The first step in taming your child’s tantrums is to make sure you’re responding in the proper way. Here is a proven formula that works:
1) Don’t give in
The worst thing you can do when a child throws a fit is to give in and acquiesce to their demands. This teaches a child that tantrums work, which will only ensure you see a lot more of them in the future. No matter what your child does or how embarrassed you might be by their behavior, you cannot give in or begin bargaining with a child when they throw a fit. If you do, you’re reinforcing bad behavior. You can listen and negotiate when a child’s behavior is under control, but once a tantrum starts, all compromises and negotiations must cease.
Chronic tantrums often emerge because parents avoid the more arduous tasks in parenting. They’re tired, busy, or in a hurry, and so letting a child have their way seems easier in the moment than the hassle that comes with standing your ground. But what might be easier in the moment does not serve your long-term goals. You’ll be equally hurried, busy, or tired in a week from now, and avoidance of parenting today only makes your task that much harder down the road. Hold your ground today, and you’ll have fewer problems tomorrow.
2) Show empathy
Start your response by sympathizing with a child’s desires. Tantrums occur because something has upset your little one. An upset child needs acknowledgement of this pain and comfort for their feelings, no matter how silly their reasons might seem.
Unfortunately, most adults take precisely the opposite approach. Because the child’s behavior is now interfering with our desires, we respond in a callous and combative way:
Quit being such a baby
If you don’t stop acting like this right this minute, you’re going to your room for the rest of the day.
I told you no, now stop it!
Well if that’s the case, then I’m never getting you anything again!
This only worsens the situation. Imagine if you were crying because your significant other left you, and someone came along and said, “Stop being such a baby, and if you don’t get over this loss and stop your crying this very minute, I’m going to take you to jail.” Tell me: Would such a response help you get your emotions under control? Or would it merely add to the distress you were feeling? Might this reaction be the very thing that sets you off and sends you into a destructive emotional spiral?
Children are no different. The reasons they get emotional might seem unimportant to us, but the underlying feelings work the same. A far better approach is to show empathy toward a child’s plight, regardless of the merits of their cause:
I can see that you’re really upset, so you must be feeling pretty bad right now. Maybe we can come up with other ways of helping you feel better.
You worked on that an awful long time, so it must feel pretty awful to have someone come along and wreck it like that.
This must seem really important to you.
I hate seeing you so upset. Bad feelings aren’t much fun, are they?
Showing empathy DOES NOT mean you give in to a child’s tantrum or bend over backwards to make them feel better. It merely means you acknowledge their emotions and express sympathy for how they are feeling right now. Doing so can vastly reduce the length of the tantrum or even prevent it in the first place. If you can, try to offer some physical affection alongside the empathetic statements.
3) Challenge the behavior
After empathizing with a child’s emotions, you want to challenge the way they are behaving. Point out that such behavior doesn’t actually achieve their goals, and outline a better approach they can take:
Throwing a fit certainly doesn’t make me any more inclined to listen to you. There’s a very good reason I told you no, and if you get yourself under control, we can talk about other things we might do instead. But behaving like this won’t get you anywhere.
I can see how upset you are, but you’re not thinking clearly right now, because this type of behavior certainly doesn’t help your cause.
I’m open to hear what you have to say, but only if you stop this type of behavior. I don’t negotiate with kids who are throwing tantrums, so why don’t you pick yourself up and try to calm down, and we can have a talk about what you’re feeling.
It certainly doesn’t make me want to listen when you act like this.
I’d love to hug you and hear what you’re feeling, but you need to try and calm down.
With older children (those 6 and up), you can also appeal to their social senses: “Everyone is looking at you right now. What do you suppose they’re thinking?”
4) Redirect their focus
During a tantrum, a child’s brain is stuck within the prism of their present needs. Their world currently revolves around this insult, and it’s hard for them to conceive of anything else. You want to try to pry their mind out of this narrow focus. You can accomplish this by…
A) Draw their focus to the future
- Just because the answer is no today doesn’t mean it will be no forever. If you’re good we can think about it later.
- Guess what we’re doing this afternoon!
- I know you’re disappointed now, but you can play that new game you got when we get home.
- You don’ want to let this one thing ruin the rest of your day.
B) Give affection and reassurance
Hugging a child in the midst of a meltdown might seem about as practical as cuddling a porcupine, but if they’ll let you, squeezing them, hugging them, or pulling them close while uttering something reassuring like, ‘I promise you’ll be okay” might be just what they need.
C) Use distraction or redirection
Distraction sometimes works with younger children. Call their attention to something else by saying, “Oh, my, look at this,” or switching topics to something else: “I was trying to decide what meals to plan for dinner this week. Any suggestions?”
5) Lose interest
If they’re still pitching a fit after you’ve challenged the behavior and attempted to redirect their focus, lose interest in the situation. disengage and do something else, leaving your child without his target audience. If you’re at home, go to another room. If you’re out and about, go back to whatever tasks you were engaged in. Pretend as though you’re blind to their behavior.
Many parents prolong the tantrum by giving their child an audience. Even if she doesn’t get her way, it’s still a partial win if she can keep you engaged. It’s quite common to see parents hovering over a child in the midst of a meltdown, pleading with them to stop or trying tactic after tactic to end the tantrum. Don’t do this. Spend 30-60 seconds running through these steps, but if they don’t work, disengage and leave them to their own devices. Stay available to offer comfort when they’re through (you might even say something like, “I’ll be right over here when you’re ready to get a hug and calm down again”), but don’t expend energy trying to coax your child out of their tantrum, which gives them the power to control you through their bad behavior.
When your child throws a tantrum in a public place
Tantrums in public places are especially difficult for parents to handle. Our children are an extension of ourselves. So when a child is making a scene, it feels like everyone else is judging us for it. Kids often sense this vulnerability, and have a knack for resorting to such behavior when we’re at our weakest. Which makes it all too tempting to commit that cardinal sin of giving in to spare us the public humiliation.
But giving in only ensures your child will make a scene in the future, thus leading to additional embarrassment. Here are some words of advice that might help you stay strong in these situations:
1. Remember that you’re usually your harshest critic, and other people aren’t judging you nearly as much as you think they are. Most adults are parents themselves, and will have been in similar situations at one time or another. They’re thinking, “That poor mother” as opposed to “What a bad mother.” As for that small percentage of people who might be judging you, they’re idiots who obviously don’t know the slightest thing about children or parenting, so screw them anyway.
2. Without teasing your child, act unbothered or even amused by their antics. Shame is a state of mind, and if you project as though there’s nothing you need to be embarrassed about, others will follow your lead. They’ll even admire your stoic calm. If you act as though someone just stripped you nude in the middle of an auditorium, it’s going to feed into feelings of embarrassment. Which parent do you think other people are more embarrassed for: the one who turns red with shame and tries to hide? Or the one who stays firm, calm, and in control, entirely unbothered by her child’s crappy behavior? Be that second parent, and you won’t have anything to be embarrassed about.
3. Try humor:
- If your child is pitching a fit in the checkout line, turn to the person next to you and say, “Whose child is that? By do I feel sorry for that mother.”
- Sorry folks, I forgot my tranquilizer darts at home.
- Anybody know where I can have an exorcism performed?
- I give this tantrum a 7 out of 10. You should see her when she really puts her heart into it.
- Life’s so hard when you’re three.