Rather than viewing these outbursts as wholly negative experiences, I try to see them as a vital part of how my child communicates with me.
There is no denying that tantrums are one of the hard parts of parenting. The good news is that they are an incredibly normal and healthy emotional expression for young children. So just because my son is screeching in the middle of Hobby Lobby because I won't let him pull all of the picture frames off the shelf doesn't mean I'm a terrible parent or that he is destined to be an insufferable human being.
One of my favorite ways to approach any problem is to find a way to reframe it. Rather than viewing these outbursts as wholly negative experiences, I try to see them as a vital part of how my child communicates with me.
Just as in any healthy relationship, it's a good thing for us to express our opinions, acknowledge the other person's feelings, and set boundaries with each other. However, unlike in most adult relationships, toddlers have minimal impulse control and are just starting to develop their verbal skills. Tantrums are their way of telling us when they've reached their limits or simply disagree with us.
So now that we can view tantrums more positively, how should we respond when they inevitably show up?
1. Don't take it personally
First, remind yourself that your child is not actually trying to embarrass or inconvenience you. Although they might be accomplishing those things, it's not their intention. They're trying to communicate with you, plain and simple.
Disappointment, frustration and anger are all major emotions even adults struggle to express appropriately at times. They aren't having a meltdown to punish or manipulate you; it's just the only way they can cope at this age. Remember that tantrums are developmentally appropriate.
2. Be a reporter, not a judge
Many parents get flustered by the onslaught of a child's emotions and don't know how to react in a helpful way. After doing some research into respectful parenting approaches, I developed a simple model of response.
Observe their behavior, report back what you see, acknowledge their feelings, and set boundaries (if needed). This might look like, "You really didn't want to stop playing to go change your diaper. You feel like hitting me, but I can't let you do that. I understand that you're frustrated and it's tough to stop doing something fun." This formula keeps you from trying to justify yourself or just yelling back.
3. Don't rush the process
This is one of the hardest parts for parents. It's difficult to have someone screaming, flailing around, falling on the ground, and clutching your pant leg like Gollum with his Precious. You just want the tantrum to end as quickly as possible, but trying to rush things usually ends up backfiring.
There's a wonderful analogy that says difficult emotions are like tunnels, and we are trains moving through them. There are no secret side exits, shortcuts, or quick ways to rush through; we simply have to feel the feelings all the way through.
Once you make it through to the other side—and in a toddler's case, "making it through" may look a lot like screaming, flailing and raging– you find a calmer, more relaxed child. It's also important to remember that parents often want tantrums to end quickly because we are uncomfortable, not because it's necessarily the best thing for our children.
Children, especially very young kids and toddlers, need to be guided through difficult emotions rather than left to struggle on their own. They need a safe anchor to cling to when they're rocked by these tumultuous feelings. They need to know that we aren't intimidated by strong feelings.
This is why I use time-ins rather than time-outs. (Generation Mindful makes an incredibly useful time-in toolkit!) When a child loses their cool, take them to a quiet space (their room, outside the restaurant, the car), and then simply let them vent their emotions.
Don't try to distract, fix, or rush the process.
Acknowledge the emotions ("I hear how upset you are"), keep the limits ("I won't let you throw food"), and then simply sit with them. This teaches kids that feelings matter, and you're not afraid of their emotional responses.
They'll learn that big emotions are nothing to be ashamed of and that a caring presence won't be withdrawn when they need it the most.
5. Don't punish feelings
Toddlers and young children are just learning how to deal with difficult emotions, so the last thing we want to do is communicate that those feelings are unacceptable or wrong to experience.
Remember the train analogy? We need to show children how to move through emotional distress, not block up the tunnel and leave them stuck there. The goal is to build resilient kids who can handle the stress and disappointments of life without shutting down or running away. Learning to accept difficult emotions is the first step to learning how to cope with them.
You can model this acceptance for a child by acknowledging their feelings without judgment or condemnation. Rather than saying, "Stop whining, nothing is wrong," or "You're fine, there's nothing to cry about," I say, "I understand that you're frustrated, but you can't do _____ right now."
Hold limits about what behaviors are acceptable, but be careful to avoid criticizing the way they feel. Emotions are always valid, even if they're uncomfortable. Teaching kids to identify and accept their feelings at a young age builds a foundation for better mental health for the rest of their life.
These techniques aren't guaranteed to stop a tantrum in its tracks, but that's not actually the goal. We want to raise healthy, secure, well-adjusted children who feel comfortable with their emotions and trust us to hear their concerns.
When my son melts down, I always experience a brief wave of helplessness— "What do I do now?"—but having clear, actionable steps enables me to stay calm and in control. While I can't always prevent tantrums, I can move through them in a healthy, connected way that helps my son with the larger task of learning emotional regulation and resiliency. As a family therapist, I know that's the goal that really matters.
You might also like:
- How to make your child feel powerful and heard
- 6 strategies to help your small child process their big feelings
- Want to raise resilient kids? Teach them to embrace their feelings
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