Big Emotions in Little Bodies: What to Do When Your Child Throws a Tantrum

We’ve all been there – face to face with a child in the middle of a tantrum. Crying, yelling, knocking boxes of cereal off the grocery store shelves – some of us know the routine by heart. Tantrums are a common occurrence growing up, particularly, it seems, when you’re in public. Sometimes it feels as though all you can do is grin, bear it, and hope you don’t end up on YouTube.

The Why Behind Tantrums

Tantrums might feel as if they appear out of the blue, but they always come with a why. Children throw tantrums when they feel misunderstood, unheard, tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or angry. But the biggest “why” is because they’re normal: tantrums are an age-appropriate part of child development.

Because of this, they aren’t always avoidable. But there are ways to minimize how often they happen and to what degree.

To help your child regulate, consider the following:

Make good behavior attractive: Giving into a tantrum reinforces bad behavior and tells the child “to get what you want, scream inside the middle of Costco.” Rather than reacting to the negative, make good behavior an attractive alternative.

Give them a little bit of control: Sometimes, kids throw tantrums because they feel as if they have no control. So, give it to them. You don’t need to give your three-year-old unlimited access to technology or the power to decide whether they take a nap but allow them control over little things. Letting them choose between wearing a brown sweater or a blue sweater? Just think of all the power they’ll have!

Refrain from tempting fate: If there are certain objects you don’t want your child to have – your Precious Moments collection, for example – keep them where they can’t be seen. Out of sight is out of mind for them…and peace of mind for you.

Name it to tame it: Teaching children to express their emotions in a healthy manner means teaching them to identify those emotions. Rather than throwing the raisin cookie onto the floor because it’s not chocolate chip, encourage children to name their disappointment. Regardless of age, we can all relate to disappointment (especially when chocolate’s involved).

Model regulation: Children learn most from observation. If their acting out is met by an adult parroting similar behavior, kids will continue to believe that tantrums are suitable solutions to frustration. Instead of fighting fire with fire, pause and take a deep breath. Ground yourself so that you teach your child how to do the same.

Offer empathy: No matter how old a person is, from toddlers to seniors, people want to be heard. Offering empathy tells them that they are. And a little goes a long way.  Saying to your child, “I know you’re upset because you didn’t get what you want. I also get upset when I don’t get what I want” shows them that Mom and Dad get it. Mom and Dad are cool!

Offer options: Kids may throw tantrums because they’re focused on something – a toy they want from the store or a giant piece of apple pie they believe makes a fine dinner (after all, apples are healthy!). Presenting other options is a good way to shift their focus and empower them to make better choices.

Seek outside help: If the tantrums seem extreme (or keep getting worse), consider seeking a professional opinion. There may be an underlying issue that needs uncovering.

As mentioned above, tantrums are an age-appropriate route of expression for young children. Big emotions in little bodies are difficult to manage. Sometimes, as parents, we must simply pick our battles. That helps assure that we win some.