7 Tips to Tame Your Child’s Tantrums

Meltdowns and tantrums are generally considered the bane of a parent’s existence. They often seem to come from nowhere, go from 0-100 in a nanosecond, and can feel like they’re never going to end. And of course, they occur at the worst possible times. While you’re trying to cook dinner, in the middle of grocery shopping, when you’re trying to get out the door on time when it’s time to leave the park and while grandma is visiting are some of my personal favourites.

There is no doubt about it – meltdowns are tough! In fact, your child’s seemingly constant tantrums may even trigger your own adult-sized tantrum. But they don’t have to be so stressful. They are actually great opportunities for connection and skill-building – a chance to teach your child valuable lessons about emotions and how to manage them.

The first step to understanding how to deal with tantrums though is understanding why they happen.

Why do children have meltdowns?

Meltdowns and tantrums are a normal and expected part of early childhood. They do not happen because your child is bratty, misbehaved, or trying to manipulate you. They happen because your child’s brain is still under construction.

Your child’s meltdown is a symptom. A sign that their nervous system is under too much stress and they do not have the resources to manage that stress. When meltdowns happen, your child’s brain has detected a threat, and has entered protection mode. The thinking brain shuts down, and the stress response is triggered. Your child goes into fight or flight mode in order to protect themselves.

This is an unintentional, instinctive response. And many things can cause it. Maybe they are experiencing big feelings and they don’t know how to manage them. Maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed by sensory input and can’t calm down. Perhaps you’ve asked them to do something they don’t know how to do. Or maybe you’ve asked them to do something but they are already tired/hungry/anxious/scared and don’t have any energy left for what you’ve asked. Whatever it is, if your child is having a meltdown, it’s because their nervous system is under too much stress.

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Here’s how you can help them.

7 tips to help you tame your child’s tantrums

1. Remain Calm

Calm is contagious. Your child is having a tantrum because they feel unsafe. And they need you to remain calm so they can feel safe again. When you show up in a calm and regulated way, you are able to help your child feel calm too. This process is called co-regulation and it is what us humans are wired for – safety through connection with another. So take some deep breaths and try to remember that your child isn’t behaving like this to annoy or hurt you. They are struggling and need some help.

2. Validate your child’s feelings

Rather than focusing on your child’s behaviour, try to focus on the feelings that are driving the behaviour. Helping children feel seen and understood allows them to process their emotions and move on. Trying to see things from your child’s perspective not only helps them feel better, it also helps you to respond with compassion and empathy. So try not to dismiss their feelings with comments like, “It’s ok”, “There’s nothing to be worried about”, or “Stop that you’re embarrassing me”. And instead, try to imagine how they might be feeling in that moment, and let them know that you get it. A little empathy goes a long way.

3. Prioritise safety

Your safety, your child’s safety, and the safety of others need to be the priority. Your child has very little control over their behaviour during a meltdown, so now is not the time for reprimands or discipline. But it is ok (and necessary) to set boundaries with your child, even if they are in the middle of a meltdown. If they are harming others, or in harm’s way themselves (like in the middle of an aisle in the shopping centre), then gently move them away. Let them know you are moving their body to a quieter space to make sure everyone can be safe. If they are lashing out at you, it’s ok to move yourself out of reach or gently block your child’s arms or legs.

Parents often believe that being gentle and supportive during a meltdown means they can’t set any limits. They sometimes tell me that they feel like they can’t prevent their child from hitting or kicking them. They feel like they need to just “put up with it”. But setting boundaries – with empathy and compassion – actually helps your child feel more safe and secure. They need to know that you are in charge. That they can rely on you. When you set boundaries, you bring a sense of control and containment to the situation. And this is exactly why your child needs to feel safe.

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4. Talk less

Your child cannot hear your words when they are in the middle of the meltdown. We often speak too much to our children when they are in this state, and unfortunately, we can exacerbate the situation further. Keep your words to a minimum, and definitely do not give them a lecture about what they have done wrong, or try to jump into problem-solving while they are still mid meltdown.

A lot of words only confuse and overwhelm a brain that is already struggling with the demands of a situation. And a confused brain feels unsafe, which potentially lengthens and worsens the meltdown. So the fewer words, the better. In fact, sometimes a soothing “Mmhmm” is all that is needed to convey to our children that we understand them and are right there with them.

5. Remain close

In order to switch off the stress response, your child needs to feel safe. And no one is safer than you. Remain close to your child while they express their big feelings – your child needs someone to witness these. Now, some children will tell you to go away and leave them alone when they are having a meltdown. In fact, many parents tell me that their staying close by makes their child’s tantrum worse. But that’s totally fine – our goal is not to stop our child’s distress, but to allow them to express it. They may not like it, but you staying near may actually be exactly what they need to get all of those big feelings out of their tiny bodies.

In saying that, we certainly do need to respect our child’s wishes and preferences, and some kids like a little bit of space when they are dealing with big feelings. So definitely don’t touch your child or put yourself in their personal space if they have expressed that they do not like it. Your child may be telling you to go away because they feel confused, or overwhelmed or ashamed of their reaction. So I recommend taking a step or two back, and allowing your child some space, while still remaining nearby. Because they DO still need you. Even if they don’t realise it in the moment.

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6. Give them time

Many parents believe that it is their job to stop a child’s tantrum. But it’s not. Your job is not to stop your child from crying, make them happy, or prevent them from ever expressing big emotions. Your job when your child is mid meltdown is to simply allow them to feel their emotions. For as long as they need to. Sometimes that means you simply wait. And many parents struggle with this concept because they feel like they aren’t doing anything in those moments.

But here’s what you’re doing when you’re able to simply be present and allow space for your child’s feelings. You’re helping them understand that their feelings are ok. That you are a safe person to express feelings to. That their feelings are not scary or overwhelming. That you can manage them. And that results in kids who feel safe coming to you with the hard stuff. Kids who feel able to open up, and be honest with you. To share their inner world with you. Lean on you for support as they grow up and their issues and challenges also grow. All of that waiting and sitting and simply being present? It’s not nothing. Far from it. It’s how you build the foundations of a strong connected, trusting relationship with your child.

7. Problem Solve

Once your child is feeling calm, and ONLY once they’re feeling calm, you can work together to problem-solve with them. This is your opportunity for teaching new skills – because now that your child’s thinking brain is back online, they have moved out of protection mode and are open to learning again. Have a think about what may have caused the meltdown. Does your child need some tools or support to manage big emotions? Does their environment need adjusting to ensure they don’t become overwhelmed by sensory input? Were they tired or hungry? Do they need to make amends with someone? Now is the time for discussing what they can do next time, practicing new strategies, and exploring feelings further. 

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But be cautious here. When we rush into problem-solving before our kids have had a chance to fully feel their emotions, we risk escalating them again and causing them to feel invalidated. If you experience resistance from your child, that’s usually a good sign that they are not quite ready for problem-solving yet. So take some deep breaths yourself, remind yourself that it’s not an emergency, and return to problem-solving when they are completely calm and open to your influence again.

This too shall pass.

Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.

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