In other words, a child who is experiencing a tantrum needs our help.
This doesn’t mean that we should avoid tantrums at all cost, though prevention does go a long way. We can’t give into a child’s every demand – and it wouldn’t be healthy even if we could! What we can do is handle tantrums in a way that is both kind and firm.
In this post I’ll show you how I handle tantrums respectfully and effectively, step-by-step.
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Handle Tantrums Step-by-Step
Each child is different and you’ll likely be faced with tantrums in various situation during your child’s early years. While I think of the ideas below as “steps,” I often use them out of order and skip ones that don’t apply to a given situation. Use them as you see fit with your family.
1. Stay calm. When faced with a tantrum, I remind myself that I don’t have to join a child in his big feelings. I’ll be much more effective in helping him if I keep my cool, accept what is happening and offer compassionate support.
“Your child has a right to have a tantrum. You have the right to not participate.” ~Amy McCready
2. Ensure Safety. My first priority during a tantrum is keeping the child, myself and those around me safe. Depending on the situation, I might:
- Make the safe space. If possible, I nudge furniture and hard objects away from flailing limbs and quietly remove possible projectiles.
- Move to a safe location. If I can’t make the space safe enough, I move the child to a softer, safer location.
- Set clear limits by saying “I’m going to stop you from hitting,” while gently but firmly holding the child’s arm to prevent the blow from landing.
- Hold the child. I only hold a child who is having a tantrum if I can’t make it safe any other way.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to restrain a child who is having a tantrum. Many of us equate physical restraint with violence and anger. But it is possible to physically hold a struggling child with gentleness and compassion. ~Janis Keyser & Laura Davis
3. Acknowledge feelings
I take big feelings seriously, even if the cause of them seems silly or cute to me. I might say, “It looks like you’re mad right now,” or, “It looks like you’re frustrated that the block tower fell down,” to acknowledge the child’s feelings.
“Acknowledging proves that we are paying attention, makes a child feel understood, accepted, deeply loved and supported.” ~Janet Lansbury
4. Stay Close
Throughout the tantrum, I stay close and listen to what the child has to say. This can be the most challenging part – especially if the tantrum goes on for a while! I resist the urge to “fix” the problem or to distract the child while I continue to make sure the child, and those around him, are safe.
“Say less. Listen more. Be present, and don’t worry about teaching during the tantrum.” ~Ariadne Brill
5. Meet Basic Needs
If a child is hungry, tired or otherwise uncomfortable, I do what I can to meet his basic needs as soon as possible. I might say, “It’s past lunchtime and I’m wondering if you’re feeling hungry. Let’s go find something to eat,” or “I’m wondering if you’re feeling tired. Let’s find a quiet place to have a cuddle.”
6. Learn from the Experience
Once the tantrum winds down, I take mental notes. What happened right before the tantrum? Was the child hungry or tired? Was the environment overstimulating? When I find what is likely to trigger a child’s tantrums, I can more effectively prevent them in the future.
When I follow these steps consistently, tantrums become less frequent. They wind down more quickly. The connection between myself and the child strengthens. Over time, he learns that someone will be there to support him even when he’s at his worst. Isn’t that something we all wish to have for ourselves and our children?
Check out Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (affiliate link) by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser for more tips on how to handle tantrums and other challenging behaviors.