9 Logical Responses For When Your Child Has a Meltdown or Tantrum

One of the most challenging parts of parenting is that your kids will experience some big emotions which sometimes translate to meltdowns and tantrums that involve screaming, hitting, wailing, biting, or worse. And how you deal with your child’s tantrums will not only build trust in your relationship with them, but it will establish an emotional connection that will grow throughout you and your child’s life. Your child needs to know that you can be entrusted with their big and negative feelings, along with the positive ones, and the best way to show them that is to make sure they know that you’re there for them, no matter what.

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Your Child’s Temper Tantrums – A Parent’s Biggest Frustration

One of the most common parenting struggles lies in the hands of your child’s tantrums. This can happen at any age but most commonly occurs in young children, better known as toddlers. Oh, yessss. Toddlers can throw some pretty epic temper tantrums, with reasonings that stretch from not being allowed to kick the dog, to not allowing you to wash their dirty toy.

Before we get into the logistics and practical steps to take when addressing your child’s tantrums, let’s first uncover some common reasons as to WHY they happen and whether or not it’s a normal part of child development or a cause for concern.

child sitting in middle of street

Are temper tantrums normal?

As with anything, identifying the SOURCE of a problem will inevitably help you avoid the issue in the first place. For example, tantrums can often be eliminated once parents figure out what’s causing them. But let’s also leave room for the fact that tantrums are normal, and sometimes understanding THAT fact is helpful in and of itself. As I want this article to be a practical source to help you and your children succeed when it comes to their big feelings and strong emotions, as well as YOUR peace of mind and sanity, I desire for parents to look beyond their child’s behavior, and truly understand their hearts.

Connect before you correct

Parenting is so much more than doing all the right things that parenting books instruct you to do. It’s about intentionally investing in your and your child’s relationship. It’s connecting with them emotionally when they’re younger to establish a firm foundation that will stand the test of those challenging teenage years. It’s not about “fixing” your child when they are misbehaving. It’s about learning who your child is so you can better understand how to help them thrive. 

Parenting starts with YOU making an effort to stop yelling and use a calm voice. It begins with YOU regulating your own emotions before expecting your child to regulate theirs. It’s about being your child’s safe place, which often means they will feel comfortable enough to express ALL their emotions, whether good or bad. Addressing your child’s behavior should come secondary to understanding the person they are and ensuring their misbehavior isn’t a reflection of something you need to change in your parenting.

So let’s delve into the WHY to figure out the HOW.

little girl in ballerina dress

Why do young kids throw temper tantrums?

The first step to addressing your child’s tantrums is to understand the WHY behind them.

Meltdowns usually occur either because there is an unmet need emotionally, mentally, or physically, OR they feel like they are losing their sense of control. And since their tantrums have gotten them what they want in the past, they continue to use them as a way of communication. 

What brain development has to do with tantrums

On a scientific note, your child’s brain is not set up to control impulses until the age of four, which is why toddlers struggle so much with self-regulation. Once again at puberty, your child’s brain goes through another big change that affects their impulse — hello challenging tweenage and teenage years. 

Tantrums are no one’s fault, really

One thing most parents don’t consider when it comes to child’s tantrums is that they have been conditioned to whine and cry for attention since infancy. That’s no one’s fault! This is their only way to convey their needs until children can speak. So naturally, they continue to do this until parents can TEACH them another way. Some parents worry when their child throws a fit, but the good news is, that it’s very typical unless it happens long-term or in older children. 

Even though it can be exhausting when your child has a tantrum in a public place, every time you put them in their car seat or at the dinner table every night, it’s good to remember that it doesn’t make you a bad parent or them a bad child. BUT there are some things to consider on how to teach your child proper communication skills, and it all starts with positive words and hard work. Parenting isn’t easy. And acknowledging that will help you in the long run.

child throwing a fit

Unmet Emotional or Mental Needs

Children who have an unmet emotional or mental need act out behaviorally. That’s why, when your child’s having continual meltdowns, it’s important to dig a little deeper and see if some unmet needs are being expressed. For example, are you spending enough time with them doing something THEY want to do?

Are you excited when they enter the room, showing them how valuable and important they are to you? In my parenting coaching classes, I go over some practical ways you can meet your child’s emotional and mental needs according to their love language.

When a child isn’t getting what they need from their parent, they will often have these meltdowns, and they will last until that need is met, which is why it’s so crucial for parents to take action and invest in their relationship with them their kids.

Unmet Physical Needs

Tantrums sometimes occur when physical needs are not being met. This can be summed up to their diet, amount of sleep, screen time, overbooked family schedules, etc. These tantrums can be quickly addressed when you figure out what physical need is being left unmet. 

