Your son has flung himself on the ground and is screaming in horror because you “broke” his banana. There's no reasoning with him, because when kids are in full-on tantrum mode, they really aren’t thinking clearly. They’ve been hijacked by the part of the brain that controls our fight-or-flight response. Their body is making them defend and attack rather than think and listen.
That’s what’s going on—so what can you actually do?
Here are 10 suggestions for taming a tantrum:
1. Stay calm. Easy, right? Obviously not. But it’s so, so important. Try counting backwards from 11 to 1 by twos. Breathing and stretching can also be helpful. Remind yourself that your kid isn’t trying to hurt or bother you; what she’s doing is normal. And if you're really about to lose your temper—try these calming tactics.
2. Talk less. Tantruming kids can’t hear well or think clearly. Any attempt to reason with them will be largely useless, so focus on using gentle, non-verbal communication rather than words.
3. Control self-talk. The negative things you think to yourself can actually make things worse. If you’re muttering, “I don’t have time for this” under your breath, it will be hard to be helpful. Instead, as hard as it is in the moment, think to yourself: “This isn’t about me. What does she need?”
4. Validate. Although the reason your kid is a screaming mess might seem ridiculous, it’s real to him. Validating his feelings will help him feel understood, and can often de-escalate the tantrum immediately.
5. Name the feeling. Use a feeling word so your child can pair his body sensation with an emotion. This helps the process of “self-regulation,” where a person learns to communicate his feelings with words rather than actions. Example: “Wow, it seems like you’re very angry that your brother took your truck.”
6. See the situation and empathize. Using only a few words, continue to show that you’re trying to understand what happened. Nod, use a gentle facial expression and say, “I see the truck was taken from you. I can see why you are angry.”
7. Establish boundaries and limits. Ensure everyone’s safety by making sure your child can’t hurt himself, others or things. If he starts to be violent, you can hold him from behind so his arms and legs are in front of you. Get in between him and the thing he is hurting. Firmly, yet gently, hold your child until the point the anger melts to sadness and the tears flow. Remind him, “It’s okay to be mad. It is not okay to hit.”
8. Provide touch. Little kids can’t calm themselves down alone yet so they need their parents to sooth them as they grow and develop this skill themselves. See if your kid will allow you to put your hand on his back or give him a hug.
9. Avoid punishment. Time-outs, threats, slaps or other forms of punishment can have the exact opposite effect than you’d like. Rather than stopping a tantrum, these punishments may fuel the fight-or-flight reaction, making things worse.
10. Support your child until the tantrum is over. Help her get through the feelings until the tantrum comes to a close. Your hugs and calm words—like “I’m sorry this is hard; you want another cookie but I’m not letting you have another one”—will help her crumple into a crying mess rather than a shouting one. That’s OK. Let her cry until the tears are out. When we let our kids cry, they can get all the emotions out—as opposed to saving some upset to explode later.
Andrea Nair is a psychotherapist and parenting educator.