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A Game Plan for Tantrums

Tantrums. Meltdowns. Hissy Fits. Feelings Storms. They can come in all shapes and sizes – some come seemingly out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Others can feel like your very own version of The Never Ending Story.

Whatever you call them or whatever they look like, they can feel overwhelming and hard to manage. So what’s the best way to navigate them? Once a tantrum has started there is no magical cure that will stop them. BUT, there are things you can do to help you and your little one get through them together. Although these steps are numbered below, tantrums do not always follow the plan, so you may find that you need to switch back and forth between steps depending on what’s happening for your little one (or even use some at the same time).

  1. Take a deep breath. You’ve heard it a million times: “take a breath”, “stay calm”. But science supports that your calm is contagious. We all have something called mirror neurons in our brain that respond to others. Your calm will help your child calm down a little bit faster (or at a bare minimum prevent the situation from further escalating). Unless the situation is dangerous or someone is about to get hurt, there is no need to respond immediately. Before you react, take a deep breath, count to five, picture a serene beach (or whatever else you need to do to help you maintain your own sense of calm).

  2. Less is more. During a tantrum, the parts of your child’s brain that are responsible for language, reason, and logic are not available. Gone. Totally offline. Often, the more we try to reason with them, the more they escalate. Instead of trying to speak to them logically, describe what is happening for your child. This will help them feel more understood, and often can help shift them from defensive mode into collaboration mode. This might sound like “you’re feeling really angry that you can’t eat cookies for breakfast”, or “you’re really sad that it’s time to leave the park”. Bonus – by helping label their emotions in the moment, they will start to associate their emotional experience with the name for the feeling. Over time this will help them be able to name the feeling themselves – an important step in learning to regulate their own emotions.

  3. Respond to your child’s cues. Every kid and every tantrum is different. Sometimes they may want closeness and need hugs, other times they might scream every time you try to make a sound. Notice how your child is responding and adjust accordingly. If your little one yells at you each time you talk to them, try staying quiet for a little while.

  4. Connect and move on. Once the storm has passed, your child is going to want to know that everything is ok. Give them a big hug, tell them you love them, let them know that their big scary feelings haven’t changed your feelings for them. If there is something you need to address, wait until a calm moment when everyone’s emotions have had a chance to settle before talking about it. This will help their developing brains be in a better place to take in what you have to say.

A final note: While this is a great game plan, there are going to be times that you get it wrong. That is totally ok! If you catch yourself responding in a way you don’t want to, it’s not too late to change gears. And if it isn’t until the moment has passed that you realise, you can start from step four – connection and helping your child (and you) move on.

Want to know more? Below are some of our favourite resources to help you learn more about what to do during a tantrum:

My Calm Me Down Book by Trace Moroney can help you and your little one learn more about tantrums together, and learn effective strategies to help manage them.

Raising Children Network - Tantrums: Why they happen and how to respond

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