Understanding and Handling Tantrums


Young children do not have the vocabulary or mental ability to be able to communicate effectively with their words. To communicate their feelings of distress they throw tantrums (crying, yelling, flailing, etc.) to express their need for care, attention, or reassurance. They understand their outbursts will often receive attention from their parents in some form; they are doing the best they know how to alert their parents that they have a need. For example, rather than stating, “Mommy, I don’t understand why this new brother is always in our house; I wish you would hug me so I know I’m still loved”, a toddler will cry excessively or try to hit the new baby.

It is no secret that caring for a young child who is throwing tantrums often or is excessively clingy can be extremely exhausting for a parent. It can be very stressful and typically takes every ounce of self-control to respond to the child in a calm manner.

Many parents have strong (negative) emotions when their child throws a tantrum. Often parents believe that their child’s tantrum is a sign that their parenting has been poor or ineffective. Rather than seeing their child’s outburst as a cry of help, they see it as a signal that their child is poorly disciplined, spoiled, manipulative or acting naughty. In essence, the parent views it as a cue that they have failed in some way.

It is often helpful for a parent to reframe their understanding of their child’s behavior.

  • Instead of seeing a child’s fit as “bad” behavior, try to view it as the child’s way of saying, “Something isn’t right inside of me; I need my parent to calm me down.”

  • Instead of seeing a child’s excessive clinginess as a weakness or nuisance, try to view it as a sign that the child needs extra reassurance from mommy or daddy.

Handling Tantrums It is crucial for you to make yourself available to your child in those highly emotional moments. As a parent you must try to be sensitive to your child’s needs, even though in those tense times you’ll likely want to care for yourself! Young children are still in the process of learning to comfort themselves; they still need your help to self soothe.

As you attempt to soothe your child you must determine whether they need space or physical embrace.

  • If your child’s fit escalates as you approach them, do not attempt to physically comfort them or force yourself on them. Try to say something such as, “Mommy can see you are very mad (sad, frustrated, etc) right now; I love you even though you are mad. You can cry as long as you want to, and when you are ready I will give you a big hug.” Then position yourself at an appropriate distance from your child while remaining in the same room. You may find that you have to wait only a few moments before your child is ready to have you help him/her calm down; other children may want several minutes.

  • You may find that your child is quickly calmed as you embrace them or rub their back. You may try to say something such as, “Daddy sees you are very mad (sad, frustrated, etc.); I love you even though you are mad. You can cry and Daddy will hug you until you feel better.”

Reacting to the Word “NO” If your child is throwing a tantrum because they were told “No” his or her feelings of frustration are nonetheless real and their need for your comfort is still very real. It is important to remember that your forms of comfort should not come in the way of changing your mind and giving in to your son or daughter and say “Yes”. Your firm boundaries and ability to keep your word are very important; they communicate safety to your child.

Approach your child in one of the aforementioned ways stating, “You are very mad that Mommy said ‘No’; it is ok to be mad at Mommy. Mommy loves you even when you are mad” or “Daddy can see how much you really want that toy, but the answer is still no. “

By speaking in this manner you are helping your child to understand the following:

  • You see and are acknowledging their unpleasant feelings

  • That it is ok to be angry

  • You are still present and available with them even when they show you their “ugly” side

  • You are consistent in your answer

  • You are the one in control, which ultimately provides great comfort.

For more personalized parenting support please contact me to schedule an appointment so we can discuss your parenting needs further.

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