Before the Tantrum
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:
- Not getting their way/told no
- 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:
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.
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.
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.”