From Defcon 1 to Calm: Navigating Tantrums with Love and Patience

Dealing with tantrums is like an awful right of passage for every parent. And no matter how many kids you have, it never seems to get any easier. They can feel overwhelming, isolating, or downright impossible at times. And you are not alone! In 2022, there were over 100,000 Google searches per MONTH for the word “tantrum.” And yes, we know it’s a normal part of development, but how do we help our children cope - or even better - avoid the tantrum altogether? Let’s talk about it!

Why do tantrums happen?

Your child is throwing a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. They are screaming, kicking, and throwing things off the shelf. People are watching, and you want nothing more than to scream and run out of the store! We’ve all been there - and it’s truly awful.

But what is happening in your child’s brain to cause such chaos?

There is a tiny almond-shaped structure in your brain called the amygdala. If you’ve ever heard of the “fight-or-flight response,” the amygdala is the brain area responsible for it. When a child - or even an adult - gets upset, their amygdala gets flipped on like a light switch and prepares their body to take action.

On the other hand, when a child gets upset, their prefrontal cortex (PFC) - which is the structure responsible for things like impulse control, decision making, and planning (you know, all the things you need in order to calm down), is flipped OFF and cannot override the amygdala. This leads to your child’s tantrum. It’s also worth noting that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until early adulthood!

Aside from neurobiology, there are plenty of environmental factors that can influence tantrums as well. These can include hunger, tiredness, sensory overload, changes to a regular routine, frustration, boredom, and so much more! So let’s talk about some steps you can take when tantrums happen and also things you can do to avoid them occurring in the first place! 

How do I make the tantrum stop?

Your child is in the middle of a tantrum. Let’s talk about a few things you can do to help co-regulate or settle them down with your calm and supportive presence (note: these tips may not be effective for some neurodivergent children):

  • Stay calm: You may feel like yelling or punishing (mainly if you were raised in a home where this was the normal reaction to a tantrum). However, if you are not calm, your child’s amygdala will perceive even more danger which can then lead to longer and more frequent tantrums.
  • Set safety boundaries: Can your child hurt themselves or others right now? Set firm (but loving) boundaries to keep everyone safe. This might look like gently holding arms, moving to a safer space, or just holding them until their body can calm down a bit.
  • Validate their feelings: When your child feels like someone doesn’t believe them, they will often escalate to prove their point. During a tantrum, let your child know you understand they are upset and it’s okay to feel that way (yes, even if you think the thing they are upset about is not a big deal).
  • Don’t send them away: I know our society loves time-outs. But a child doesn’t comprehend why you are sending them away for being upset. And if the goal is to reflect on their actions, I can guarantee that will not happen during a time-out. So please resist the urge to send them to their room and instead allow yourself to be the calm presence that helps them come back to baseline.
  • Less is more: Try doing less if your child‘s tantrum has hit DEFCON 1. Many kids feel triggered when there is too much talking. Just sit there with them. Cuddle if they would like (make sure to ask them - some children don’t want to be touched when their emotions are heightened). Periodically let them know you are there, and wait for the intensity to decrease.
  • Lots of self-affirmations: You know what feels like a huge emergency? A tantrum! But it’s not, and you need to remind your own brain of that fact (potentially several times). Try developing a few mantras to tell yourself during your child’s tantrums that will allow your own body to stay calm. Some of my favorites are: “This isn’t an emergency,” “Every storm eventually ends,” or even a simple “Breathe.”

How do I prevent tantrums from happening?

You can work with your child during calm times in order to build up their emotional tolerance. This, in turn, will actually decrease the intensity, duration, and/or frequency of your child’s tantrums!

Here are a few strategies to try during calm moments to help your child better cope with their big emotions:

  • Discussing a tantrum later: Too often, we try to teach our child during or right after a tantrum. But remember earlier when we discussed the PFC? It’s completely offline, so learning isn’t effective during this time. Wait until later in the day and choose a calm time to revisit the tantrum to process and figure out better solutions for next time.
  • Breathing exercises: Deep breathing is a wildly effective calming strategy for kids and adults alike. A great way to practice this is by blowing bubbles! Have them take a big belly breath and slowly breathe to blow the bubble. This is called “diaphragmatic breathing, " which triggers your parasympathetic nervous system and helps you calm down! Click here for four more fun deep-breathing games!
  • Model frustration tolerance: When something is difficult or slightly triggering for YOU, narrate how you are coping so your child learns from your example. This might sound like, “Ugh, I can’t figure this out. This feels really frustrating! Let me take a deep breath and see if I can come up with the answer.”
  • Sharing stories: A child can often feel like they are the only one experiencing these huge emotions - after all, they don’t see you throwing fits on the floor. By sharing stories about when you were little (yes, even if they aren’t completely true), they can feel more connected and learn from your experiences with similar situations.
  • Normalize all feelings: Talking and reading about emotions can help children better understand what they are experiencing when they are having a hard time. One of our favorite emotional books is Sometimes I Laugh, Sometimes I Cry by Kristin Mariella.
  • Consistency: Consistency allows children to feel safe and gives them a sense of control. If you sometimes give in to tantrums and other times hold the boundary, this can make your child feel anxious, often leading to more frequent and longer tantrums.
  • Apologize: We are human, and we make mistakes too! If you mess up and yell or anything else, remember to apologize so your child learns what accountability looks like. Just remember to wait until you don’t feel the need to justify. It’s not about what they did; this apology is just about your part.
  • Daily reflections: A simple addition to the bedtime routine, such as a daily reflection, can be instrumental in allowing your child to open up more about their emotions (as opposed to waiting until they spill out in a tantrum). This can look like just a few questions at night, such as “What made you feel sad today?” and “What made you really excited today?”.
  • Seek professional help: If your child’s tantrums are severe, persistent, or even if you are just feeling concerned, it’s important to seek professional help for guidance and support in managing your child’s tantrums and promoting healthy emotional development.

TLDR Summary

While young children are notorious for tantrums, these outbursts are a normal part of development.

Children are trying to navigate their big feelings while being influenced by neurobiological and environmental factors. The biggest things to remember when it comes to tantrums are to:

  • Stay calm + set safety boundaries
  • Validate your child’s emotions but try not to lecture or go too deep while emotions are high.
  • Develop coping strategies during calm moments.
  • Remember that your child is great, and you are doing your best!

Dealing with tantrums can be difficult, but understanding and implementing these tips can help your child cope with their big emotions and even prevent tantrums! You’ve got this!

Ashley McCollum, Cultivator-in-Chief

Guest blog courtesy of Ashley McCollum of Cultivating Parenthood. Discover evidence-based strategies and tools to cultivate a more mindful and meaningful relationship with your children. Our "Triggered to Transformation" membership group provides parents with the support, advice, and community they need to overcome the challenges of parenting. Click here to learn more about our programs, membership, or access to our free parenting PDFs. Use the code “SLUMBER” to save 10% on any purchase over $70!

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