Continuation from Part 1:
If your child argues, cries, begs, pleads, throw herself on the floor, etc., even after implementing the strategies in Part 1, show empathy, but stand firm in your decision (e.g., I understand you are scared to go to the doctor, but we are still going because we have to take care of your health). After you have shown empathy once and enforced your rule or directive, do not engage in discussion about it any further. Sometimes a hug, a joke, a change of topic, or a calming object such as a stuffed animal or stress ball, can help your child relax and move on.
However, if your child continues to tantrum after trying these strategies, do not pay attention to the behavior (for unsafe behaviors that cannot be ignored there are additional strategies listed below). You can let your child know that you are not going to argue about it, but then give your child time to move on and calm down on their own). Once your child is calm, it is okay to discuss how the situation made them feel and give them positive feedback for calming down (I really liked how you calmed yourself down! You should be proud of yourself).
For a child who is extremely upset or screaming and crying for a prolonged period of time, I think it is okay to offer them a “tantrum care package” (if they don’t want any part of the care package, that is okay). The package includes tissues to dry their eyes, a drink of water (you would be surprised how taking a drink of water helps many children calm down rather quickly), a hug (if not already offered before, and if it does not exacerbate the situation-sometimes it does) and a calming object if you did not offer it before, or if they did not want it earlier. You can leave these items (water/calming objects) with in reach if they decide to use them at some point. Your child might reject these items and even scream louder, but it reminds them that no matter how upset they are, you still care and are there for them. Still continue to wait for them to calm down on their own.
If your child is trying to hurt others or destroy property, move away from her and if possible move any object that she may be able to destroy. Stay in close proximity so you know she is safe and make sure there are no dangerous objects in the area. Direct anyone else he/she is trying to hurt away from her as well.
If this is not effective and she is still trying to hurt others or destroy property, direct her to a “calm down space,” supervise her in the space to ensure safety, but do not give her attention until she has calmed down (i.e. no eye contact, talking, etc.). Again, offering the “tantrum care package” described above is okay.
In extreme situations, some parents like to create a “calm down space” with soft materials like the gym mats shown below:
Here is another fun idea for a calm down space. You can fill it with books, stress relieving items (stress balls, fidget toys), a weighted blanket, etc. This is one example but there are a lot of ways to go about creating something like this.
If your child will not go to or stay in the space and continues to engage in unsafe behavior, you may need to hold her, so she can’t hurt herself or anyone else or destroy anything, but do not give attention to her. Simply hold her until she has calmed down. Let her know that you will let her go once she is safe (e.g., keeping hands and feet to self, not hurting herself, etc.). This recommendation is only for parents who are comfortable holding their children to keep them safe. You should not be in a position where you are getting hurt. Once your child has calmed down, praise her for regaining control (e.g., nice work calming yourself down, I know how upset you were).
Be consistent with the methods discussed above to let your child know that tantrums do not work. It will take time, patience, and consistency before you see change.
Side-Note: Of course, some children are too large or strong to hold or keep in a safe place. If you have a large child or any child, who is a danger to himself or others, than you need to have an emergency plan. Find out the number to crisis intervention in your area and in an emergency call crisis intervention or 911. Also, this article is not an answer to every single situation (it is a guide) and I realize that you may be in a situation where you have tried everything and you don’t know where to turn for help. All you can do is try your best and involve family support, community support, and professional support as much as you can.
Side Note: This was touched on a little above, but just wanted to add some additional information: In some situations children can be redirected during the tantrum. You can try redirecting your child through humor (e.g., make a joke, sing a silly song, say something in a silly voice), an understanding hug, or by introducing an activity to take her mind off the situation that is causing the frustration (e.g., suggest they play with a favorite toy, do an enjoyable activity, join the family in a game, take deep breaths, count to ten). However, in many cases redirection is not effective and the tantrum continues or even gets worse. If you have tried redirection and it has been unsuccessful utilize the strategies outlined above – basically, be understanding give them time to get over it, and do not give in .
If you are out in the community and you cannot ignore the tantrum, take the child out of the store/restaurant to handle the tantrum. If you have a car, you may need to sit with the child in the car until he/she calms down.
