From the day you become a parent, you begin to have questions. “Is my child growing normally?” “Am I feeding my child correctly?” “How can I foster their learning?” The questions persist and even become more complex with time. This series will help address many common parenting questions.
Parenting and child development writer Amy Webb, Ph.D., will be your guide as we explore these questions asked by real parents who probably face many of the same struggles as you. Fellow parents submitted these questions via social media platforms. Although there is not usually one simple answer to individual parenting questions (every family is unique), we will use the latest research and expert advice to address these concerns.
Question: How do I handle tantrums or big emotional outbursts from my child?
As difficult as they may be, tantrums are a fairly typical aspect of children’s development. Contrary to what societal messages may tell us, children do not generally have tantrums purposefully to make our lives challenging. Young children, in particular, lack the emotional development needed to manage their overwhelming emotions well. This means that when they experience strong emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, sadness, etc.), they often have tantrums. The part of the brain that controls rationality and emotional regulation (the prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed yet in young children, and thus their emotions often overwhelm them.1
Understanding this helps us know how to best respond to tantrums. Punishing or yelling in response to a child’s tantrum usually only worsens the situation. Instead, we can model calm2 emotional responses for our children. This is challenging for most parents. In response to our child being upset and having an emotional outburst, it takes every bit of our emotional regulation skills to remain calm. Our reaction matters, though, because our children learn how to manage big emotions by emulating our calm response.
Oftentimes, it is our first reaction to try to reason with our child when they are having a tantrum. We may try to talk them out of the big, difficult feelings. This too seldom succeeds because when these emotions overwhelm our child, their logical brain is not functioning well. In the midst of a tantrum, it’s all about emotion, not rationality. We can offer our calm presence to our child when they are upset and suggest deep breathing or other calming strategies, but if your child is resistant to these ideas, sometimes it’s helpful to just remain calm until the tantrum passes.
In addition to our response in the moment, we can also try to be proactive in preventing tantrums before they begin. Not all tantrums can be avoided, but if there are certain activities or transitions that tend to prompt a tantrum, we can think ahead.3 For example, if getting into the car seat to leave home is often the source of a tantrum for a child, you could try to make this transition more fun by allowing your child to bring a favorite toy or even buckle their favorite stuffed animal into the seat next to them. Another savvy preventative step could be to ensure that you have plenty of snacks and/or toys or books on hand when you have to do tasks with your child like shopping or chores.
Lastly, after the tantrum has passed, it can be helpful to discuss the situation with your child. If they are old enough to understand a bit about emotions, you can help them label what emotions3 they may have been feeling during the tantrum. Were they sad about leaving the park because they wanted to stay longer? Were they frustrated because their block tower fell down before they were ready? Explaining and labeling these emotions can help them in the long term to gain more insight into their experience and how to better handle the emotions.
Although tantrums are a challenging aspect of parenting in the early years, we can take heart knowing that this phase does not last forever. As children mature and gain more emotional regulation skills, they usually have fewer tantrums. Our gentle guidance and modeling of calm emotions can only aid them in this development.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- NCT (2022) Li’l Willpower: Do Babies Have Self-Control and How Does It Develop? NCT First 1000 Days, New Parent Support, 2022. https://www.nct.org.uk/baby-toddler/toddler-tantrums-and-tricky-behaviour/lil-willpower-do-babies-have-self-control-and-how-does-it-develop
- Miller,C. (2022) How to Handle Tantrums and Meltdowns. Child Mind Institute, 2022. https://childmind.org/article/how-to-handle-tantrums-and-meltdowns/
- Cleveland Clinic (2021) Temper Tantrums. Cleveland Clinic Health Library, Feb. 2, 2021. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14406-temper-tantrums