Do they need less screen time? Do they need a gluten-free diet? Do they need a quick snack? Do they need to have more downtime or a set daily routine? Making sure your child’s physical needs are met will help keep meltdowns at bay or from happening in the first place.

child holding an angry mask

Common Tantrum Triggers in Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Grade School 

  • They feel they are losing their sense of control – this is often a power struggle, and when they win, they will continue to use it to their advantage.
  • They have an unmet physical need — hunger, tired, overwhelmed, overstimulated by screens, not on the right diet, etc.
  • They have an unmet emotional or mental need — not enough time spent together, feeling neglected, feeling less important than your smartphone.
  • They feel misunderstood.
  • They aren’t taught how to manage their strong feelings.
  • They are trying to connect with you, and this is the only way they know how to get your attention.

I could go on with a list that breaks the internet, but these are the root of most tantrums. So while tantrums ARE normal, they do stem from something. And as the parent, it’s your job to discern what those triggers are and take steps to help your child’s tantrums. This will, in the end, benefit you both, as you will set the foundation for healthy communication in your family.

When you can help your child regulate their emotions when they are young, you will lay a good foundation and experience fewer tantrums in the long run. Good behavior reflects a child’s needs being met — they feel understood and loved.

child throwing fit

What’s the best way to deal with tantrums and meltdowns?

1. Create a distraction but don’t neglect feelings

I wish this was simple, but this is where I tell you it may take some time and intentionality to figure out what works for your individual child. Some kids respond well when their parents make a funny face and quickly revert to a distraction, but that definitely depends on the situation, and it’s not always that easy.

Even in the middle of the worst fit, my son’s heart can melt when I throw an amusing look his way. But if I’m honest, it doesn’t work every time. In fact, sometimes it makes it WORSE. 

Acknowledge their feelings and help them come up with a solution

I’ve realized that it only works if his tantrum is based on something less important in his mind. But if he’s really frustrated about something — usually an unmet emotional need — he struggles to self-regulate even if I try and lighten the mood.

It’s when I get down on his level and say, “Hey bud, I understand you’re feeling angry. It’s okay to feel angry. Is there something I can do to help?” that he will soften and begin to realize that I simply want the best for him. If I quickly recognize that I haven’t given him the attention he needed that day, I say, “What’s something special we could do together right now?” Then I might name some of his favorite things to do.

When I can identify the source, I can develop a solution.

When he’s not getting what he wants and fighting me for it, I need to step things up and say, “I understand you’re feeling angry, but I can’t let you be unkind. It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to be unkind. We can figure this out together when you’re ready to be kind and calm.”

Repeating the word “kind” can help younger children recognize what needs to be done, even if they have some big emotions.

mom holding child

2. Show them how to find their calm with deep breaths

When your child’s tantrums are headed in the wrong direction with angry outbursts and things escalate quickly — they are simply unable to find their calm — try holding them tight and showing them how to take deep breaths with you. This has worked with my toddler many times. 

Your child needs to feel safe, and like you’re not angry while expressing their anxiety and fears. For you to show them you are still there for them in even their most difficult moments can be an incredible opportunity for you to build trust in your relationship.

3. Tell them WHY they can’t do what they want to do at the moment in a positive way

If your child is upset they aren’t allowed to do something, try to encourage and educate them positively.

I want you to stay safe, so jumping from the rock is not a good idea. What’s another fun and more safe place you can jump from?”

Instead of…

“That’s dangerous, don’t do that.”

Unless they are in immediate danger and you need to yell and be urgent, try and word things in a way that shows them you don’t want to take their fun away, you want them to stay safe, and you’re on their side.

The beautiful characteristic of a strong-willed child is leadership. You don’t want to stifle their courage or bravery. But you DO want to teach them how to be respectful and manage their emotions while also staying safe. Using positive wording can help guide them and show them you don’t want to control them, but you want the best for them.

You can even go into detail as to WHY you need them to do something. For example, if your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, show them some pictures of what happens when you don’t brush your teeth. 

Allow them to have a choice

Children should be allowed to have a choice when it’s safe and appropriate. Sometimes their choices lead to a natural consequence, which is a great way for them to learn. “Okay, you don’t need to brush your teeth, but just so you know, if you make that choice, you won’t be able to have any sugar or treats tomorrow.”

Follow through on your boundary, and the next day when they ask for a cookie, remind them of the choice they made.

mother and child talking

4. Try and stay positive, and give them plenty of time to self regulate

Kids are not adults; therefore, they take longer to self-regulate and process what’s happening in any given situation. Even when you’re struggling to get your child to listen, give them at least 20 seconds to respond. When you’re trying to keep your child calm amid a tantrum, provide them with some time to express themselves, and step in when you see their temper becomes about more than what they are upset about. 

Obviously, if they have a public tantrum in the grocery store, this may not be an option. If you can, try and remove them from the public place you’re in so you can better address your child’s feelings.

5. Don’t give in to their tantrums

While navigating appropriate ways to handle your child’s tantrum, ensure you don’t give in to their demands. This is SO hard for parents. Even though it’s our instinct to make our children feel better, it’s not always what’s best for them. They need to understand that life doesn’t always give them what they want when they want. 

While remaining firm, you can still regulate your emotions and use a calm voice. Loving your child doesn’t mean always making them feel good; it means enforcing boundaries, so they will learn what’s right. An unloving thing would be to allow them to do whatever they want, whenever they want. This could ensure them a lifetime of letdowns, unhealthy relationships, and the inability to self-regulate. 

While children need our grace and understanding, they also need our guidance and loving authority. Modern parenting advice might tell you to allow your kids to do as they please so as not to inhibit their personality. But they simply aren’t mature enough for this. As with anything, there is a balance.

Consequences where necessary

Even though much of my parenting advice is driven by positive and gentle parenting techniques, I still see a need for consequences in parenting. I use them in our home when my child’s behavior isn’t kind or beneficial, but I stay away from threats or bribes. 

We have a consequence chart hanging on our fridge. Both my boys and I came up with consequences together, so we are all on the same page, and they know what’s expected when they make a bad choice.

If they are unkind to one another, they need to tell one another 3 kind things about the other person. So on and so forth. 

As every family is different, everyone will have their own way of giving out consequences. But one thing that should be considered is to make them fair, don’t give out punishments, and make sure you aren’t throwing them out all day without acknowledging what might be going on deeper in their hearts. 

Connection before correction is important here. 

little girl thinking

6. Give them simple choices

When avoiding a tantrum, you can simply give your child a choice instead of asking something. “Can you drink your water?” vs. “Would you like water WITH or WITHOUT ice?” This helps them to still feel like they have a choice in the matter, which also helps build confidence and establishes independence.

7. Reward and praise them for their positive behavior

“I am so proud of you for responding with kindness when I told you it was time to go! Because of that, I am going to let you stay a little longer at the park today.”

It’s important that the majority of interactions with your child aren’t moments of correction, but rather you find the good in them, praising their efforts, and rewarding them when they made a good choice. Again, connection before correction. 

You can even find the good in a moment of struggle. 

“I know you’re angry right now, and I’m really proud of you for not being unkind to your brother, even though you feel upset.”

family hanging out

8. Figure out their love language

Once parents know how their children feel most loved, understood, and appreciated, they can use this as a tool for avoiding tantrums or at least stopping them in their tracks. Your child’s feelings are not something to be ignored. How they feel is valid, and if you look closely, it will teach you something about them.

One thing I like to tell my clients is to work on filling up their love tanks. What is their love language? Do they like to spend time with you? Do they like compliments? Do they like to snuggle or get lots of hugs? Make sure you are being intentional about making them feel loved and understood. These connecting points will ultimately benefit your relationship in the long run, including fewer tantrums.

9. Be a good role model 

Children learn best by simply watching you. Model the behavior you want to see in your child. Regulate YOUR emotions before expecting them to regulate theirs. Don’t give in and enforce the boundaries you set with them. If you don’t, they will use that to their advantage and continue using tantrums to get what they want.

Tantrums in Older Children

If your older child is struggling with self-control and has regular outbursts of anger, then some emotional needs may not be met, as mentioned above. But even still, tantrums in older kids ARE normal. In fact, tantrums at any age are normal. I’ve thrown a few fits as an adult. In essence, a tantrum is a way to express our anger. Whether it’s right or not is not the point. We are all human. We are all learning. Allow room for grace and patience as your child is still learning to self-regulate.

After you’ve done the work I’ve mentioned above to make sure your child’s tantrums aren’t a symptom of a much deeper problem, accept that this is just a normal part of learning. If they happen regularly, the issue runs deep, and unraveling their little hearts is essential. 

Perhaps, you need to start enforcing your boundaries more. Maybe you simply need to have them go on a screen time fast. Perhaps you need to spend more time with them daily. Consider going and seeing a therapist together if communication is unhealthy and you can’t get to the root issue.

Parenting isn’t easy. But when there is healthy communication in the family and intentionality on the parent’s end, things will probably run a little smoother in your family.

What NOT to do when your child is having a temper tantrum

While it’s important to have tools in your toolbelt when you come face to face with your toddler throwing a fit, it’s equally important to understand what NOT to do. Because if I know one thing, my child’s emotions can sometimes trigger my emotions. I have to practice self control not to lose it and start yelling or threatening or bribing. It’s a practice I often get wrong.

But that’s the beauty of being a humble parent — when you mess up, you apologize. You will never be perfect in your reactions, but you can make it right for your wrong, just as you desire for your child to do one day. Here are some big no-no’s when your child’s throwing a fit.

Don’t:

  • Lose your cool
  • Take it personally
  • Allow your emotions to be dictated by your child
  • Invalidate your toddlers emotions or feelings
  • Tell your child how to feel
  • Say that your child’s behavior is making you or anyone else sad (see more on how NOT to raise a people pleaser).
  • Lie or use bribes to get them to stop
  • Give in
  • Use sarcasm

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