages and then it broke right at the last moment’
- Say how you would feel in that situation
‘You’re sad… I would be too. It’s upsetting when that happens’
- Put words to their feelings
‘You’re disappointed – Mummy said she’d play with you and now we have to leave, I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed – I am too’
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Make empathizing your go-to tactic when handling tantrums
It sets you up for success – even if the tantrum escalates, you’ve started in a calm and comforting way which you’ll likely continue.
Acknowledge what’s happened and verbalize how they’re feeling.
It’s important to be genuine here – kids aren’t stupid and they’ll pick up on patronizing insincerity pretty fast (and let you know it).
Tip 3 - Divert with humor (Get ‘em giggling)
“Don’t forget to bring your funny bone along on your parenting journey. Humor is a universal language that topples walls, connects hearts, and opens the door to communication and cooperation.”
L.R. Knost, The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline (4.6 stars)
Humor has helped me topple more tantrums than any other tip.
Say something that’ll knock your kids’ socks off.
Do that and you can stop a tantrum before it starts.
Getting a laugh eases the tension and is a perfect way to divert, distract and deflect them from what they were doing.
It’s important to do this BEFORE the tantrum escalates when the child is still receptive to good humor.
Doing this when your child is overloaded with stress and anger will only agitate them.
Like with all tantrums (and all kids!), this may not work every time.
But, let’s at least try fun first.
For once my sleep-deprived-insanity came in handy:
One time my daughter wanted chocolate after dinner. I found it made her go a bit hyperactive – not the desired state at bedtime.
So the rule was: sweets and treats only after lunch.
I told her, ‘No, darling’ and repeated the rule, which she knew.
The instant she started to react, I said, ‘Do you know whhhy?’ and I started bouncing around the kitchen, flinging my head from left to right.
‘Because when you have chocolate, you go a bit hyper, a bit craaaaazy!’
She laughed. It was funny to see Mommy being so silly.
I kept going, pretending to be tired, exhausted Mommy at bedtime, and then back to being her, jumping around the room.
She forgot about the chocolate.
The rule never changed. But the bizarre behavior helped to distract and redirect her attention.
Some kid-approved distraction ideas:
Say or do something they don’t expect. ‘I know, I want cake too… Which cake would you have? Chocolate cake? Oh, I know! You’d want broccoli cake!’ Saying something disgusting or absurd usually gets a giggle out of most kids.
Slapstick humor. There is something so hilarious to kids about adults ‘hurting’ themselves, or constantly dropping things. They’re the best (and easiest) audiences.
Make their toy talk to them. Have their doll or cuddly ask silly questions and mishear them. Kids light up at this sudden bringing to life of their toys, and even better when their toys are a little bit silly and playful.
PRACTICAL EXAMPLE: My daughter woke up CRAN-KY and started to whine, kick and cry. Out of desperation, I made her doll start talking and asking questions. It hugged the other toys and made the bed. My daughter was totally enthralled and she started to make breakfast for the doll. Child (and mother) meltdown averted.
Talk about something they love. This is a great way to engage children, and if you can accidentally on-purpose say the wrong name or confuse a character’s superpower, it engages them and lets them feel like the ‘expert’. Although it may not make them laugh, it’ll certainly help to change a bad mood.
BONUS TRICK 1 - ‘Yeah!’
Ask simple, empathetic questions you know your child will agree with – make sure to do it in the same tone and emotional intensity that they’re experiencing.
You wanted to go on the slide? – Yeah!
And you wanted one more go? –Yeah!
Why does it work?
It makes them more receptive, which makes it easier to quickly and effectively handle the tantrum.
As an extra plus, it combines Tip 1 and 2 all in one go – you’re telling them what they wanted and you’re showing empathy.
When to use it?
Use this trick either before they become overwhelmed or as they’re starting to calm down.
If it makes them more agitated, then (like with any tantrum-taming-tactic) stop and try another approach.
Highly recommended – How to win friends and influence people – Dale Carnegie (4.7 stars, 30 million copies sold). This trick was hidden amongst all the other amazing communication tricks you need to know. It’s not just for dealing with adults – it’s full of gems for dealing with children too!
