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The Truth About Tantrums

You can usually tell when one is coming. Electricity is in the air and the ground begins shaking. You can practically hear the sound of sirens in the distance. Or maybe there is no warning, and the storm is upon you in an instant. Your child is having a tantrum.

The truth is, all kids go through tantrums. It’s normal and healthy. But that doesn’t make it easy (or fun) for anyone involved. Here is some helpful advice from an AP mama who’s in the trenches, just like you.

When my two year old has a tantrum, my heart hurts for him. I won’t lie, it really sucks for all parties involved. But I try to never lose touch with what’s REALLY going on here. Kids are developing neurologically at a rapid pace when they’re this age. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t really developed until the child is closer to four or five years old. (This front section of the brain helps us with reason, emotional control, and appropriate responses.) Since it’s not fully ready yet, the PFC can’t help a child calm down if something has made them upset. And when a child is overwhelmed, overtired or overstimulated, the PFC can’t yet intervene. Thus, enter the tantrums and outbursts which seem to us developed adults as “overreacting” or “inappropriate.”

As if that’s not fun enough as it is, kids don’t yet possess the communication skills to tell us what’s going on. They can understand a lot of what they are told, but their ability to respond or describe what’s going on is not as mature.

So basically, Kiddo’s weathering this uncontrollably powerful storm without knowing what’s going on or why it’s happening. He cannot really explain to me how he is feeling, and he does not possess the ability to de-escalate the situation. Oh, and he certainly doesn’t WANT to be acting this way. He’s stuck until it passes.

Sounds pitiful doesn’t it?

The Truth about Tantrums - Real Simple Mama

Now you know where that parenting saying, “They’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time,” comes from. Us parents need to do what we can to keep our kid safe, and calm them down, while keeping our cool.

This doesn’t mean that I let Kiddo do whatever he wants, or “give in” as certain disciplinarians like to say. I just see that it would be unfair and illogical to try and punish a tantrum.

But how DO you handle a tantrum in the moment?

One thing I think often when in difficult parenting situations is “same team.” I’m not competing with my kid, and I don’t “win” unless he does too.

During his tantrums (which actually seem more like panic attacks) the most important thing is to keep them safe. Don’t let your kid bang their head or roll off a couch. When they’re in this typhoon, they’re blinded in the current moment. They need you to make sure they aren’t going to hurt themselves or someone else. This could mean you hug them, or gently place them on the floor. Safety is priority one.

The next thing is to think about de-escalating the situation. I know that I can’t add fuel to this fire or it’ll just burn longer. Yelling will not help!! Nor will getting mad – remember the child can’t control this. (But you can control yourself, right?)

Same team.

I stay calm and quiet. I don’t raise my voice, and actually usually lower it to just above a whisper. If possible, I lower myself to his eye level so that I don’t seem to be trying to be “over” him, but I am equal. Again, I’m not trying to be superior or above him at all, but I’m letting him know that I’m here to help him. He’s not alone.

I’m available to him if he needs affection, whether it’s a tight comforting hug or just a gentle back rub. But I don’t force him to sit on my lap or do anything in particular. I just talk soothingly and gently to him. I tell him I’m here. That it’s ok. That I know he’s upset or angry and I’m sorry. I just repeat a few short phrases over and over. It’s almost like meditation.

If we had somewhere to go, it has to wait. Any other goal like picking up the playroom, it needs to wait too. If I need to, I buckle my baby in her bouncer where I can see her.

My child needs me in this moment, even if he can’t tell me.

I find that Kiddo calms down a little as soon as I’m close by. We have such a bond that he never runs away, but eventually always makes his way to my arms. When he comes to me he is usually still mad, but the original reason that set him off is long forgotten.

It is so important to acknowledge how your child is feeling. You can’t tell them that they’re wrong for being mad, or they shouldn’t have gotten upset. That’s not your choice; it’s theirs, and it’s already happened. Children operate in the moment, so don’t try to bring up the (very recent) past. You can do a lesson later, when your child is calm and can really listen and contribute to a discussion.

Right now they just need you.

A good way to start the dialogue is to quietly say “I know you’re feeling angry that we can’t go outside. I’m sorry that it’s raining. But let’s think of all the other fun things we can do.” But don’t expect much participation from your toddler initially. There are still thunderclouds in their eyes. Just keep your cool, and keep chipping away. You’ll be able to tell when they’re back down to earth.

After your child is themselves again, try to let them rest. It doesn’t drastically affect our day if we go lay down, or watch a little TV cuddled on the couch. He needs to recharge. Because, if you haven’t noticed, tantrums are exhausting for little ones. They’re totally drained afterwards!

We do try to talk later about what happened, but realize that there’s only so much you can do. Chances are, your child will have a tantrum again. And again, it’ll be beyond their control (and yours).

Keeping the correct mindset and tone of voice are paramount to minimizing your toddler’s tantrums. By understanding it from your child’s perspective, you can help them calm down more quickly. And when they’re calm, safe, and happy, the sun will come out again!

Tell me your strategies to help your child weather the storm of a tantrum.

The Truth About Tantrums - Real Simple Mama


  1. Such a great article! Same team – love that! It’s a great way to describe it. I always try to think of myself as my child’s rock. I’ve got to stay steady and calm, especially during one of his meltdowns. I am obsessed with trying to raise my son to become a man who can clearly express and understand his emotions & to me, this is a major part of how it is done! Gotta lay the foundation while they are young!

    • The Mama

      May 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      That is a great point – a lot of times, I think about the type of man I want my son to be. From that perspective, I work backwards to think about what I need to be doing now to get him there.

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