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Outsmarting Temper Tantrums

  • Dr. Allie and Miss Barbara
  • Parenting
  • No Comments

The screaming, the crying, the kicking, the yelling. No matter where a tantrum occurs…in the privacy of your home or in public…these behaviors are frustrating and stressful for parents!

Tantrums are one of the most common childhood behavioral concerns. Even the most well-behaved and well-regulated child is likely to exhibit some level of tantrums from time to time.

You’ve tried asking your child what’s wrong. You’ve tried to soothe them by rubbing their arm or trying to give them a hug. Your child is escalating…and so is your frustration! So what’s a parent to do?

What to do in the moment to help diffuse your child’s tantrum is important, but let’s take a look at what to try before the tantrum even starts. The before is the most important part of managing tantrum behaviors because it allows us to do three things as parents: (1) ensure we have met all of the needs of our child, (2) help our children learn to communicate their feelings and needs, and (3) teach our children valuable coping strategies to use to calm and regulate before the tantrum behavior begins.

Before the Tantrum

Understanding triggers

I like to think of tantrums as a glass of water that is overflowing. At the start of a day, a child’s glass may be empty. Each stressor or frustration a child faces throughout their day adds a little water (or a lot of water depending on the size of the stressor) to their glass. The only way to lower the water level is with good coping strategies, but little ones have few (if any) effective coping strategies. So eventually, the water comes spilling over the top of the glass. This is the tantrum.

A child might exhibit tantrum behaviors if they are:

  • Overtired
  • Hungry
  • Frustrated
  • Not getting their way/told no
  • Attention-seeking
  • Trying to avoid doing something they don’t want to do

Figuring out why your child is upset is key so you can not only help diffuse in the moment but you can also prepare your child (and yourself) for the next time a similar situation arises.

Meeting the needs of your child

You care for your child, but sometimes they get over tired or over hungry because…life happens and we get out of routine. Preventing a tantrum begins by making sure you don’t stretch the flexibility your child can show in their daily routine too far. A well-fed, well-rested child is much less likely to meltdown than a hungry, tired child.

Hint: We won’t always have a choice as parents on this one! There will be times when we don’t have control over naptime or mealtime, like if we are at a restaurant and the food is taking too long to come out, or if we are at a friend’s house and stay longer than expected. Do your best, try to remember to pack snacks, and brace yourself for these mini meltdowns!

Focus on Transitions

Often times, we notice an increase in tantrum behavior during transitions. A big one at my house is transitioning from play to almost anything else, especially naptime! Prepare your child for transitions by offering a warning, or for many children several warnings. You can set a timer, or an alarm on your phone to warn your child that there are 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute left to play. Some children also do well with a visual reminder such as a sand timer. Reducing the surprise little ones may feel when it is time to transition can help reduce tantrums when it is time to change gears.

Teaching or expanding emotional vocabulary

Regularly work on feelings words, check in with your child and ask them how they are feeling, even when they are not upset. Use feeling faces to help younger children identify how they are feeling. Share how you are feeling! Talk out loud when you are feeling happy, excited, frustrated, sad, nervous, etc. Label their emotion for them when they are not sure, or if they are upset and not able to communicate their feelings.

Building a toolbox of effective coping strategies

Teaching and practicing effective coping strategies helps your child regulate during a tantrum, but also helps prevent tantrums by keeping your child more regulated in the first place. Coping strategies are removing water from your childs glass before it overflows and helping to clean up the water if the glass ends up overflowing anyway. You will likely have to try different coping strategies to find what works best for your child. Here are some of our favorite strategies to try with little ones:

Belly Breathing

Take a deep breath is probably the most cliché coping strategy. But, it works,    especially if you teach your child to take a deep breath in the right way (yes, there is a right way to breathe). To practice, ask your child to lay down on the floor and place their hand or a small stuffed animal on their belly. As they take a deep breath in, tell them to expand their belly so their hand or small stuffed animal rises. As your child exhales, teach them to let their belly fall. Repeat this exercise several times. This can also be done sitting or standing, but it is easiest to teach your child while they are lying down.

Muscle Relaxation

Teach your child to tense the muscles in their body and then relax them, one by one. Again, it is easiest to practice when your child is lying down. Starting at the top of their body, ask your child to create tension in their face by squeezing their eyes shut and pursing their lips. Tell your child to take a deep breath in and when they exhale to relax the muscles in their face. Continue helping them work down their body all the way to their toes!


Help your child find music that is calming to them. My little guy stops when he hears opera music! Teach them that they can use music to help calm down.