Tip 4 - Avoid these communication mistakes
There are things we say and do that can escalate a tantrum.
Sometimes we’re so agitated ourselves, we naturally fall into these traps.
If we want to handle tantrums calmly and quickly, we need to avoid them at all costs.
Here’s what not to do (with examples):
Mistake 1: ‘If you…’
The moment you utter those words, you immediately paint yourself into a corner—
You have to finish it with a threat.
A threat you may not mean, want to actually carry out, or you know will make things worse.
‘If you throw that again, you’ll go to timeout!’
‘If you don’t get here right now, I’ll drag you here!’
Usually, the threats get worse and worse to have any effect.
Not to mention, it creates a toxic power dynamic:
When threatened, children will usually do exactly what they were told not to do, as a way of holding onto control and self-respect—
The same way adults would.
DO INSTEAD: It’s understandable that we say ‘If you’ statements —we get agitated too— but avoid the ‘If You Trap’ as much as you can.
Mistake 2: Keep telling them ‘No’
Sometimes we repeat ‘No’ over and over again.
Maybe it’s a different phrase:
‘You can’t have it’
‘I’ve already said no’
‘You keep asking me – no!’
But we’re meeting them with the same brick wall.
It’s frustrating and agitating for a child to repeatedly hear the same negative response.
It usually escalates tantrums and leads to a frustrated explosion.
DO INSTEAD: Positive responses are more productive, by helping to redirect the issue constructively:
- Ask questions about what they wanted
‘Oh, that [cartoon’s] your favorite now? Do you still like the [other one]?’
- Use ‘fantasy’ to redirect them
‘I want a cookie too! I wish this whole steering wheel was a cookie! Then we could eat it as we drive along! Here, have a piece of steering wheel cookie – mmm! Yummm!’
- Offer them compromises and other ideas
Mistake 3: Tell them what they can’t have
Telling children what they can’t have is like telling them what they shouldn’t do—
It’s a half-empty lesson and doesn’t positively redirect them.
DO INSTEAD: When possible, acknowledge what they want, and tell them what they can have – whether that’s an alternative option, or having their request later.
Try to confirm what they can have as early as possible into the tantrum.
Hearing any positivity is going to help calm them and make their reaction easier to handle.
Here’s an example of acknowledging what they want early in the tantrum AND using humor to divert them in a positive way (Tip 3):
‘You can have strawberries after dinner. [Then a quick look of excitement and a gasp] How many are you going to have? A whole bowlful? TWO bowlfuls?! [Gasp] You can eat that many strawberries!?’
Introduce a playful tone to help redirect your child to something more enticing and productive.
Playful & engaging: Use tone to tackle tantrums
‘A high pitch and slower tempo are socially engaging and invite the [child] to respond.’
Professor Patricia Kuhl, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, showing how the way we speak to our children affects their understanding
Tip 5 - Leverage staying calm (for a quicker end to tantrums)
How does staying calm help?
Children react to your reaction.
Reacting with anger or frustration will only escalate your child’s emotional reaction, and make it harder and longer for you to deal with their meltdown.
Instead, leverage your calmness.
Long before I became a parent, I thought it’d be a good idea to take my 3-year-old niece and 1-year-old nephew to the grocery store…
You can see where this is going.
Soon both were wailing, and I really had no idea what to do.
So, I ducked.
I knelt down, still holding onto the handle of the cart, and just stayed there.
Amazingly, both went quiet and just watched me.
Their new crazy aunt diverted their attention, and because I ‘seemed’ calm, they calmed too.
I still didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t going to risk moving, so I spoke to them from my newfound miniature height and calmly asked what each one wanted.
I suppose fearing what this strange woman would do next, they calmly answered.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Maintain a calm voice, with normal volume, calm gestures, and (in combination with acknowledging their feelings, and empathizing) your child will model your own behavior and calm down.
It might not seem to help at first but persevere. Tantrums have a natural peak and then a cooling down period.
If their once safe-haven-of-a-parent flips out, they will feel a loss of control and uncertainty over their environment.
