Between teaching a classroom of 3 through 6-year-olds and having a 16-month son old at home, I see my fair share of tantrums.
I admit tantrums used to send me into a state of mild panic, especially if there were strangers around. My heart would start beating faster. I would feel all eyes on me. I would try to think fast and distract the child and avoid the tantrum altogether.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
Children are experts at sensing our emotions, and if we are tense and anxious, it only makes the tantrum worse. It sends the message that their big feelings are too much for us to handle, which is of course not very comforting.
So both for your sanity, as well as to help soothe your child, it’s well worth it to find a way to stay calm through the next tantrum.
Here are some strategies that really help:
1. Take the pressure off
For me, the most helpful thing has been letting go of the feeling that I need to “fix it” when a tantrum starts. Once I realized that it’s not my job to stop the tantrum, that it’s just how young children express their big emotions and , I began to breathe a little easier. The pressure was off, and that allowed me to stay calm, which helped the tantrum to end sooner.
There are many things we can control in a young child’s life, but emotions are not one of them. We can’t fix it when our child is writhing on the floor. We can be there with him and offer compassion and empathy, silently sending him the message that his feelings are okay and that we can handle them. Know that that is enough.
2. Build in extra time
Trying to rush a tantrum only makes it worse. Despite how it sometimes seems, young children are not choosing to have a tantrum. Feelings build up inside of them until they simply must find release, which is why these outbursts are often over seemingly ridiculous things like the wrong plate or a drink spilling.
Rushing or trying to distract them does the opposite. It shows that we do not see their feelings as valid, which only makes them more upset.
When your child is at the height of the tantrum stage, try to build in an extra 15 minutes whenever you have to be somewhere at a certain time. That way, you can stay calm when your little one throws a tantrum over having to wear a coat in February, knowing that you can help him through it and still get to school on time.
3. Accept that the tantrum is happening
When you see your child losing control, arching his little back or letting out the first shriek of a tantrum, take a big breath and silently acknowledge and try to accept that it is happening.
Tantrums can be emotionally draining, both for our children and for us, but it can help to try to accept it and view it as a time to connect emotionally with your child.
There is a reason children save their biggest tantrums for us—they trust us. They feel safe enough with us to share their feelings—all of them—even the scary and unpleasant ones. While that’s not always fun, it really is an honor when you think about it.
4. Minimize words
Trying to talk over a screaming toddler can make anyone crazy. This is not the time to teach a lesson, negotiate or reason. A screaming child can’t hear you, both because of the noise and because he’s not in a rational state.
Once your child calms down (and I promise he will eventually), you can talk through the situation that resulted in the tantrum if you need to.
5. Remember that it's healthy
When you’re out and see another mom peacefully shopping with her three angelic children while you try to wrestle your one screaming child back into the cart, it’s easy to think, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?
If you find yourself feeling this way, just repeat, “tantrums are normal and healthy.” We all have perfect, peaceful moments with our children and we all have loud messy ones too, and that’s okay.
Tantrums are no fun, but it can help to remember that they are truly a healthy thing for young children and don’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.
6. Remove your child from the situation
It’s really hard to stay calm through your child’s tantrum when it feels like everyone is watching. Even if you’ve accepted the tantrum (go you!) and know you don’t need to stop it, no one likes to feel judged. Your child may also feel all of those eyes on him, so it’s perfectly acceptable to take him outside or to the car until he’s ready to continue whatever you’re doing.
When a child has a meltdown in the entryway to the classroom at school, I say something like, “I see you’re upset. I’m going to help you find a safe spot to sit.” It’s important to keep your tone and body language really calm so that it’s clear that you’re not angry, you’re just looking out for him. You’re in this together.
7. Relish the cuddles
Once the tantrum has run its course, many children seek out connection and may want to hug or sit together. It can help to remember the cuddles to come when your little one is screaming “Go away!”
Toddlerhood is famously hard, and tantrums play a big part in that. Trying your best to stay calm and let the tantrum pass will help make this phase a little easier for everyone. And when you do lose your cool—as we all do mama—know that you will have another chance to practice your mid-tantrum Zen all too soon.