Use your child’s imagination to help them calm down! Ask them to imagine a favorite place and guide them as they think about what that place looks like, smells like, and feels like! There are also a lot of guided imagery scripts you can find online.


Color, paint, or use playdough to help your child calm down. Set aside a few art supplies for your child to easily access when they are feeling upset.


Grounding is a simple technique you can teach your child to use when they are feeling upset or anxious. Instruct your little one to notice three things: one thing they see, one thing they smell, and one thing your child feels. Practicing this simple technique can help bring your little one back to the present moment and reduce dysregulation.

Affirmations or Grateful Thoughts

Encouraging your child to regularly repeat positive statements about themselves (i.e., I am brave, I am strong) can have a positive impact on their overall mental health. Similarly, taking time each day to ask your little one something they are grateful for can help develop a positive mindset.

Thought Changing

Help your child change a not-so-helpful thought into a helpful thought! This technique is suitable for older toddlers, and those who have well-developed language. For example, if your child is getting frustrated by a toy they are trying to master and they say, “I can’t do it” help them change their thought to something more helpful such as, “I am trying my best and will ask for help if I need it.”

During the Tantrum

You have done everything right, taken all the steps to try and avoid a tantrum, but now you’re watching your child meltdown. Now, the goal is to try and decrease the length and intensity of the tantrum. We want our littles ones to recover faster and show less explosive behavior…or at the very least not escalate. Here’s what to try in the midst of a tantrum:

Keep Your Reaction Small

Easier said than done! If you are like me, when your child starts escalating their behavior, your frustration goes up (and your patience goes missing!). Despite this, try your very best to take a deep breath and remain calm…even if it is only on the outside.

Be a Mirror

Reflect back to your child what they are feeling. Name their feeling along with a brief reason why they are feeling that way. For example, “You are feeling frustrated because playtime is over.” Empathize with them. In this situation, let them know that it is frustrating playtime has to end. It is important to keep this short. Your child is already upset and they are not hearing much. The more we talk at our child, the more input we are adding to an already overwhelmed child.

Ask Your Child for Help

This is a specific distraction technique that I find to be effective when a tantrum is occurring. I ask my child to help me with a task, which can help him to change gears and focus on something else. For example, if he starts to become upset about playtime ending, I ask him to help me choose a book to read before naptime. You can make this a little theatrical by saying something such as, “I can’t seem to get this book out of the bookshelf, it’s stuck, can you help me?”

Offer a Choice

Give your little one a bit of control in a tantrum situation by offering them a simple choice. The choice should be relevant to what is going on and not give in to what they want. Using the example of playtime being over, ask your child if they would rather pick out the book to read before nap or find their stuffed animal to bring to their room.

Don’t Use Physical Punishment

Physical punishment, such as spanking, is not an effective tool for managing tantrums. Studies have shown that this can actually prolong tantrums, lead to more intense outbursts, and results long-term behavior problems.

Stay Strong

The most important step is to not give in! No matter how frustrated your child is, or you become, you are setting the expectation for behavior. If you give in, your child will learn that if they continue to escalate, they will eventually get their way. But…if you haven’t always held your ground in the past, it’s okay! Try again the next time and remember you are helping your child in the long run to regulate their behavior.

After the Tantrum

After your child is calm, it is appropriate to talk about what happened if your child is developmentally ready to do that. A one-year-old may not benefit from this as much as an older child. Talk briefly about what happened and praise them for calming down. Again, keep this short. Your child is probably drained at this point (and you may be too!) and it is okay to move on. Continue to work on building coping strategies and practicing relaxation strategies when your child is already calm.

…And Remember

Tantrums in toddlers are NORMAL…and sometimes you can do everything right and your toddler still exhibits some tantrum behaviors. Toddlers are learning SO much about themselves and the world around them and learning to regulate their emotions is no small feat! Keep in mind that there is no a magic wand, and you might not affect too much change right away. However, you are setting the stage for a well-regulated child, with great ability to cope, who understands and respects the boundaries and expectations you have for their behavior!

However, there are situations when you may consider seeking professional help in managing tantrums. Up to 20% of children experience severe or abnormal tantrum behavior, which might warrant intervention from a child psychologist. Consider seeking professional help if your child:

  • Regularly exhibits tantrum behaviors past age 5 and/or
  • Experiences tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes and/or
  • Demonstrates tantrum behavior more than 5 times per day and/or
  • Injures him/herself or others during tantrums and/or
  • Destroys things during tantrums and/or
  • Continues to exhibit negative mood between tantrums


Let us know! What has worked for you and your child? How are you managing tantrums?
Author: Dr. Allie and Miss Barbara

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