Their behavior will become more out of control and emotional than it was before.
Tip 6 - Give space. Don’t ignore
You’ve probably seen this a lot:
‘Ignore your child when they’re having a tantrum’.
The thinking is that by ignoring them, the lack of reinforcement will stop the unwanted behavior.
Does it make the tantrum worse?
And, what do they learn?
Ignoring will escalate the tantrum
And it infuriates adults:
‘Trying to communicate with someone who stonewalls, can be frustrating, and if the stonewalling continues, infuriating.’
Dr. John Gottman, 40 years of relationship research at The Gottman Institute, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (4.7 stars)
Ignoring versus teaching
When we ignore a child, do we teach them how to self-soothe, communicate, and problem solve?
And are they taught why they’re being ignored?
Instead, ignoring them teaches them not to react to others’ emotions.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
- If your child will allow you to comfort and cuddle them, great.
- If they’re too distraught for comfort, but accept your closeness, sit near them, empathize, use the other tips in this article.
- If your presence makes them more agitated, make it clear that you – and not their anger – have decided to give them some space, ‘I’m going to give you some space to calm down’.
- Tell them you are there when they’re ready. ‘I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready’, or ‘I’m just outside if you want me’. This reassures them that you are not punishing them or removing your comfort from them.
You’re giving them the space they need and, when they’re ready, are there for them.
Some parents feel if they leave when the child demands it, then they’re being subservient to the child and in a ‘lower, weaker’ position.
It’s respectful to give your child the space you would want if you were angry.
However, make it clear it’s your decision to give them space.
You don’t always have to do or say something.
Sometimes just being nearby and waiting for them to calm down is all that’s required. You’ll be able to judge that based on your child’s behavior in that specific tantrum.
Related: This is a great post about why ignoring is not the best way to handle tantrums.
Give yourself space to calm down
There’s a big difference between deliberately ignoring your child, and ignoring them whilst you walk away to calm down.
Ideally, we’d be bottomless pits of patience.
But instead, we’re never-ending chasms of exhaustion.
So let’s give ourselves a break.
It’s in your child’s best interests to go and calm down if you feel yourself getting angry.
BONUS TRICK 2 - Come down to their level
Come down to your child’s level when they’re speaking.
What makes it so powerful when handling tantrums?
By actively listening, it shows your child that what they have to say matters to you. The important thing is that child feels heard.
Why does it work?
- Your body language says, ‘Whatever you’re saying or feeling is important to me’. You show an interest in what they’re saying and foster mutual respect.
- It immediately changes the dynamic and shows them you are engaged, interested, and ready to help.
- By being so close, it lets you give calming, comforting touches, e.g. putting a hand on their back, stroking their hair.
- It also makes it easier for them to come to you for comfort and cuddles when they’re ready.
- You’re face to face with their emotion. We sometimes switch off from their emotions when we’re flooded with our own. But by being at their level, we see their emotions (and tiny scrunched-up faces) directly – this helps us keep things in perspective and stay calm.
- It’s less intimidating than standing over and talking down to them. It shifts the dynamic from ‘you versus me’ to ‘you and me’.
Tip 7 - Discipline comes after calm
One time in public, I got so frustrated with my daughter’s behavior, that I started telling her everything she wouldn’t be having from there on out. For life, apparently.
The walk home was horrific.
I tried to hold onto my wildcat/child with one hand and push a stroller full of groceries UPHILL.
When we got home, I ended up on the kitchen floor in tears, sobbing ‘I’m sorry’ to her.
Since then, my Mom-of-the-Year Award and I do the grocery shopping online…
It’s essential to have rules and boundaries.
It’s essential to teach them what is and isn’t acceptable.
It’s not essential to do that during a tantrum.
Telling your child not to be angry, or upset, or to calm down will only agitate them and escalate the tantrum.
Work with their brain development. Not against it
Think of a 6-month-old.
We need to support them when they’re sitting up. They’re not capable of sitting up by themselves.
It’s exactly the same for toddlers and preschoolers in controlling their emotions—
They need to be supported.
