Taming Temper Tantrums

by | Nov 17, 2011 | Anger Management, TODAY Show Appearance, Whining & Back Talk

What research says are best ways to curb a tantrum before, during and after the storm. The tips I shared on TODAY Show

Temper tantrums—those annoying kid wails and frails and meltdowns—are common. Studies show that almost 70 percent of young kids have them.

Tantrums are equally as common in girls as in boys. Older kids sometimes resort back to the tantrum stage, especially if there’s been a recent stress or change in their lives or they’ve learned they work to get their way. So if tantrums are common, how do you stop them? New research finally gives parents important clues.

Yale University and King’s College London findings tell us we can hold those sticker charts, fancy point systems or our pleads and threats. The techniques are largely ineffective in changing kid behavior for the long haul.

Studies confirm what is more effective in curbing a tantrum is how the parent responds to the outbursts.

In fact, how parents respond will largely determine whether those kid outbursts decrease or increase.

Here are a few tips I shared with Matt Lauer  on the TODAY to do before, during and after the storm to curb meltdowns. I also had an enlightening phone chat with Dr. Alan Kazdin (who you may have seen in the B-roll before the set and author of Parenting the Defiant Child) who shared the parenting management programs his team at Yale is doing. His tips for praising good behavior and the using the “Untantrum Game” to teach more appropriate behaviors are below.


Before the Tantrum

Young kids do not have internal brake systems and need you to calm them down or their frustrations can quickly escalate. In some cases you have only seconds before an exorcism begins so don’t wait until your child is in full meltdown to apply these strategies.

Your best defense is to anticipate a tantrum’s onset. Watch for your kid’s signs that a tantrum is on its way: tension, antsy, a whimper. Then try some of these techniques. Hint: You really have to experiment with what works for your child but these are worth the try.

Predict tantrums triggers

The biggest frustration triggers young kids are fatigue, hunger and boredom. You’ll reduce many of those meltdowns by taking him shopping after the nap or eating a snack, or letting him play with something while you wait.

Distract and redirect

Try to redirect your child’s attention:  “Let’s go get your teddy.” “I bet you can’t jump up and touch the sky!?” Or try distracting your little one: “Look at that little boy over there.” Your best bet is to try to divert your child’s attention long enough to reroute his energy. But be quick-you may have only sections before the meltdown.

Name the upset feeling

Telling an upset kid to “Calm down” won’t cut it , but it helps to name the feeling to a nonverbal child. Get down eye-to-eye and in an exaggerated tone, put into words how the child is feeling. “Johnny is soooooo mad!!!” It’s almost as though you see your little one look up at you with a, “Well yep. That’s how I feel! Glad you caught on!”

I learned this technique from Dr. Harvey Karp, author of the Happiest Toddler on the Block, during a Parents magazine advisory meeting (we serve on the Parents board of advisors). Harvey is fabulous to watch when he talks to kids. I swear he’s the ultimate Toddler Tamer.

Turn DON’T to DO

Little egos are forming and their little independence streak is churning, so watch out for overusing the word NO which can cause frustrations. You’ll get far better responses if you turn your “Don’t run” into “Let’s walk.” Firmly phrase your instructions in terms of what to do, instead of what not to do.

Use calming transitions

Try rubbing his back, holding him gently, or humming a relaxing song. Try using softer voice tones or turn your hand into an instant puppet and make your hand talk. This is a magical age when you can use their imagination to your advantage-but only if you turn on your magic before the meltdown. (Another great Dr. Karp tip!)


During the Tantrum

Once an attention-getting tantrum begins there is little you can do to control it, so remain calm. (I know, I know, but doing so is essential). Your calm behavior will help your child get back in control.

Ensure safety

If there are sharp edges, glasses or objects that could hurt your child, move him to a “safe zone.” If you’re out in public, stop what you’re doing and remove your kid to secluded spot or take him home. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but he’ll learn you’re won’t tolerate inappropriate behavior. Consistency is critical. (Repeat that line, “Consistency is critical.” Again: “Consistency is critical.”)

Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.

Don’t give the outburst any attention. No eye contact, no words, do not react. Once your child learns that her outburst “works”—that is she gets her way—she’s likely to try it again (and again and again). In fact, research at Boston shows that the longer you give attention to a tantrum, the longer it lasts.

Once you start ignoring a certain behavior you must keep ignoring. Attention-getting behaviors may increase slightly before subsiding—because the child is testing you, so just don’t let him win! Also, if you are upset, walk away. The fastest way to increase a tantrum is for you to yell or grab your child. Walk and get yourself calm (it will also help you ignore the outburst!)

Don’t try to reason

Forget trying to rationalize with a wailing, flailing child. Doing so is like trying to reason with a goldfish. Once in tantrum-mode your child is beyond understanding. Also, don’t coax, yell, or spank. It doesn’t help, and you’re libel to escalate the outburst.


After the Tantrum

Your goal is to teach your child “replacer” behaviors to reduce those outbursts and help the child learn healthier ways to handle upset feelings.

Praise efforts

The fastest way to change behavior is to point out the moment your child uses the right behavior! So the second your kid uses the right behavior reinforce it! (“Thank you for using that nice tone! What did you want to ask?”)

Dr. Kazdin says the best praise for changing behavior has three parts:

~Uses an exaggerated or enthusiastic tone (I tell parents it’s like when you add an exclamation point to the end of your praise. Sound elated!)

~Is specific so your child knows exactly what he did right. (I teach parents to add “because” to the praise so as to help the child know exactly what he did that you hope is repeated: “Great job because you told mommy you were tired. Thank you!”

~Is warm and uses touch. Give him a hug, a big pat on the back or a high five!

Point out the desired behavior in other children

See how nicely that boy is playing with others” (Do hold those judgments: “Why can’t you do that?”) Kids learn a new skill quicker by seeing, not hearing it. So don’t describe, but show the behavior you want your child to use. .

Practice “Untantrums”

New behaviors take lots of practice. Dr. Alan Kazdin suggests helping your child practice how to behavior without tantruming. Of course, you can only do this strategy when your child is calm. You’d say,

“Okay, let’s try another way of acting without the tantrum. I’m going to tell you that you can’t have a cookie (we’re just pretending remember). And you’re going to show me how to act without hitting and screaming. Ready?”

The child then practices the new way of “untantruming” and you praise the heck out of the little rehearsal. Dr.  Kazdin then suggests saying, “I bet you can’t do it again!” And most kids relish in trying again (and again, and again).

The trick is to rehearse the new behavior many times so when the heat of the moment comes the meltdown doesn’t kick in, but the new pre-reheased behavior does. Try it!

Don’t give up!

It can take weeks for behavior change. You should see a gradual diminishment of the tantrums. Track the frequency of those tantrums on a monthly calendar. You may be surprised (and elated) to discover those meltdowns really are slowing down!

Get help if tantrum continue or increase

If those tantrums escalate, are more frequent, last longer in duration, or your child is in danger or hurting himself or others, then it’s time to get help.

A recent APA publication advised that young children who have daily, intense temper tantrums are significantly more at risk to have later behavioral and emotional problems. Don’t wait! Early intervention is key!

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

Follow me on twitter @micheleborba or on my blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check where I provide late-breaking parenting news and tips to raise compassionate kids with strong hearts and minds.