12 October 2009

Establishing a Tantrum Routine

Tantrums are inevitable. There's no way around it. They are a part of the developmental process, and something most children must go through in order to grow. I used to work in a great preschool years back. I started my career in the 2 year old room. WOW. WOW. Yeah, multiple tantrums with multiple children... daily. It wasn't always a constant, but only by developing some understanding of the process AND developing a coping strategy for myself, did I make it through without being completely exhausted or losing my sanity!

It seems that once a child starts in on a tantrum, she is stuck in a downward spiral and cannot pull herself out... as if her body physically craves the continuation of this emotional extreme. Thus she continues to spiral. It's important to remember that while the initial start of a tantrum appears intentional ("throwing a fit" because she doesn't get her way), most children are really experiencing what I call a "developmental" tantrum. They are trying to balance their growing sense of independence with their emotions, and still learning how to temper or regulate their reactions and self-soothe.

There are many approaches to coping with tantrums, this is simply my 2 cents. My hope is that you find some nuggets that stick with you and make your life a bit easier.

I suggest creating a tantrum ROUTINE. Just like a bedtime routine, bath routine, any other routine you have. In establishing a routine, you help your child predict the pattern, which helps her work through her tantrums more quickly, with less severity.

Step #1: Take care of YOURSELF FIRST.

Those emotions are SO overwhelming for both your child and you! Figure out what you need to do to ground yourself and keep calm. Maybe tell him -- while he's taking one of those stuttering breaths -- "I need to calm down too. I'll be in the other room if you need me." Then leave him there (as long as he's safe) and go and take some deep breaths!

This models appropriate behavior for him, AND it's important he knows you are not ignoring him. Knowing you are available when he eventually is able to accept your help, is important.

Step # 2: RELOCATE if necessary

I might say:
"I see you are so frustrated and need to cry. But it's too noisy for the living room. Let's go to your room."
"I see your frustrated, but throwing things is dangerous. Let's go to your room (or wherever you find best)."

It's okay if it seems he's not listening. He'll at least know your not ignoring him.

Do your best to remain CALM. When I stopped wishing tantrums wouldn't happen, and accepted them as inevitable, I was able to keep my emotions more neutral and keep a clearer head. We're more or less successful on given days, given our own stress and emotional reserves, but you do your best!

Take him to his room (or wherever you choose). You may have to carry him - even kicking and screaming - until your routine becomes established. When you get to his room, you might say "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug?" He may or may not let you.
If he does, hold him until you sense he's basically got himself under control. Then say something to address the situation like, "Gosh, those tantrums can be scary for me. Are they scary for you?... I'm so glad it's all over. That hug really seemed to help.... I'm so glad it's all done now because we still have time to brush the dog/go for a walk/etc." If he's not ready to receive a hug, move on to Step # 3.

If he throws toys across his room, bangs his head, or does otherwise dangerous things to himself or others, you have to make a call - seeing what's happening in the moment and knowing your child's reactions - whether to

a) hold him firmly while quietly saying " I don't want you or me to get hurt so I'm holding you. When your body is safe/not throwing things/banging on the floor, it will be safe to let go. Maybe then we brush the dog together." It may appear he's not hearing you at all, but with persistence, your talking & touch will likely help pull him out of his cycle and help him re-center.


b) move on to step #3.

Say "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug?" He may or may not let you. If not, say something like: "I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together (or whatever he likes) when you're all done crying."

Step #4: REPEAT Step #3

Pop your head in every 5-8 minutes to repeat the "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug? I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together when you're all done crying." You may have to repeat this a number of times before your child is able to receive a hug (or whatever you think is most appropriate). However, with time and repetition, the hope is that your child will be able to find comfort in the predictability of the pattern and thus be able to shorten the process and/or skip steps to get to the end.

I wouldn't worry about a hug or brushing the dog seeming like a "reward" for misbehavior. Kids feel terrible when stuck in a tantrum too. Time together afterwards gives you a chance to reconnect on a 'good' level and give words to what you both were feeling: "Wow, that was a tough one wasn't it?!!" or "I'm so happy you're all done crying because we still have time to brush the dog!" Or "That was a little scary, huh? I feel so much better now."

Establishing a routine can take a lot of effort up front and it demands stamina on your part. But armed with a consistent plan, you may find yourself feeling more in control, empowered, and better able to work through your emotions as well!

Okay, so that was like -- 89 cents instead of 2 cents. But hopefully it will resonate with you or another mom.

Any thoughts, comments, or things that you've done that have worked for you? Post them here -- we'll be sure other families get the word!



  1. This is a very reassuring article. Thank you!! Is this applicable to a 13 month old? I feel like he is starting to have these tantrums and I don't know how to quite cope with them yet, without feeling so frustrated and helpless!

  2. This is a nice article. I agree that tantrums are a necessary part of a child's emotional development. I also think we need to understand that they are often a normal reaction to many situations in which children feel frustrated and powerless. Sometimes the feelings simply build up over the hours or days and when a situation presents itself where the child can finaly "release" their feelings, they explode in a tantrum. Another great article about tantrums can be found at Hand in Hand's website at http://www.handinhandparenting.org/articles.html.

  3. Good points, Catherine. I agree.

    Anonymous with the 13month old son... Something I've tried to remember is that it's not my job to STOP a tantrum from happening. I can just do my best with what mental energy I have at the time. Having a routine coping strategy is as much for me as for the child (gives ME something 'real' to hold onto when things feel chaotic). For little ones, I think putting words to their frustration can be very reassuring.

    Just saying, "Gosh, I can see you're so frustrated/sad/angry" shows him you are there to support him and models a more 'appropriate' way for him to vent his frustrations (for when he's older and talking, of course!). Just feeling understood can sometimes help a child calm in a number of situations.

    I hope that's helpful in some way!

  4. Great points all.

    Acknowledging what your child is feeling is so important and really helpful. And giving words to those feelings is also important so that as soon as a child is able he can begin labeling his own feelings.

    This is another great reason to use signs with a toddler. At 13 months, a child can use his hands to tell you so much more than he can with just words. Using emotions signs is even really valuable for older children as it can be quite difficult to calm and speak when in the midst of crying/tantruming. Another benefit of using signs for emotions is that they can serve as a positive physical outlet for communicating big feelings vs. biting, throwing, etc.