How to Transform Tantrums

Helping children handle the strongest of feelings
Image courtesy of Kidzuki/

A toddler throwing a theatrical tantrum in the grocery store can make any parent feel like shrieking in frustration, but tantrums are part of the development process as children learn to manage hard feelings. Tantrums may be normal, particularly during the preschool years, but that doesn’t mean we, as parents, must accept them as a way of life. If meltdowns are making parenting a chore, read on for age-by-age strategies to help diffuse anger, calm chaos and turn tantrums around.



Cooling Off

A toddler or preschooler who throws tantrums is probably perfectly normal: 75% of kids experience tantrums between ages 3 and 5, and the mean age for tantrum behavior is 4.5, according to research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Tantrums that regularly disrupt school or home life — or those during which a child becomes violent or destructive — however, are signs your child may be struggling with overwhelming emotions or dealing with a challenging transition, says licensed counselor Leslie Petruk, a play therapist at The Stone Center for Counseling and Leadership in Charlotte.

Other signs include regressive behavior like a sudden return to bedwetting, thumb-sucking or baby talk; an increase in sibling fighting; and aggressive or defiant behavior.

“These are ways that children communicate that they’re struggling, and that often can be related to transitions. For some children, a change in routine creates major anxiety,” Petruk says.

To help diffuse tantrums, Petruk teaches parents the three Cs: calm, curious and collaboration. “If you calmly reflect your child’s feelings and become curious about why they’re upset, you can then collaborate with your child by figuring out what will help them feel better,” she says.



Fits and Starts

Around first or second grade, the number of children having tantrums tapers. After age 8, there’s another significant drop, but for the one in five kids ages 6-8 that display uncontrollable emotions via temper tantrums, these outbursts can be disruptive, upsetting and even shameful. Exasperated parents may be fed up and ready to punish older children for melting down — but keep in mind that your child doesn’t want to lose control any more than you want him to, and the tantrum is likely a distressing experience for him, too. 

Because older children are probably better able to talk about their feelings than toddlers and preschoolers, choose a calm moment to talk about what might be triggering these meltdowns. Next, help your child develop strategies for self-soothing to stop a tantrum before it starts. Stanford University research shows that deep breathing dials down anxiety that can lead to tantrums. Try a fidget spinner exercise: Have your child give her fidget spinner a twirl, then breathe deeply in and out until it stops spinning.



In Control

Bona fide temper tantrums are rare for teens. Communicating anger with outbursts that feature yelling, door slamming, tears or name-calling is more the norm.

Learning to regulate strong emotions is still in process for teens who need guidance from parents on managing anger, says
board-certified pediatrician Charles I. Shubin of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He suggests the behavior modification approach: positively reinforcing desirable behaviors along the lines of “I appreciated how you talked through that conflict at the store without yelling,” and ignoring unacceptable ones, which might sound like “I’m not going to continue this conversation until you can lower your voice.” 

Make sure your teen knows your family’s rules and expectations for behavior, like “we don’t scream at each other,” or “when things get heated, we take a break to cool down.” Finally, when your teen shows emotional maturity during a difficult conversation, offer a sincere compliment. Recognizing signs of growth, even small ones, can go a long way toward encouraging emotional and behavioral regulation, and fewer angry outbursts in the future.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and author of “Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep, So You Can Sleep Too.”