Handling Tantrums in School
If you are an educator, you may not be able to ignore a disruptive tantrum because it takes away from other students’ learning. Additionally, you may not be comfortable or be allowed to hold a child who is acting unsafe during a tantrum. Therefore, it is important to know your school’s policy for handling disruptive, unsafe or destructive behaviors in your classroom or school. Here are some options to suggest to your school if no protocol is in place:
- Have authorized personnel (e.g., principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, security guard, etc.) stay with the child while you remove the other students to a safe location. Remain with your students until you get word that it is safe for you and your students to return
- Have authorized personnel escort the child to a safe location in the building
- Authorized personnel should follow the same steps recommended above to keep the child safe (hugging and prolonged holds may not be allowed-this needs to be discussed with administration)
- For a child who has severe tantrums in school that are unsafe, destructive or excessively disruptive, a clear behavior plan and safety plan should be in place. Behavior plans should include all the positive support strategies listed above and may also include the opportunity to work towards a preferred activity or privilege. Some children are more motivated to control their emotions (not engage in destructive/disruptive behavior) if they know they are working towards something that is meaningful to them (e.g., computer game, board game with a friend). Also, children are much more likely to comply when they know they are working towards something, than when being threatened that you will take something away. This is a strategy I use with my own son, as well as with clients and students over the past 20 years, and have personally seen the positive effects. This strategy is based on the positive behavior support principles I learned in graduate school.
- The school counselor may be able to work with the student periodically, when they are calm to discuss effective ways to handle their emotions when they are upset, frustrated, etc.
- Your school team should be involved every step of the way to determine what steps to take for a child whose behavior does not improve with all of these supportive strategies.
Handling Tantrums in Very Young Children
The methods in this article are meant for children with more reasoning ability than a child under three, but here I will quickly note some strategies to prevent tantrums in children that young.
Strategy 1: Your child wants something she can’t have. For example, she wants to go into your refrigerator or grab your ceramic cat from the shelf. If possible, try to engage your child in an activity that satisfies her curiosity (e.g., hold her while you point to and name the items in the fridge or take the ceramic cat off the shelf and show it to her with your supervision). If that is not possible, try redirecting her by showing her a toy that interests her or bring her to a different area and then show her something exciting.
For children that young, out of sight is quickly out of mind. If they are already holding something they shouldn’t, such as your lip stick, try putting your hand out and act very excited for them to hand it to you or show them where they can put the item, praising them when they do, or offer them a more exciting object. If you have to, for safety reasons, you can also take the object from the child and quickly replace it with a more exciting object or offer them another choice. Again, empathy and understanding can go a long way in these situations.
Strategy 2: Your child is having a tantrum because you are leaving.
Reassure your child that you will be back and hug and kiss your child before you go. You can leave a picture of yourself behind or a special object for the babysitter to show your child, if you find that helps. When you return, be affectionate and act excited to see your child. Do not prolong leaving or try to get your child to accept that you are leaving, this will likely prolong the tantrum, just go. Most children will adjust quickly once you have actually left. If it helps you/your child to call and check in, that is a great way to get through the time apart.
As a general rule, catch your children doing the right things and let them know it. This type of positive attention could also lead to a decrease in tantrums. Children thrive on attention. If they don’t have enough positive attention, they will use other means to get your attention, even if it is negative.
Help your child label his or her feelings. (e.g., I know your math homework can be frustrating. Do you feel sad because you can’t see your friend today? I get that you are mad because your friend yelled at you). This type of language leads children to be better able to identify their own feelings. When children can express themselves, they are less likely to throw tantrums.
Children are less likely to have tantrums when they feel a sense of control in their lives. Use choices to help them feel in control (e.g., Do you want to wear the green shirt or the red one?” Do you want an apple or banana in your lunch? Do you want to do your math or reading homework first?)
When your child is calm; and in a pleasant, cooperative mood, talk to them about ways to stay calm when they can’t have their way. Give them examples of how to say how they feel (e.g., I am mad that I can’t stay up as late as my brother, I am scared of the doctor.) Relate to their feelings and offer practical suggestions when yo can. You can also teach them ways to calm down when they are upset (e.g., taking deep breaths, drawing a picture, playing a game, laying on their bed, looking at a book, counting in their head, etc.).
For children with repeated unsafe behaviors such as punching and kicking others and destroying property, some therapists suggest teaching alternative behaviors, such as ripping blank paper or punching a pillow. You need to decide what you are comfortable with, and assess what alternatives work with your child.
Remember to keep your cool. If you yell, talk in a nasty tone, say mean things or spank your child, it will not lead to a decrease in tantrums and it could cause other behavior problems. If you want your child’s behavior to change you will have to make changes in your own behavior as a first step.
Finally, I understand that not every one of these strategies will work for you, your household, your classroom, or your child. These strategies may not be what you are used to and may require a lot of changes on your part.
While there is no perfect method for eliminating all challenging behaviors, these are the strategies that I endorse and believe in as being the most effective for preventing and handling tantrums. I believe in these strategies for three reasons: 1) They are backed by research. Studies show a positive change in children with positive behavior support strategies in place. 2) I have seen these strategies work when others have implemented them. 3) They have worked for me with a 99% success rate as I have implemented these strategies for 20 years, including with my own children.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers.