Michele Borba: Taming Temper Tantrums and Kid Meltdowns

by | Jul 28, 2009 | Uncategorized

By Michele Borba


REALITY CHECK: Research shows the longer you give a tantrum attention, the longer it lasts. The moment a meltdown begins, ensure your child’s safety and then ignore, ignore, ignore.

When my three-year-old doesn’t get her way, she puts on a tantrum that could win her an Oscar. What is the best way to stop her meltdowns?

Jen B., from Toronto

Temper tantrums—those annoying kid wails and frails and meltdowns—are most common amongst toddlers eighteen to twenty-four. It’s one of the reasons those years are so  “affectionately” called “the Terrible Twos.” Tantrums are equally as common in girls as in boys. But 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.  While you can expect your little munchkin to have an “Exorcism” or two, how you respond to the outburst will largely determine whether they decrease or increase. Here are three steps that will help stop annoying kid meltdowns.

Before the Tantrum

  • Anticipate the meltdown. Your best defense is to anticipate a tantrum’s onset   the explosion. Don’t wait until your child is in full meltdown. Once a tantrum begins, you don’t have much control. So watch for your kid’s signs that a tantrum is on its way: tension, antsy, a whimper. Once you learn to identify your child’s “tantrum is approaching signs” you’re in the best place to defuse it.
  • Distract and redirect.  The second you know a tantrum is approaching, immediately 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 his attention long enough to reroute his energy. Do know the technique doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a stab.
  • Use feeling words and calming methods.  One of the biggest reasons toddlers use tantrums is due to frustrations. They simply don’t have the words to express their wants and needs, nor the maturity to gauge their emotions, so you’ll need to be their self-regulator at first. Try rubbing his back, holding him gently, or humming a relaxing song. Get down eye to eye, and talk in a soothing voice tone put your child’s feelings into words: “Oh, you look like you’re tired. Are you tired?” “It looks like I have a frustrated little boy. Are you frustrated?” Pose a question that your child can answer with a yes or no nod. Your calming tone along with your “Feeling Talk” might just help temper a pending explosion.
  • Give a warning. Depending on your child’s maturity level, try giving a warning. Use a Firm Parent Voice and give a simple stern admonishment letting your child know that his behavior won’t be tolerated. “Calm down, Johnny.” “Stop that now Kelly or you will go to the Calm Down Chair.” A warning lets your child know that her behavior is not appropriate and if she continues there will be a consequence. With some little tykes, your stern reminder is all it takes. If you do give a warning and the poor behavior continues, you must follow through and send him off to the Thinking Chair (one minute per age of the child until calms). “Warnings” and the Calm Down Chair (or Time Out) are usually effective for children who are at least three years of age, sometimes for more mature two years olds but never before that age. Your child must be able to understand the concepts of a warning and consequence and possess a limited speaking vocabulary of more than a few phrases.

 During the Tantrum

  • Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Once the tantrum starts don’t give it 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).
  • 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.
  • Ensure safety. Check out the surroundings. If there are sharp edges, glasses or objects that could hurt your child, move him to a “safe zone.” I would not recommend restraining a flailing child unless absolutely necessary for his safety or you’ve clearly discovered it’s the only method to calms him. Restraining usually increases an outburst (and you’re libel to be hurt). 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.

 After the Tantrum 

  • Don’t stress out. It’s over!!! Chances are you and your child will both be plain drained. So do whatever you need to do to recoup. Then move on.
  • Track your response. Collect your thoughts, and then assess your response. Were you consistent with how you handle the outburst? “Calm consistency” is a key to ending tantrums, so do be mindful of how you respond to your child.
  • Identify triggers. Get a calendar and keep notes. Is there a pattern as to when or where these tantrums usually occur? For instance, just before naptime because he’s tired; after day care because he’s stressed; or at noon because he’s hungry?) Does your have a tough time with change and need a warning that a transition coming? Is there anything you can do to change your child’s schedule that might help reduce his out bursts?

You should see a gradual diminishment of the tantrums. 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. Call your medical health provider and ask for a consultation to decipher what else could be triggering those tantrums.

 This article is excerpted from Michele Borba’s book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) available for order now: 


Follow Michele on twitter @micheleborba or on her daily blog at micheleborba.com