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The Ultimate Guide to Dealing With Tantrums

Photo of colorful drawing: Little girl screaming the word NO

Tantrums can be mortifying for us as parents, especially when they happen in public. And why do they always seem to happen when you’re pressed to get out of the house? Sometimes, it feels like the tantrum came out of nowhere, or like anything you do just further escalates everyone’s emotions.

Parenting moments like these make you wish you had some kind of parenting hotline to call for help. And while we can’t provide you that, we do have the next best thing: some truly top-notch expert advice.

Back in November, psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg joined us to answer some questions about dealing with those dreaded tantrums. Rebecca is the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and the founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, which specializes “in helping kids and parents confronting a range of common early childhood challenges.”

Here is some wonderful advice from her, on how to deal with tantrums, prevent them, and help other parents who are dealing with them:

What the best way to de-escalate a tantrum before it becomes a major meltdown?

Essentially, the best definition of a tantrum is just an expression, or behavioral manifestation, of big feelings — feelings that little ones don’t yet have the skills (language, emotion regulation, frustration tolerance) to express another way.

There are various ways to de-escalate tantrums once they’ve started — which is different from preventing them in the first place (always the goal!). Reflecting feelings and being empathic is a great thing to try, as is using humor or distraction. Joining with your child — being on their team — is going to do a whole lot more than giving warnings, or appearing frustrated and not understanding of their experience.

Are there any universal precursors to a tantrum, like behavioral signs that we can watch out for as a sign that one is coming?

The precursors are pretty much what you’d predict (and no doubt have seen!) and exactly what you’d see in a grown-up who’s about to have (or already having) a big feeling. They come in the form of agitation, whining, defiance, testing limits, signs of anxiety or overwhelm.

If you tune in as a parent, you’ll soon learn what your particular child’s signs are. I know that my older son kind of “grunts,” and my younger son does a quick (and loud) shriek (before, say, the beginning of the ongoing shrieking!).

There are definitely times of day that are trickier for many kids and parents, such as morning and getting out of the house, meal times, and bedtime. Using picture schedules of routines can be great during these times so that there’s some predetermined structure. Recognizing one’s own contribution to the tenseness of these times  (e.g., right before bed) is also valuable, because often it’s extremely helpful for us, as parents, to calm down.

Instead of asking your child to put on his shoes for the 12th time, for example, put on a song you both love and have a put-shoes-on dance party. Making things fun and enjoyable, like games, races, and contests, rather than getting into power struggles is key.

As for places more likely to elicit tantrums, anywhere that is particularly stimulating for kids can be difficult, like supermarkets or big box stores.

Joining with your child before such an excursion by noting that it’s going to be an adventure, coming up with some games you can play while there (like “I Spy”) or asking them to be your helper in particular ways can set everyone up for success.

How would you deal with a kid throwing a tantrum when their parents aren’t around? Thinking about holiday and birthday parties where kids might get dropped off?

It’s harder to intervene in another child’s tantrum, although, honestly, it’s also rarer that we need to. Most of the time, kids “let it all hang out” for their parents and not other grown-ups, the same way we do so with our partners, and not when we’re out with friends or at work.

When children frequently have tantrums around other adults, this can be a “red flag” that some professional evaluation or guidance is necessary.

All of that said, there are, of course, some kids who will throw tantrums at a party without their parents around, and this doesn’t mean there’s cause for alarm. Parties can be really overwhelming and over-stimulating, particularly those that fall at the end of an already-full day.

The techniques to use with a child you don’t know are similar to those you’d use with your own kid, although they may not be as effective — empathy, distraction, and so on. Sometimes, these can be more effective, because you’re a novelty and not the same-old, same-old.

Sadly, there are no magic tricks I can suggest, other than to act as you would with anyone who’s super upset, angry or overwhelmed. Think about how you’d want to be treated in that situation and start there. Our kids are human beings first and foremost!

What is the right way to act around other kids in the middle of a tantrum? Any advice for how to help another parent instead of standing idly by?

If only every parent asked this question, rather than standing by in (at least apparent) judgment! I think the best thing to do (and I speak from personal experience on this one as well!) is to give the parent a sympathetic or empathetic look, communicating, even non-verbally, that you get how tough it can be.

You can also ask, explicitly, if there’s any way that you could help. Or, if you feel comfortable and it seems appropriate, you could just step in (e.g., offer to help push his/her grocery cart in the supermarket parking lot, etc.).

I think the goal would be to support the parent, which in turn will calm them down, which in turn will allow them to be more regulated with their child, which will eventually help the child calm down faster and easier. Once parents realize they’re not being judged, but rather are supported, in public, then they take a deep breath and the whole incident loses its intensity.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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