We’ve all witnessed a child (sometimes our own) in full meltdown mode, as well as the tantrum that inevitably accompanies it. It can happen anywhere — like the grocery store checkout line — at any time. All you really want to do is quickly end the fit so your child calms down.
As a clinical psychologist specializing in infant and toddler social emotional development, I hear firsthand from parents puzzled as to how to respond to tantrums — especially given how much misinformation there is about why children throw fits.
What is a tantrum?
There is a huge misconception that tantrums are your toddler’s attempt to manipulate you into getting what he or she wants. While this might be true in a very small number of cases, I can assure you that developmentally, your toddler isn’t cognitively sophisticated enough to intentionally manipulate you.
A tantrum is really the behavioral manifestation of your child’s emotional response or feelings. That feeling might be genuinely sad, confused, angry or scared and he’s crying and throwing a fit because the intensity of that feeling overwhelms his still unsophisticated capacity to cope with big feelings.
Over time, children develop the capacity to regulate their emotions and we as parents can help teach children how to regulate emotions in a positive way. Believe it or not, tantrums are a perfect opportunity to foster this learning process with your child.
What should you do when your child is having a tantrum?
When you have the mindset that your toddler is doing this to manipulate you, this likely leads to anger and to punitive measures like spanking, ignoring or taking something away; none of which are helpful to your child or teaches appropriate ways of managing “big feelings.”
Instead, if your toddler has a feeling that he doesn’t know how to deal with on his own, start by trying to understand what feeling he is experiencing and help him to regulate that negative feeling using the following steps:
Step 1: Be empathetic and calm
Show empathy and calmly demonstrate that you know how your child feels. Say, “I can see you are really sad right now,” or “That made you really angry when your sister knocked down your tower of blocks.”
As you are voicing empathy, just sit with your toddler. Hold him, gently rock him or rub his back and just sit with him in a calm, reassuring way.
Step 2: Practice self-calming skills
When you can tell your toddler is starting to calm down and has regained some control, THEN you can help teach him how to deal with his emotions. Try telling him, “When we get upset we can breathe in together” or “Let’s count to 10 together.”
Using the example of his sister knocking over his blocks, calmly explain to him, “I can tell that made you really upset. One thing we can do when that happens next time is build a different one, or build it again.”
Also, give him some words to use to express himself such as; “You didn’t like it when she knocked your tower down.”
When a child has the repeated experience of a parent or caregiver being able to sit with them and calm them when they have a negative emotion, they learn very quickly, even at a very young age, that they can recover from feeling bad and this important person can help them achieve this. Toddlers who have internalized this feeling often experience fewer and much shorter tantrums.
In fact, if you consistently practice these steps with your child, they will quickly learn to practice self-calming skills and can deal with their emotions in a positive way.
From toddler to teen
As an added benefit, helping your toddler cope with tantrums at a young age can have a far-reaching impact on your relationship with your child, even into their teenage years.
Case in point: If you ignore your child when he throws a tantrum, or you send him to his room, the message you send is that “when you have a problem I can’t be with you and can’t tolerate you; you need to be on your own.”
Conversely, if you practice the steps above, your child’s brain becomes hardwired that you are the person they can come to when they are having a problem, and that you will be calm and sensitive — no matter what their age or problem.
Lorenzo Azzi, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in infant and toddler social emotional development at Southwest Human Development, where he provides consultation to families via the Nurse Family Partnership program, Early Head Start program and the Good Fit Counseling Center — Arizona’s only mental health center for young children. He also serves as faculty for the prestigious Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Program.