The brain is responsible for emotional regulation, but children’s brains aren’t fully developed.
Asking a child to have any form of emotional control is beyond what they are capable of.
And to make it worse:
When children are stressed, their brains become flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone.
That’s when their higher brain functions (speaking, reason, self-control) give way to lower brain functions (freeze, fight or flight, reflexes, movement).
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Threatening or punishing adds more stress onto the child.
This makes it harder and much longer to bring back their higher brain functions.
We need them to be calm so that together we can talk, problem-solve, and get them to stop screaming/ hitting/ destroying everything in their path.
Connect. Then correct.
If you focus on calming them down, tantrums will be over with a lot quicker.
Tip 8 - Post-tantrum talks. Redirect and problem solve
This isn’t a big ‘sit down at the dinner table’ kind of a talk.
This can be a couple of short sentences. A quick exchange. A cuddle and a kiss.
When things are calm, process what happened.
- Redirect their attention to the future or to another activity.
‘Let’s go get a snack, something to nibble on’
- Work together to fix, tidy, rebuild
‘Let’s tidy up together. Can you please put that back in the basket?’
- Apologize (this is essential for modeling correct behavior) and ask for an apology
‘I’m sorry I lost my patience. Do you want to say sorry too?’
- Problem-solve how to handle the situation/problem next time
‘What do you think would be a good idea instead?’
- Restate rules and boundaries
‘It’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK to break things’
Tips for handling toddler tantrums 2-year-olds (15 months to 2-and-a-half-year-olds)
Tantrums in 2-year-olds (starting actually around 15 months and peaking at 2-and-a-half) can be particularly difficult to manage…
The immediate, apocalyptic explosions.
The lack of communication skills to understand what they need or want.
The sleep deprivation that ever-ravages your brain…
The same process and tips still apply, but here’s some extra info and ideas for handling toddler tantrums in 2-year-olds:
Think diverting rather than distracting
Divert them by changing the environment, like going to a window, or leaving the stimuli that caused the tantrum.
This is usually more successful than trying to distract a child with another toy or activity.
Children are not as easily ‘distracted’ as babies are, and they become more aware of (and insistent upon) what they want.
We’re less likely to irritate them by changing the dynamic and environment than we are by shoving an unwanted toy in their faces.
Tell children what will happen next
Letting children know what will happen next, and/or what you expect of them, helps them feel in control of their world and their actions.
Use consistent phrases
Keep your family’s rules very consistent.
Use simple, repeatable phrases. Songs and rhymes are particularly great for young children.
‘At the end of the day, we put our toys away’
‘In our family, we all help’
‘When food goes in tums, chairs go on bums’
‘What you throw on the floor, you pick up from the floor’
‘When we eat, we sit’
Although this may not eliminate or circumvent a tantrum, it will help them understand your expectations.
Keep communication extra simple
Children are very sensitive to tone, volume, and rhythm, as well as our expressions and body language.
Not only that, but they’re still learning the language, and can easily miss large chunks of what we’re saying. Now’s the time to keep things extra simple.
Keep rules age appropriate
For example, ‘We don’t throw food’, but young children shouldn’t be told not to play with (and thus discover and familiarize themselves with) food.
This helps to avoid unnecessary stress on a child’s still-developing brain, language- and motor skills.
When do you actually use these tips and tricks during a tantrum?
What do all these steps, tips, and tricks look like in reality?
And when do you actually use them?
Tantrums typically follow the same stages.
And by choosing which technique we use and when, we avoid escalating the tantrum and help our children calm down more efficiently.
When they’re calm, you can deal with the tantrum.
It’s then that you can offer comfort or solutions, and help them move on.
You can calm them down by:
- Affirming what they want, so they feel understood
- Empathizing with them and validating their feelings
- Avoiding common communication mistakes and making things worse
- Being present but giving them space
When a tantrum strikes, follow these steps and tips to help guide your little one back to their usual happy self.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear from you:
Which technique do you think you’ll try?
Are you going to empathize? Or introduce some humor?
What tricks do you use when your child is having a tantrum?